1 thing I learnt from an Indian apostle

A couple of years ago I visited India. It is amazing what God is doing there and throughout the developing world. Although I was there to speak / teach, I came home feeling that I had learnt more than I taught.

Just recently I had the “home leg” of the learning experience when one of the church leaders I had visited in India visited our church. Needless to say I wasn’t disappointed by the “learning experience” from my friend’s visit. I learnt more than one thing and was moved, not to say overwhelmed by much of what he had to say. One thing, however, stood out.

So what was the one thing? My friend told us that in his movement they instilled into the children that God had called them and ordained them to lead a fruitful life. This is based on Jesus’ declaration to His apostles in John 15 that He had chosen them and appointed them to bear lasting fruit (v.16). If you want to trace the idea further, read the mandate God gives Adam and Eve in Genesis 1. Or the promise He gives Abraham in Genesis 12.

He told stories that were both amazing and very moving to illustrate how even the children in the movement he leads were passionate for Christ and the gospel. This passion, it was evident, remained into adult life, to the point that many were and are prepared to sacrifice very good careers to become missionaries.

As I reflected on the kind of church culture I grew up in – one that extended far beyond my particular church – I noticed that our approach to and understanding of our purpose in life was very different. For us, the emphasis was on avoiding sin rather than producing fruit. In fact I think producing fruit was seen more as a command to be obeyed than a promise to be believed.

There are two problems with that approach.

Firstly, a fruitful Christian life becomes a pressure rather than a promise. And it almost always rests on our ability rather than His power at work through us. In the end it produces spiritual frustration more than spiritual fruit.

Secondly, an approach that focuses on “sin avoidance” tends to end up in spiritual sterility or even a kind of paranoia about being polluted by the world.

I’m not saying that we shouldn’t emphasise the need to avoid sin. In fact, we might need to rediscover that emphasis. But on its own, it will not produce fruitful people. And if individual Christians aren’t fruitful, then churches will not flourish.

I should admit that I do go looking for the “secret sauce” or the “silver bullet” when it comes to any kind of success or effectiveness in the church, or elsewhere for that matter. Having said that, I am not for one moment claiming that this is the only or even the main factor in church growth in the developing world. And I do realise that there are enormous cultural differences between the Western world and the Indian sub-continent.

At the same time there are biblical principles that transcend culture. The conviction that God has called every Christian to flourish and bear lasting fruit, to my mind transcends culture. It’s a scriptural principle, not a tenet of a particular culture. And if that is the case, it should be the conviction of every believer- Indian or Western.

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The Magic Key

If you have children of a certain age, you might well be familiar with The Magic Key stories. Three children and their dog set out on all sorts of adventures, courtesy of a magic key, helpfully attached to the dog’s collar. Unfortunately, I am a little too old to have had the pleasure of such reading material; we had stories that usually ended up with a dead giant or a dead wolf, or something like that.

If only we had magic keys to take us through life. Magic keys that would inject a bit of excitement into our sometimes mundane routines.

It has to be said that sometimes reading Christian literature and attending Christian conferences can at some level, usually an unconscious one, become a quest for a magic key. The one thing that will bring growth. The one thing that will bring revival. That elusive one thing.

Recently I spent twelve days in India. I spent time in two different locations. In one location I experienced the ministry of a city church. The other, was a mission station, though that is an inadequate description. If both ministries are not experiencing revival, then it must be pretty close to revival. If ever I had my chance to find the magic key, this was it.

So what was their magic key?

There are so many potential candidates.

For a start, the way they showed hospitality. What an incredible welcome we received. How we were honoured and cared for the whole time we were there was exemplary. In fact it was quite humbling. We were treated like kings.

The way these ministries reach out to their own communities in acts of service was also staggering. Feeding the hungry, educating children and caring for orphans. The mission station was even training nurses and ran a primary school for one thousand children and a secondary school for two thousand children and a hospital and…the list is almost endless. That was on one campus alone!

Evangelistic outreach was certainly not substituted for social action. Whether it was distributing Bibles or church planting, evangelistic outreach was to the fore. One church even decided that over the Christmas holidays – Boxing day and Christmas day included – that they would take a bus and drive, stopping to preach and sleeping wherever they could!

And then there are signs and wonders. The supernatural seems to be a normal aspect of life in India.

Of course, there was the very focused emphasis on prayer and fasting. Long lists of those committed to praying and fasting for a certain number of days during the year. Beginning the year with three days of prayer and fasting.

I could go on to talk about the dynamic, compelling worship, great steps of faith and acts of sacrifice, even to the point of laying down life for the sake of the gospel.

It was very clear that none of these things could or should stand alone. They all belonged together. It’s not all about prayer. Or social action. Or worship.

Or even evangelism. Though it has to be said that when I asked for some honest feedback about the western church, our lack of evangelism was highlighted. I might not have mentioned that, had not a missionary from Latin America said the same thing in a conversation seven months previously.

What, in my opinion, these Indian churches are doing that is so important, is that they have kept doing the things that are important since they were founded. There is no substitute for decades of commitment to the great commission.

So what’s the magic key? The magic key might just be to recognise that we have a whole bunch of keys which, if used consistently, will unlock doors and unlock God’s blessing over our churches. Perhaps the magic key is to recognise that there is no magic key.