There he was, working hard at his second job, cheerfully selling wares on the street in spite of the chill winter night. I waited until the cluster of customers moved on and then approached *Thomas, who was one of my former English students and was now becoming a good friend.
“Mr. Thomas, how are you, brother? What’s new? How’s your situation? How’s your health? Everything good?”
“Mr. AW! How are you, teacher? Are you good? How’s your household? Everyone doing well? What’s the news?”
This is how a typical conversation begins among our Central Asian people group, with a barrage of respectful questions spoken enthusiastically while the other person is doing the same thing back to you. No one actually hears each and every question or responds to all of them directly, but it’s the cumulative show of honor and friendship that counts. Once this “outdo one another in showing honor” greeting is completed, you can actually begin speaking one at a time.
“How’s business tonight?” I asked.
“Not bad,” Thomas smiled, “With my work in the bazaar pretty slow right now, I need to be out here as much as I can. Diapers are expensive!”
Thomas and his wife had recently had a baby boy, after years of infertility came to an end when they were prayed over by one of his good friends, another missionary in our city.
“May your body be whole, my brother.” I responded, signalling to him that I appreciated the difficulty of his labors.
“Let’s get some chai!” Thomas said and jumped up from his stool.
“Don’t trouble yourself!” I responded, indirectly letting him know that I would indeed appreciate a hot and sugary cup of tea on this cold winter evening. As my coworkers can attest, it’s a rare day that I turn down an offer of our local chai – strong, black, and sweet, with just a hint of bergamot, cinnamon, and cardamom. Not as simple as European teas, not as aggressive as South Asian chais – just an expertly-balanced mix of subtle spices and caffeine.
“Pah! It’s no trouble at all. Sir! Two chais over here!” The chai boy nodded that he had received our order and got to work quickly pouring the scalding water, tea, and generous helpings of sugar into two small transparent glass cups. They were in our hands and burning our fingers in less than a minute.
“May your hands be blessed,” We said to the chai boy as he delivered our order. The chai steamed in the winter air and we began stirring the sugar in, waiting for the tea to cool down just enough to be sipped without scalding.
I knew my friend’s window for visiting was limited, so after a few minutes of general question, I got to the point of my visit.
“Mr. Thomas, you’ve recently shared with me and another fellow teacher in depth that you believe in Jesus.”
“Yes! I have believed for a while. I’ve told you about how I met that older British missionary many years ago in my travels to the countries east of here. I was a conman and a drunkard, but I really did learn a lot from his example and from the church he had there. Those things have stuck with me through the years. And in the past couple of years with my other dear foreign friend, God has answered our prayers for healing and now we have a son. No question about it. I’m not with Islam at all anymore. I’m a follower of Jesus.”
“Mr. Thomas, have you ever attended a church here where there are other believers like you?”
“A church? No, but I did years ago when I was out of the country. It was amazing! Are there churches here? I haven’t seen any.”
“Well,” I responded, “Not church buildings like you would have seen in that other country. But yes, there are a few small groups of believers who meet regularly to worship Jesus together. The real meaning of church is a group of believers, not a religious building.”
Thomas chewed on what I said.
“Do you have any family members or friends who are open to Jesus?”
“No, I have tried to share with them, but it’s just me and has been for a while. My wife might be somewhat more open now… You should bring your wife over sometime so we can have her share more with my wife!”
“We’d like that a lot. And we’ll be praying for your wife to be more open to Jesus. Keep sharing with her patiently and showing her that you are a new man because of Jesus. God willing, she will notice the change in you and want to know the source of it.”
We took some swigs of our chai and I thought about how to phrase my next words. Thomas’ friend had departed for the US and we wanted to be faithful now that we were the primary spiritual influence in his life.
“Mr. Thomas, it’s very important that no follower of Jesus follows him by themselves. God wants us each to be part of a spiritual family, a true church. I’ve been talking with my friends about your situation and we believe Jesus is giving you two very good options.”
Thomas sat up and raised his eyebrows inquisitively.
“We believe that Jesus would like you to either join a church… or to let us help you start one among your family and friends. You don’t have to answer now. You should probably take some time and pray about it. But whatever you decide, we want to help you obey Jesus by being part of a church.”
“I will pray,” Thomas replied. “I am so happy to hear this.”
Now it was my turn to raise my eyebrows. The usual response to the “church talk” was one of caution and suspicion. Many local believers balk at the idea of gathering with other locals out of concern for their own safety. Thomas seemed to be cut from a different cloth. It appeared his travels out east had had quite an impact.
After a few weeks, Thomas contacted us and asked if he could start attending the gathering of believers we had recently begun, in spite of the fact that he had never met those other believers before. He was tired of feeling alone in his faith and didn’t sense that any in his personal network were very open to the gospel, with the exception of maybe his wife. Thomas came the very next week, brought his son, and beamed with joy throughout the whole meeting.
