When you read about the first century church, does it seem to good to be true? Do the stories about the rapid spread of the church, the impact it had on the surrounding culture, and tales of the miraculous just seem made up to you?
When I read through Acts there is often a nagging feeling within me. Here in the earliest days of the church, the life that those followers of Christ were living feels fundamentally different than just about anything I have ever experienced in the church. That nagging feeling has often led me to struggle with how to teach the people in my church about the nature of the church based on the happenings of the first century church. It just seems like such a far gap.
Well this past week that gap between today and the first century was bridged in an unexpected way. It has been our immense blessing as a church to host Rev. Nathan Biswas for the past week. Nathan is the head of the Church of the Nazarene in Bangladesh. 21 years ago Nathan became the first Nazarene in this dominantly Islamic country. Bangladesh instantly became the first fully indigenous mission field in the history of the COTN. 21 years later there are over 2500 organized churches and 150,000 Nazarenes. Those numbers are absolutely staggering.
The COTN in Bangladesh is organizing on average of one church per day. That doesn’t mean planting a church, it means organizing a church plant into an official fully formed church. They have over 2500 pastors in the ordination pipeline working to get ordained. They have extensive Child Development Centers, Disaster Relief Missions, Sustainable Food Programs, and Micro-financing Coops that are empowering over 45,000 women. This all started with one man very humble and unassuming man who went to a meeting about this group called the Nazarenes and heard the call of God.
It has been exhilarating and challenging to spend time with Nathan and to hear about the work of the Kingdom there. What has been especially powerful is to hear about their very different approaches to leadership development and compassionate ministries. Much of their work in spreading the gospel has been through the work of the Jesus Film. They have teams that will go into different towns and villages and show the film. Then they have a team that goes back to follow up with those that attended in private, to evangelize and find people who are interested in Jesus. Once a group has professed their faith in Christ they will organize them and those people will choose one from among them, someone who is a brand new Christian, to be their leader. There is a church planter who then begins to train the leader of that group and help them organize the church. Over time that new leader is then enrolled in a course of study to better prepare them to be a pastor.
This new pastor will take 30 courses of study focusing not just on theology, but also on organizational skills, managing finances, church polity, and compassionate ministries. While the church is organizing they also do an extensive survey of the community and find out what the greatest needs are in that community. This is where they begin their ministry. Before they are even organized as a church they will begin compassionate ministries in the area that the community has stated is the greatest need. Over time as the church and the ministry grow it will work to not only organize, but to birth more churches.
Before a pastoral candidate can be ordained in Bangladesh they have to organize the church that they lead and plant 1-2 other churches. 2 church plants before ordination! That is so crazy and beautiful.
There is much to ponder about this incredible work of God in Bangladesh and what we can learn from it to apply in our own context. This week I will interact with some of these ideas and flesh them out a bit more. But the first lesson for us all is faith. When God’s Spirit is at work the stories from the first century church jump off the pages of scripture and into real life today. We need not doubt their truth, instead we should be inspired and compelled to discover their truth for ourselves.