Why the Gospel Still Works
This article appeared in the February, 2014, issue of Missions Mosaic. Used with permission.
By Jean M. McLean
Of the 80 pastors assembled, more than 60 had been severely beaten and jailed for preaching the gospel. Still, the men worshipped—praying, singing, and weeping to Jesus. The pastors’ conferences Donald McKinney* leads in this Hindu-dominated land are different from those he attended in Mississippi and Florida. Many of these men don’t read. Most are poorer than any American homeless person. All are risking their lives by sharing the gospel.
These shoes represent the Indian workers and pastors who came to be trained with McKinney.
And yet, as in the days of the early church, the numbers of these believers are growing. “The gospel still works,” McKinney says. Consider this:
• A poor woman invited a 28-year-old Hindu priest from a large temple to a tiny church. Although he had never heard of Jesus, the priest accepted her invitation. Upon hearing the message, he confessed, “Jesus is the only God!” He was immediately expelled from his job and disowned by his family.
• Another former Hindu priest had been traveling weekly to share the gospel. He and his pastor were preaching Christ almost 200 miles from home when a demon-possessed woman fell at his feet, covered her ears, and said, “Do not sing in Jesus’ name!” The demon was expelled that day. She was saved.
• After a man and his son spent a week in jail for preaching Christ in their village, they traveled 18 hours through excruciating conditions to a Christian conference to learn to do more.
It’s not just Christian leaders who face persecution from nationalist Hindus, says McKinney, who serves in a South Asian state of 60 million persons, including a city of 10 million. Those who confess Christ may be denied access to village water. Non-Hindus can’t be buried in their local cemeteries. Christians are prohibited from marrying neighbors. A declaration for Christ can be grounds for losing a job. Officials commonly kick down doors during home prayer meetings, beating participants mercilessly before throwing them into jail. For these believers, professing faith is truly an all-or-nothing commitment.
Cost of Commitment
“But the gospel still works,” reports McKinney. “People will bear these things for the sake of Christ. Jesus is real. He does speak to these hearts, and they do believe in Him.” He cites the Romans 1 truth that the gospel is the power of Christ for salvation. “And these people know what that means.”
The irony, says this man whose voice cracks with emotion as he speaks of his faithful brothers and sisters, is that these Christians have very little Bible teaching. Unlike Americans with easy access to Christian education, these believers often hold doctrinal beliefs that McKinney considers unsound. Part of McKinney’s job is to teach sound doctrine. These believers quickly accept those truths. “But proper doctrine doesn’t ensure that you bear up under persecution,” he says. “These people will suffer hell on earth for the name of Jesus.” He marvels at the resilience of those with no material assets who are fully dependent on the Holy Spirit’s presence and their firm belief that Jesus is Lord.
Consider These Examples:
Life in the village varies from one place to another.
M* is the seventh pastor in a river town. Six before him were forced out by beatings, arrests, and constant persecution. M labored on, witnessing 20 families saved and baptized. The new believers publicly burned their idols, throwing the remains in the river. Many of the demon-possessed were delivered, saved, and baptized. That occurrence drove the police to close the 120-member church. At last count, the resulting home churches tallied 150 worshippers.
E* is an evangelist who is poorer than any United States street beggar. To preach Christ, he walks from village to village in homemade shoes held together with nails. His ever-present smile and servant’s heart make him a “light shining in a dark place” (2 Peter 1:19).
Grandmother* told the demon idol she would pay for silver shoes for the idol if the god healed her sick granddaughter. As McKinney stood with her at the sick granddaughter’s bed, he explained that the idol couldn’t hear her and didn’t need silver shoes. When Grandmother heard about the true God, she began worshipping Jesus. God has since blessed the family with surgery the child needed.
Dire Need for Leaders
Not everyone who professes Christ in this region can bear the hardships. Some fall away. The most difficult to reach are those who have the most to lose. It’s the poor—those already living in desperate conditions—who tend to remain as first-generation Christians. They also tend to be the best leaders.
“We need people to pray that God would raise up young, untrained leaders. We want God to call 10,000 to 50,000, because there are 37,000 villages in this state. If they’re seminary trained, they’re not much good. They’ll want a salary, a house, a building, a secretary, and benefits. We need leaders who will live among farmers, with no electricity, with the smell of cow dung, with no income, and with scarce food.”