Missionaries in our region have had to think long and hard about the problem of the church gathering. Decades of dictators and secret police have a powerful effect upon the populations they have terrorized. The warped culture that emerges is one of fear, distrust, suspicion, and deceit. Everyone is afraid everyone else is a spy. This makes gathering local believers into a group that can become a church a mightily complicated task. Implosion is the norm.
This has had the unfortunate effect of causing many missionaries to abandon the idea of gatherings made up of unrelated believers altogether. Instead, most have turned a decent principle, the household or oikos, into a hard and fast rule. The oikos principle states that we often see the gospel taking root in natural households in the book of Acts and that missiology since has confirmed that this dynamic continues among unreached people groups – that the gospel usually travels fastest along previously established relational lines and churches tend to be planted in households.
But description has become prescription. One way churches are planted has become the way to plant a church, even to the point where local believers will stay isolated for years because missionaries are opposed in principle to bringing them to group of non-related believers. Following Jesus while isolated and without a spiritual family (even while enduring persecution) becomes preferred to violating the oikos principle. This is done in the name of rapid reproducibility and in response to the very real persecution and distrust that is in the culture.
On the other hand, there are also local believers who become members of a composite group (made up of believers not naturally related to one another) who fail to ever tell their family and friends that they are believers. They stay mostly secret in their compartmentalized faith. This is not healthy. And it’s true, these composite groups almost always implode. The trust between believers that we expect to naturally develop is awfully slow to grow… and sometimes there really are spies.
And yet we cannot abandon the biblical vision of local churches that are not made up only of people who are already naturally like one another. The church is meant to display how the gospel overcomes natural barriers of family, culture, and ethnicity (Col 3:11). If we plant one church for the Hatfields and one church for the McCoys and stop there, how does that not simply reinforce their blood feud? Better (though harder) to have a church where Hatfields and McCoys worship together and visibly attest to the power of the gospel to break down dividing walls of hostility (Eph 2:13-22). Yes, oikos church planting is one natural way the church has taken root among people groups for 2,000 years. But the church must outgrow the oikos and bring reconciliation between opposing households if these churches are to become healthy and faithful. And we must not leave local believers as spiritual orphans in the name of methodology. Obeying the scriptures and gathering with other believers is worth it, even knowing the risks.
All of this context is why I shared with Thomas about the two very good options he had regarding church: join one or help us start one. In truth, these would be two options worth celebrating with new believers almost anywhere in the world. Join a church made up of those totally different from you and together become the household of God, to the amazement of the watching world. Or, work with godly mentors to start a church within the relationships God has already given you. Do any of our cities actually have an overabundance of churches? Isn’t there always room for one more church plant, especially with the evangelistic energy they bring? Start with your household, but by all means, pray for and work for the gospel to break out of your network as soon as possible, and to bring in those who do not naturally fit as part of your oikos. Yes, reach your household. But also reach your enemies.
Not every new believer will be able to start a church in their oikos. The Spirit gives different gifts. Missiology tends to miss this point. But also, not every new believer will be willing to join a church where they trust no one when they have a past involving trauma and betrayal. How can we plant churches that patiently walk with all of them so that they can obey the scriptures and gather with others? I have encouraged my current teammates to share these two options with their newly believing friends, knowing that as a team we share the vision of developing multi-household and multi-ethnic churches. So whether we start with a household and deal with the trust issues on a slower track or whether take the bull by the horns and plant a composite group right away, our aim is to end up in the same place – a biblically faithful church that visibly displays the gospel.
Back to Thomas – he joined our composite church plant, which then went on to implode six months later. One of our leaders-in-training proved to be some kind of a wolf in sheep’s clothing and caused a world of confusion and mayhem. Thomas sadly sided with the wolf for a season. The rebound has been difficult for many of the new believers in that group, but there are signs that Thomas is still mostly on a good track. He has pursued some reconciliation and his wife has even come to faith in the season since the implosion. The church plant, which he sometimes visits, still continues.
Church planting in Central Asia is very messy and we’re learning to take the long view. There are times when I regret introducing Thomas to this group. What would have happened if he had picked the other option? But at the end of the day we walk in the light we have in a given situation. Even if we walk in biblical principles with a good conscience, in the mysterious sovereignty of God things can implode and even fail. And in spite of the eventual difficulties, Thomas’ presence in this diverse group was one of the factors that led to others hearing the gospel for the first time.
The day will come, sooner or later, when Central Asia will once again be full of followers of Jesus. Planting churches is the only way to get there. I am grateful for two very good options Jesus gives us for how to start.
*Names are changed in this story for security