We had the hardest time getting local believers to gather for a house church service. Sure, they would meet (somewhat) regularly for one-on-one Bible studies with us. But meet in a group with other locals? Not happening. Our first year on the field was full of conversations with our team and locals about this frustrating reality that would have to change if a new local church was ever going to be birthed.
However, when we invited a group of individual local believers to a picnic or a party, they would come. We also had several come on a weekly basis to an English-language study of Tim Keller’s The Prodigal God. This evidence showed us that locals would indeed show up and be exposed to others when they wanted to. But there was something about an invitation to church, to sing, pray, and study the Bible in a group with other locals that kept them from being willing to actually attend. True to an honor-shame culture, many would commit, only to back out last minute or simply fail to show at all. Most of it seemed to boil down to the fact that they didn’t trust the other locals, but believed they were mostly spies, frauds, or just bad unknown people. We were also pretty sure that a lack of experience in the joys of gathering as Christians meant that their spiritual appetites for gathering were barely existent. Their lack of appetite kept them from gathering, and not gathering kept their appetites from developing. They were stuck, and many a team meeting was spent arguing about how to get our local friends unstuck.
These dynamics and disappointments caused many missionaries to give up attempting to gather mixed groups at all. Instead, they felt that the only way churches would ever be planted among our people group were if we were content to gather only those who were part of a natural household network together. This “oikos” network of family members and close friends would have some level of familial trust for one another, therefore they would likely be more willing to gather and do something risky like study the Bible and sing songs to Jesus.
But we had several problems with this oikos-centered model. First, there was precious little fruit to be shown for a decade of oikos-promoting work among our people group. Even if we were going to be purely pragmatic, the oikos approach simply wasn’t working either. Second, we knew a sizeable network of believers who were alone in their faith in their network of friends and relatives. Some had even tried to gather a group of friends and relatives to study and had been rebuffed or threatened. When it came to the household-only strategy, they were actually prevented from gathering with others by some of the foreigners because the only other believers in the city were not part of their natural network. Most seriously, we believed that the nature of the church is that of a new household of faith, where those from disconnected and enemy households and networks are visibly part of a new family with one another. Especially in a culture so prone to division, treachery, and racism, we wanted the church to be a picture of a new humanity – and that from the very beginning.
Our locals are very concrete in their thinking. Yet all of our conversations with them about church were still in the realm of the hypothetical – inviting them to partake in something they had never seen. So we wanted to find some way for them to experience church without having to call it that. Christmas provided the perfect opportunity.
As in most of the non-Western world, Christmas as a secular holiday is making major inroads into our area of Central Asia. Locals are fascinated by this winter holiday with its celebrations of lights, gifts, and music. Some vaguely know that it’s connected to the birth of Jesus, but most think it’s basically a way to celebrate the new year. Yet every time we had invited a local to something Christmas-related, they not only came, but eagerly came. Some of our teammates had learned how to leverage Christmas-time hospitality so that family after family would hear the gospel as they munched on sugar cookies and listened to a description of tree ornaments that together told the story of Jesus.
A plan was hatched. We would invite all of the isolated local believers that we knew to a Christmas party. Along with eating a festive meal together, we would also include a time of singing, teaching from the Word, and prayer. Since this would be their first Christmas party, they wouldn’t know that we were smuggling elements of a basic church service into it. This would give them a chance to taste and see the goodness of corporate worship, which might make some then willing to keep gathering with us in a similar way.
We divided up the responsibilities for the party. Mark*, the only one at that point able to teach in the local language, would teach on the magi from Matthew 3. I would help with some songs in the local language, my wife would make some coconut curry, Mark’s wife would prep the sugar cookies and chai, all of us would pester our friends about coming.
The day of the Christmas party came, a bright, chilly December day. The team all sat around in Mark’s dining room, wondering if anyone would show up. The dull crackle of the propane space heaters filled the air whenever the conversation fell silent. Suddenly, we heard the door bell. We looked out the window and saw Harry’s* head peeking over the gate. Yes! We would have at least one guest. Harry was one of our language tutors from a very conservative family and had come to faith a couple of years before. After a few minutes Hamid* appeared, one of our English students and also a newish believer. Then came Joseph*, an English-language scholar who lived isolated in a city three hours to the south. Then Maria*, a single woman from a neighboring country. Finally, my close friends Hama* and Tara* arrived, and close behind them a brand new believer named Marlin*, one of the members of our Prodigal God study group.
Lunch was a hit. Apparently coconut curry is a good choice for a Christmas meal with Central Asians (though mild, not spicy). We dipped freshly baked local pita loaves into it and had fun cutting up over the meal. Hama could always bring some welcome laughs to any gathering, although true to holiday meals in our own country, Hamid kept wanting to corner people and bring up politics.
Eventually it was time for the “service.” We moved to the living room and Mark opened up Matthew 3 and taught on the coming of the wisemen. Like other Central Asian languages, ours still has a word for magi, a linguistic descendant of the once-dominant Zoroastrianism of our area and the broader Persian world. The tallest mountain looming over our city is even named after a magi. So this topic easily held the attention of our local friends, drawing a connection between their ancestors and the birth story of Jesus. Mark finished up his lesson by tying it all to the gospel, and we sang some songs together in the local language, including one from Psalm 133 that celebrates the goodness of brothers dwelling together in unity:
Lai lai lai, lai lai lai, lai lai lai lai
Behold how good and how wonderful it is
When we dwell in unity together
After this it was time for prayer and for passing out the chai and cookies. Our wives made the rounds, passing out the caffeine and sweets to grateful replies of, “May your hands be blessed,” and responding with, “May it be to the health of your soul.”
“This was great,” Marlin said, munching on a Christmas tree-shaped cookie. “Why can’t we do this more often?”
We tried not to choke on our chai when Marlin said this. The irony was rich. We had been inviting them to do this ad nauseam.
“We do this every week,” responded Mark.
“Yes, every week we get together and learn from God’s word, we sing, we pray, and we eat together. Just like this. It’s called church.”
We waited to see how the locals would respond. While we couldn’t read some of them, several were leaning in, processing what Mark had just said. They seemed excited, like a boy who had beforehand been deathly afraid to try the waterslide, only to afterward admit that it was actually quite fun.
Mark decided to go for it. “Let’s do this again, then. Next week. Right here, just like we did today. Who’s in?”
Almost all of the locals agreed that they would like to come back. We could hardly believe it. We had smuggled in a basic church service in the guise of a Christmas party… and it had actually worked.
Today, six years later, a small church exists in Central Asia as a direct outcome of that Christmas party. Of the original guests, only Hamid is still there, having recently come back and reconciled after a long absence. Hama and Tara and Harry have fled the country due to persecution. Marlin no longer professes faith. Joseph is still living in relative isolation in the south. Maria’s family were outed as actual spies. Mark and his family are still on the ground, and every year when Christmas comes around he teaches on the magi, from Matthew chapter 3.
God uses many things to get new churches started. Church history has seen it happen from revivals, forcible displacements, and power encounters. Our sending church was started when a bunch of German Catholic immigrants met in a brewery to sit under the preaching of seminary students.
Our little church in Central Asia? Birthed by a Christmas party.
*Names changed for security