Some pastors are farmers, laboring in difficult jobs including pig husbandry.
Many leaders with those credentials will be illiterate. That’s fine, says McKinney, since he can train them in Bible storying. Ironically, this Christian worker with his PhD uses the same techniques—flannelgraph stories—he heard as a child, when his mother corresponded with a friend working with children in this same country. Now this former Christian college professor uses those storying techniques to train pastors.
For rural peoples, the Bible’s stories about farming, wells, animals, marriages, children, and fishing ring true. “When you read about Ruth going to a far country, or the woman at the well, those Bible stories sound just like yesterday’s gossip to these people,” McKinney says. But those stories contain something much more powerful than compelling characters and solid plot lines.
“Two Easters back, I sat with a man who shines shoes,” McKinney remembers. “I told him the story of Jesus’ death and resurrection. He asked, ‘Is this true?’ He shook his head, not because he doubted it, but because he had never heard it. There is a compelling force in these stories, a built-in truth element that just slaps the heart of a man and says, ‘This is true.’ ”
McKinney oversees a small group of young Christian workers, some of whom are struggling to reach the area’s significant Muslim population. The organization’s operating budget to reach 60 million people is $3,500 a year. “That’s the reality of needs versus resources.” And although McKinney would greatly appreciate more resources, he knows the ultimate power is in prayer.
“If you send your money and don’t pray, that’s of limited assistance. Money can do what money can do, but prayer can do what God can do.”
Ministry Across All Boundaries
While Donald McKinney works to equip leaders, his wife, Helen*, continues the Hindu women’s ministry she first started when she served with her husband in New York, while he was a professor. At that time, she taught Bible stories and cooking classes, serving as a substitute mother for young women whose husbands were corporate researchers. Now she does much of the same type of ministry for beggar women and children who seek the McKinneys’ prayers and free water. An average day brings 20 to 40 people through their home. The McKinneys are also friends with people of means. Those people “think we are really weird because we affiliate with construction workers and beggars,” McKinney says.
While Donald McKinney works to equip leaders, his wife, Helen*, works with women and children, sitting on concrete floors and giving free water to anyone in need.
Like her husband, Helen loves her Muslim and Hindu friends equally. She has sat on the floor of a small concrete house with other women, mourning the death of a Muslim mother, while the body, wrapped in white, lay on the floor with them. She has hosted Christmas parties for Hindu friends, and suffered from head lice caught from the poor children frequenting her home. She has responded with compassion to a begging transvestite stranger, providing him with desperately sought food. Still, the McKinneys weep when they see the depth of the surrounding darkness.
Although months have passed, Donald still grieves his neighbor’s death and the hope-deprived Hindu funeral. “His body was kept at the front of the house, by the road, in a refrigerated Plexiglass box. The weeping, incense, rituals, smoke, and pagan things done over his dead body were heartbreaking. We visited, prayed in Jesus’ name, and I went to the cremation ceremony. I felt such darkness and saw utter hopelessness in my Hindu friends. The family repeatedly said, ‘He is no more. He is gone.’ As his daughter wept over the dead body, she told me, ‘Daddy read all of that book you gave him [the Gospel of Luke] and told me all about Jesus’ crucifixion. He made me watch the film [Jesus film] you gave him.’ ”
The McKinneys believe in all-or-nothing commitment. They can see how all that they’ve experienced—from Donald’s son-of-a-pastor heritage and mother’s feltboard-teaching friend to Helen’s skills as a mother of four biological children and decade mentorship of young Hindu New Yorkers—led to this point. They are also encouraged by the all-or-nothing commitment of the young Christian workers they lead.
But what they most want to communicate are the injuries and hardships of local believers. Their task seems overwhelming. How can a few hundred reach millions for Christ in this Hindu state, much less reach its Muslim population? It’s a God-sized problem. And the irony is that God is using the same sort of people He used in Bible times—the uneducated, passionate believers—to reach this region.
Will you join the effort? Will you pray? Will you share this story with others who will also pray, give, and go?
Jean M. McLean is a freelance journalist in Montevallo, Alabama.
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