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When Church Planting Is Perilous: East Asia

By Andrew Shaughnessy, Nov 21, 2017

This is part one of a two-part series following MTW teams responding to God's call to plant churches in closed countries.

It’s a country with a long and bloody history of religious persecution stretching back centuries. As recently as 30 years ago, being a Christ-follower in this East Asian country meant accepting the risk of being killed for your faith, and Christians were routinely tortured, jailed, or “disappeared” in large numbers. Though rarely martyred anymore, some Christians are still imprisoned for their faith and all live under the constant, looming threat of a crackdown.

Despite the danger and the fear, the Church is growing and thriving more than ever.

“There’s an incredible, unprecedented opportunity in this country for church planting,” said MTW missionary Tom Middleton.* “It’s unlike any other country in the world, both in its challenges and its fruit.”

Tom and his team serve as facilitators, helping nationals plant churches and playing an instrumental role in developing a nationwide network of presbyteries and Reformed churches. This year, they’ll be examining more than 30 men for licensure or ordination as pastors throughout East Asia, and the list of qualified church leaders keeps growing. Yet security issues and persecution are still present.

“Most of these churches start with 20 or 30 people meeting in someone’s house for a Bible study,” said Tom. “But as a church gets larger they’ll have to move to some larger facility, and then they have to deal with the authorities trying to resist [their] meeting.”

And there’s the rub. The tremendous and exciting growth of churches also makes them more visible—and more imperiled.

“The government doesn’t like to see large, well-organized groups of people, especially when they’re nationwide, which is the case with both our church-planting network and our Presbyterian network,” said Tom. “Those are challenging things to maneuver.”

According to Tom, the Church has grown so large across the country that the government can’t control all that’s going on. Instead, they choose their targets strategically.

“They have a saying here: ‘You kill the chicken to scare the monkey,’” Tom said.

In other words, when the government decides to punish someone in a church, they make sure that everyone hears about it.

“Throughout the history of this country, missionaries have gone through an amazing amount of persecution, struggles, and difficulties, and have seen very little fruit,” Tom said. What they’re seeing now is the fulfillment of their work and the answer to years of prayer.

He adds, “This is an age where Christianity really is able to change [this country] and it’s because we’re coming alongside and helping the local Christians, not because we’re leading the charge.”


*Name has been changed. 

Next week we'll look at part two of our series, When Church Planting is Perilous: South Asia.

Andrew Shaughnessy

Andrew Shaughnessy is a long-time word slinger who spent nearly six years as MTW’s staff writer, gathering and telling impact stories from missionaries across the globe. These days, he’s off working as an analyst and editor in the publishing industry, writing fiction, and mountaineering. He holds a B.A. in history and English literature from Covenant College, and an M.S. in political science from Portland State University.

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