ASIA (BP) – When Jeremiah Farmer*, an architect, and his wife Joy* sensed a clear call from the Lord to minister in Asia, they had been active in their local church but had no seminary training and hadn't planned to leave for a foreign country. Nevertheless, in obedience to the Lord, they followed their church's advice and applied with the International Mission Board, which accepted them and then deployed them to a closed part of Asia.
From the beginning, Farmer told fellow believers he did not qualify to be on the mission field. Even so, he and his wife agreed to stay as long as the Lord told them to stay and to maintain a "laser focus" on a specific goal: figuring out how to get the Gospel to their region's 650 million people, 80 percent of whom had never heard the message of Jesus. Thirteen years later, the Lord has never told the Farmers to stop. Despite their initial lack of qualifications, they have witnessed the Holy Spirit do miraculous things: More than 700 churches have been planted; an estimated 2.5 million people have heard the Gospel; 45,000 people have come to faith in Christ; and 2,500 new leaders have been raised up in an environment hostile to the Christian faith.
"For us, people coming to faith on a daily basis became normal. Baptisms every Sunday, that was normal. To start new churches every month, that was normal." Farmer calls it "extremely" rewarding "to get to be a part of that kind of movement; to see millions of people get to hear the Gospel, most of them for the first time in their entire lives; to see tens of thousands come to faith and all these churches started."
Before deploying to the mission field, the Farmers were assigned six core tasks by the IMB: entry, evangelism, discipleship, leadership development, church formation and missions-sending. Their first term focused primarily on entry and evangelism. Since eight out of 10 people in their location had never heard the Gospel, the evangelistic task required the Farmers to break new ground.
In that culture, relationships are everything, Farmer says, so rather than doing door-to-door evangelism or handing out Gospel tracts on the street (which likely would have gotten them arrested), the Farmers engaged in relational evangelism. As the only "foreigners" in the area, many local people wanted to get to know them and practice speaking English with them. The Farmers used this to their advantage inviting people, typically just one person or family at a time, to share a meal with them.
Another aspect of the culture is to reciprocate actions. Whenever the Farmers invited a family to share a meal with them, that family was socially obligated to later extend a similar invitation. "So we knew that no matter what, if we invited someone to dinner, we got two chances to share with them," Farmer says. "So we made sure we shared the Gospel both times." Each time people professed faith in Christ, the Farmers quickly taught them how to share their faith. These new believers learned to wake up each morning and ask themselves, "With whom am I going to share the Gospel today?" As more people came to Christ, more people shared their faith with lost friends and family members, resulting in yet more people coming to the Lord. Before long the Farmers were receiving reports daily of people turning to Jesus.
To keep up with the growing numbers, the Farmers had to develop leaders who could teach small groups and ultimately lead house churches (as each house church could only fit 10-20 people). So, the Farmers wrote small group lessons that taught the leaders to seek answers to their questions in the Scripture. "Whatever they asked, instead of referring back to my American traditions, we would say, 'What does the Bible say?'" Farmer recounts. "'What does it say about prayer? What does it say about worship? What does it say about teaching and preaching?'"
By this time, Farmer was enrolled in Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, selecting classes based on the needs in each phase of his ministry. Classes such as missiology and cultural anthropology and various courses on evangelism in different contexts became instrumental in helping him think through issues he faced in his ever-developing ministry. "None of it was theory," says Farmer, who completed his master of divinity degree in 2018. "I was like, 'Oh, I need that now,' and we were able to apply it right away."
As the number of house churches surpassed 700, Farmer took on a supervisory role, training their leaders in evangelism, discipleship and missions. The latter task has been a key aspect of the Farmers' most recent efforts. "People became excellent evangelists among their own people -- very bold, very zealous, very excited for the Gospel, sharing their faith very loudly, proudly and boldly, and doing a very good job," Farmer says.
"The challenge was when it came to crossing cultures.” We had to teach them when you're working with another culture and society, you have to learn their worldview, learn how to stand in their shoes, learn their language, and understand their culture and approach outreach from their culture … to help them understand the truth of the Gospel, which transcends culture." Learning the how and why of missions has produced a "trickle" of effective missions-sending from the region, with more than 50 different volunteer teams sent out in a year's time, along with a number of families who have accepted a long-term missionary calling. Based on the number of churches getting involved, Farmer says "a tidal wave" of missions-sending is on the horizon.
Among the most encouraging testimonies the Farmers have seen is that of Ben, a "brilliant" but lost man whom they met during their first term. After Ben came to faith in Christ, the Farmers noticed in him "something different that we hadn't noticed in the other believers," Farmer says.
"He became other-centered very, very quickly. … He really wanted to live his life out for a true purpose, a real cause."
The Farmers committed to mentoring Ben, having him over at their house as often as possible to disciple him and develop him as a leader. They gradually gave him more responsibilities within their house church, and eventually he started leading a house church of his own. Over time, the other house churches in the area came to see Ben as their mentor.
Later on, Ben "graduated," moving to another province to start more churches. He now leads a network of 40 underground churches that likewise are getting involved in missions. "To see the progress of a kid who was lost and just looking for a cause to live for, and seeing him now -- he's married, has two kids, he's grown so much in his faith, he's gone through all the different training systems that we have; he's training himself; and now he's leading this network of 40 churches in another province -- is exactly what we were hoping for," Farmer says.
Having begun as the first missionary presence in their region of Asia, the Farmers now supervise all the missionary work focusing on the 650 million people who live there. They continue to lead training and missions conferences in order to see Asian Christians bring the Gospel not only to their own nation, but to the whole world. Though they now play a different role from a different location, the Farmers can look back on their first 13 years in Asia with awe because of what the Lord has done. "We were there to do exactly what God called us to do, and we worked as hard and as fast as we could to get it done in the power of the Holy Spirit," Farmer says. "We got to see Him work, which was miraculous and amazing."
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Alex Sibley is associate director of news and information for Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. This article originally appeared in Southwestern News, the seminary's quarterly magazine.