EDITOR’S NOTE: The Lottie Moon Christmas Offering for International Missions in tandem with Cooperative Program gifts from Southern Baptist churches support approximately 4,800 international missionaries in seeking to fulfill the Great Commission. Gifts to the Lottie Moon offering are received through local Southern Baptist churches or online at imb.org/offering, where there are resources to promote the offering. This year’s goal is $175 million. Jon Gerwig*, included in this story, is among the featured missionaries in this year’s Week of Prayer. The 2014 theme is “One Sacred Effort — Find your place in God’s story” from Matthew 28:19-20 (HCSB).
EAST ASIA (BP) — Along the side of a mud-packed mountain path, four East Asian believers sit under the shade of tall bamboo with a small, stooped woman in the traditional dress of her minority people group.
The sounds of a radio program ring out from an MP3 player stowed in one of their backpacks, and her eyes light up as she listens to Bible stories told in her mother tongue.
It is not common that a radio program would be broadcast in her language. Her Iron Pea* people group speaks six dialects, each distinct and all incomprehensible to those who speak the national majority’s trade language.
The four believers are translators, working to interpret the book of Luke into the woman’s dialect. Once a month they travel into the community, testing what they have translated — while also witnessing to people.
Back in the city, a headphone-clad Li Chang* sits at a large Mac computer watching audio levels bounce up and down on the screen. Luo Jie* sits on a stool in the next room, carefully reading a passage from 1 Corinthians into a microphone. These small rooms have been transformed into a makeshift recording studio, complete with mattresses leaning against the walls as sound panels.
The ministry of Li Chang, an Iron Pea believer, is to record the radio program that played from that MP3 player in the mountains. Luo Jie is an Iron Pea believer who often provides voice recordings. Together with IMB missionaries, other national believers and Christian partners, they are recording Scripture and resources in the Iron Peas’ heart language, including oral Bible stories, original worship songs and testimonies.
All this culminates in a new method of ministry called “Scripture planting.”
Scripture planting was developed by IMB missionaries in East Asia working to reach minority peoples like the Iron Peas with the Good News of Jesus. Scripture planting integrates the crafting of oral Bible stories with real-time church planting, evangelism and discipleship. This provides quicker development of resources, such as worship songs and recorded testimonies, as well as Bible translation.
At its core is the use of heart language, “the language in which identity, values, core beliefs and so forth — including religion — are typically learned, acquired [and] held,” said Grant Lovejoy, International Mission Board’s director of orality strategies. (Please see related story on the “StoryTogether” initiative below.)
Both Jon Gerwig* (See additional feature on Gerwig following this story.) and Bradford Wotzke* moved to East Asia with their families in 2004, becoming some of the first IMB missionaries to work with the Iron Peas in this city. The people group of more than 3 million had no known churches and only a handful of believers. The Iron Peas, who primarily worship the spirits of their ancestors, are considered an “unreached people group,” meaning less than 2 percent of them are evangelical Christians.
In the past, this country’s majority people group oppressed the Iron Peas, resulting in violent battles. Most retreated high in the mountains, where their poverty level is high and their education level is low, to eke out a secluded living as farmers. Tension still exists between the groups, and many Iron Pea people, particularly women and children, do not speak the trade language.
“You’re just spinning your wheels if you’re not reaching the people in the language of their heart,” Gerwig said. “… So you want to reach women, you want to reach children, you want to reach people in their moment of need in their heart? It has to be in their heart language.”
Beginning scripture planting
As Gerwig, Wotzke and other IMB missionaries began working with the Iron Peas in 2004, they planned to utilize Scripture resources — biblical stories and other materials that foster evangelism, discipleship and church planting — in their ministry.
However, not many Iron Pea language resources were available at the time, so they had to be developed. With the help of local believers, one of the first resources they translated was the “Creation to Christ” story, a 10-minute chronological story that explains the Gospel simply.
An important development came in 2005, when a Great Commission Christian partner completed the Iron Pea New Testament, and the Old Testament translation has been underway since. The Bible is necessary to grow the church and believers, Wotzke emphasized, but getting the entire Bible into a heart language typically takes several decades.
“We can’t wait 40 years,” Wotzke said. “How many people die every day in that people group? How many people are dying over that number of years?”
Bo,* an Iron Pea believer and translator, explained they once thought they must have the entire Bible translated before they could use it, but now take a more practical approach.
“We considered our translation work like cooking for different sets of guests,” Bo said. “… Some guests may be very busy and cannot wait for the entire meal. We must cook our dish (the translation work), finish each dish and let each group of guests come, eat and leave.”
First believer, first church
The missionaries’ ministry goal is not just to see new Iron Pea believers, or even new disciples — but to see new churches started.
“We know that no matter how well we adapt culturally to the lifestyle here, how well we understand their culture, we will always be an outsider,” Gerwig said. “And for there to be a movement, a massive movement of multiple churches being started, thousands upon thousands of Iron Peas coming to faith — it’s going to take that Gospel message coming from an insider.”
But finding that first “insider” was difficult. For 16 months, Gerwig and his team did not see any Iron Pea people come to faith.
During that time, though, more resources were being created to reach Iron Peas. In 2005, the missionaries developed the idea of a radio program, filled with Gospel-centered content, broadcast in the Iron Pea language. With the help of several Great Commission Christian organizations and national partners, the radio show premiered in 2007.
To help build the program’s audience, missionaries, nationals and volunteers from the U.S. trekked through Iron Pea areas, handing out radios and teaching villagers how to tune into the radio broadcast each night. Their strategy now includes equipping volunteers and other non-Iron Pea speakers with MP3 players loaded with the Creation to Christ story.
“Anybody, whether you have any language or not, can walk into an Iron Pea village, turn the speaker set on … and 10 minutes later, people have heard the story,” Gerwig said.
Finally in 2006, Gerwig saw the first believer among the people group, a man named Solomon.*
Solomon became an outspoken witness in his community — by 2007, there were nine believers in his village. A few months later, 80 from his village and 60 from another had put their faith in Jesus. Over the next several months, Gerwig and his team trained these new believers in a basic, short-term discipleship plan, and in late 2007, the first church among the Iron Pea people was started.
Since the first church was established, the Gospel has spread throughout Iron Pea communities. Multiple “second generation” churches, which are churches started by Solomon’s church, and several third generation churches have been started. Today, there are 28 churches and approximately 3,000 believers among the Iron Peas.
Now is a unique time in the Iron Pea people’s history, Gerwig said.
“There are more Iron Pea believers seeking to reach the Iron Peas, and that’s something that’s never happened before.” Iron Pea believers are an integral part of developing Scripture resources, producing the radio program and strategizing ways to reach their own people.
Gerwig said he is thankful God has allowed him and his team to be a part of this and believes that future missionaries to this people group will come from among the people group itself. The team’s vision is that by 2020, each of the six Iron Pea dialect groups will have at least fourth generation churches among them.
Others can be a part of the effort to share the Gospel with unreached people groups like the Iron Peas around the world, Gerwig noted.
“When you give to the Lottie Moon Christmas (Offering), you are helping to plant churches among the Iron Pea people — there’s no way around that at all, nor should there be,” he said. “Your money helps start churches.”
Reprinted from Baptist Press (www.baptistpress.com).
Baptist Press (BP) is the official news service of the Southern Baptist Convention and provides news to the 42 state Baptist papers. BP reports on missions, ministry and witness advanced through the Cooperative Program and on news related to Southern Baptists’ concerns nationally and globally.