East Asia: The Church on the Move

By Melissa Kelley, Mar 17, 2014

2018 Update: Since article was originally written in 2014, church growth and faithfulness in East Asia has increased, but so has persecution. Please keep these churches and pastors in your prayers.

In a corner of bustling East Asian city, a strange occurrence plays out Sunday after Sunday. Residents make their way to their cars on the street and voluntarily vacate their assigned parking spaces to make room for others yet to come.

The residents move with purpose … and gratitude. Touched by acts of kindness by members of an MTW partner church in the area, the residents are giving back. It started with small gestures by local church members wanting to share Christ—sweeping dingy sidewalks and paying for electricity to illuminate dark community hallways in the apartment complex they share. Neighbors noticed and reciprocated—joining clean-up efforts, painting lines for parking spaces, and moving their cars so that church members had space to park on Sunday mornings. One woman stopped when she saw a church member sweeping the sidewalk and simply said, “Praise Jesus.” These gestures may be small and understated in a city as large and frenetic as this one. But the implications for cultural change in East Asia are enormous. Let’s look at how the gospel is taking root and transforming individuals, churches, and communities.

Gospel DNA takes root
A coalition of 40 churches from different denominations has been working for 13 years to assist with church planting in East Asia. In 2011, the group began offering two-day seminars called “Gospel DNA,” based on training developed by Rev. Tim Keller, pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City. These trainings encourage pastors to grasp the gospel personally and be transformed, and provide a theological vision of the gospel and the city. With more than 1,200 East Asian pastors from over 50 cities trained in the past two years, the Gospel DNA seminars have had a profound impact and are spreading rapidly, with trained pastors now training others.

“If the Gospel DNA takes root in our country, Christianity will become a major voice in shaping the culture in the years to come,” said Dr. W*, an East Asian national who serves as executive director of the partnership. “When we have the same Gospel DNA we can work together toward common goals, growing within the same gospel ecosystem, and unifying church, ministry, para-church, even social efforts.”

And this is no small thing. W cites East Asia's recent political and cultural climate as a unique opportunity for the gospel to take root and change lives on both small and large scales.

“In the history of the world there has never been a society as large as East Asia to have its cultural core so accessible to the gospel,” said W. “No other country has spent 100 years systematically eradicating and uprooting its own cultural foundation. After 100 years of cultural instability, the nation's approach has totally failed, leaving her people to rebuild from scratch.”

Herein lies the opportunity for believers in the country, said Jeff, who serves as the U.S. manager of the partnership. “The church is making the shift to think about the city. Cultural foundations are being opened and exposed to the gospel.” He added that the people there have been left with little moral framework because of the tumultuous history of the last 100 years. “They’re searching for answers to deep questions,” he said.

Moving toward transformation
Stories of transformation like that of the neighborhood mentioned above are not uncommon. In cities across the country, pastors are grasping a theological vision of the gospel and the city, and are experiencing personal changes that are evident to those around them. As this happens, churches are moving away from moralism and legalism, and are embracing the full grace of the gospel.

One pastor confessed he had been serving for years out of obligation, not joy. Through the Gospel DNA training he is learning how to pastor differently, how to be a godly leader and husband, and how to experience true gospel rest. Another prolific church-planter  initially attended the training with the intent of sharing with others his formula for success, but left with a desire to leave behind moralism and legalism and promote gospel-centered church planting in East Asia.

As these stories of transformation multiplied, nationals and leaders of the partnership set about formalizing the Gospel DNA trainings and setting them within a broader context. In 2012 they launched a joint initiative to return to the truths of the gospel in the Reformation era: living out Christ’s resurrected life, becoming worshipping, living sacrifices to God, and becoming blessings to the country.

The initiative, which seeks to see the gospel catalyze a visible kingdom of God consisting of thousands of churches and Christian organizations, is on its way, said Jeff. He reported that many were greatly encouraged at the success of a conference last year that involved more than 50 churches and hundreds of pastors. “They were shocked—it was all in their language, not led by Americans.”

Facilitating, not leading

One of the hallmarks of this new gospel initiative is its leadership—it is led entirely by nationals. This reflects MTW’s growing focus on facilitating the work of church planting alongside nationals rather than leading it.

A story from a major city in the southwest illustrates this progression. MTW missionary Tim moved to the country in 2010 to help nationals flesh out their vision of reaching their city for Christ.

Rather than coming to pastor, Tim moved to East Asia to assist national church leaders with implementing their vision for reaching their city for Christ. Now, three years later, they are doing just that, via a seminary that provides theological training to more than 100 students and a pastors’ forum that includes pastors in more than 15 provinces in the area.

Will the gospel prevail in East Asia at this critical cultural juncture? It is a battle of life and death, according to W. The church can either engage and transform the culture or be marginalized.

For now it’s about doing the faithful work of serving everyday needs, just like the street sweepers.

“We pray, we move slowly, and we trust in the Lord,” said W.

* name withheld for security purposes

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