“I’m sure I’m going to die very soon,” the pastor said to his wife.
She clinched her fists. Softly but firmly she replied, “Then God must give me a lot of strength to bear it.”
Only a few hours later, his words proved true.
He had planted the church in 1984. After more than three years of arduous work and much persecution, he had seen the struggling congregation grow to about 30 members. Religious and political extremists threatened to destroy the work and kill the pastor. On that Friday, March 25, 1988, they carried out their threat.
That evening, the pastor and his wife shared a meal. Soon afterward, someone approached the house. The pastor went outside while his wife picked up their baby and prepared to follow him. Just as she started toward the door, she heard the gunshot.
Although expressions like “religious extremists” are often applied to Islamic terror groups, and a great deal of opposition to Christianity exists in the Islamic world, this pastor was martyred by Buddhists in his Southern Asia community. Adherents of a religion widely perceived as peaceful were willing to take extreme measures to prevent the gospel from taking root locally. The pastor’s attackers were not successful. His wife continued to lead that church, which became a thriving congregation that witnessed countless miracles and salvation decisions.
Since the earliest days of Christianity, opposition to the gospel has brought about growth in the Church. Just as the first Christians were scattered from Jerusalem and preached the gospel in ever-widening circles (see Acts 8 and following), so today attempts by governments or majority religions to limit or eradicate faith in Jesus Christ have consistently had the effect of creating a spiritual harvest. But the timeframe can be lengthy, and the personal sacrifice significant.
In the task of reaching Muslims, such a breakthrough has developed in recent years as the result of Europe’s immigration crisis.
“Imagine,” says Paul Trementozzi, AGWM Europe regional director, “a million-plus people coming from regions where we have little or no opportunity to share the gospel into a continent where we have almost limitless opportunities. More Muslims are coming to Christ now among these refugees than we have seen in many years of outreach across the Muslim world.”
While the light of the gospel is shining among growing numbers of Muslims in Europe, challenges remain to reach them in their homelands, many of which lie far outside the typical areas envisioned by Western Christians as “Islamic.”
“I think of a stone monastery that sits empty today,” says Omar Beiler, AGWM Eurasia regional director. “Its broken-down walls tell an unfortunate story, but beautiful painting are still visible on the ceilings. People come to observe this piece of history — some out of reverence, some with questions. No longer a place of worship, the building is a haunting reminder of a tragic past.”
This area of Central Eurasia used to be home to many similar places of worship. Of the six major people groups living there, most of them were traditionally Christian. From about 300 years ago and up into the 20th century, the people were forced to convert to Islam. It went from a predominantly Christian area to an entirely Muslim area. In Central Eurasia alone, more than 440 million people have almost no access to the gospel.
Opposition to the gospel continues in parts of the world where Christianity has been widely proclaimed. Across Latin America, particularly in major cities, large churches hold prominent places in communities, and public evangelistic meetings attract many thousands. The world’s largest Assemblies of God Fellowship is in Brazil. But only about 1 in 6 people across the region have had an adequate presentation of the gospel.
“My parents went to Latin America in 1962,” says David Ellis, AGWM regional director for Latin America Caribbean. “I got to know missionaries who went out years before them. Today, depending on the country, there is a measure of what you could call success. We have more churches. We have churches that are bigger than anything my parents would have imagined. But it is heartbreaking when you think that 5 out of every 6 people in a region of the world where I have lived and served since the age of 7 are still unreached.”
In Latin America, legislation can prove oppositional to Christianity even when that legislation has been created to protect specific communities. This is especially true for many communities in remote regions whose traditions are recognized as part of their nation’s historic heritage.
“Our biggest number of unreached people groups are indigenous,” David says, “with the majority of them living in the Amazon Basin among six countries in South America. They are so remote and isolated, and contact is only possible at their invitation and with the government’s permission. But we’re slowly making progress, one community at a time.”
The sheer weight of cultural traditions creates an undercurrent of opposition to the gospel in regions where generations of people for many centuries have followed false religions. Haridwar, one of Hinduism’s most sacred sites, offers a compelling illustration of this truth on a massive scale.
Bryan Webb, missionary to Vanuatu and a writer for AGWM Communications, visited Haridwar in 2018.
“We walk out to the top of the steps overlooking the Ganges River and watch the worshippers,” Bryan remembers. “The mix is diverse, with well-dressed businessmen, villagers in homespun cloth, young and old, women in traditional dress, and others in jeans and Mickey Mouse t-shirts. Some kneel at the edge and pour out cremated remains of loved ones; others gather sacred water into plastic containers to carry home and pour out on their personal shrines. Family members help a stroke-crippled old man and a handicapped young girl down the steps and into the water. Everyone must get in the water.”
Buddhism, Islam, Hinduism—these religions hold billions of lost people in their grip. But countless local religions are equally opposed to recognizing Jesus Christ as the unique and divine Savior of the world.
In a humble rural kitchen in Northern Asia, Bryan sees startling evidence of one local belief system.
“The walls, the thick hand-hewn columns and the ceiling of the kitchen are stained black from the smoke of countless fires,” Bryan says. “The wall behind the current blaze bears the deepest stain. Yet it is speckled with hundreds of tiny white ovals. Some are crisp and defined, others are half buried in the creosote.”
Bryan’s guide explains that each New Year every member of the household dips their thumb in white paint and marks the wall, creating a visual history of the clan.
“I wonder how many generations the wall represents,” Bryan says. “What stories could they tell? I feel a sudden catch in my throat as I realize I am looking at a record of generations who never had the chance to know God.”
“About 1 billion of the population of Northern Asia are in one single ethnolinguistic group,” explains Ron Maddux, AGWM Northern Asia regional director. “The greatest majority of the believers in the modern-day Christian awakening are in that group, so approximately 10 percent of them. Outside of that group there are approximately 400 million people who are in ethnic minorities. These have not yet been touched by the great Christian awakening that has happened within the region. Altogether, there are 1.3 billion people in Northern Asia who are without Christ.”
After years of increased tolerance within the region toward the church and toward Christianity, Ron and his team members are seeing an increasing intolerance and a greater pressure on the church.
“There’s an attempt to slow down the growth, to impede the process, to return to earlier days of opposition and intolerance,” he says. “This means that both the church and also efforts on the part of those representing Christ in evangelism and discipleship are going to have to be adjusted, and new more creative strategies are going to have to be implemented.”
The greatest opposition to the gospel will always be the forces of spiritual darkness. That remains the historic constant far and beyond the ebb and flow of hostile governments, ungodly cultures and false religions. “For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but … against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places,” the apostle Paul wrote to the Ephesian Christians nearly 2,000 years ago (Ephesians 6:12, ESV).
“At times, I lie awake at night thinking about Japan,” says Jeff Hartensveld, AGWM Asia Pacific regional director. The 10th largest country in the world with 126 million people, and the gospel has never taken root there in all of history. We must break down that spiritual barrier. We’ve got to have a prayer campaign for Japan. People say, ‘Can we give you an offering?’ and that’s great. But if you gave us a week of 5 minutes of prayer a day for Japan, I wonder what could happen.”
Greg Beggs, AGWM Africa regional director, sees prayer as the ultimate means of overcoming every form of opposition to the gospel.
“The key to each of Africa’s challenges is prayer,” he says. “God calls people through prayer. As people begin to obediently pray for the hard places, the places resistant to the gospel, God begins to call them to serve in those regions. Prayer is the foundation for the whole Live/Dead movement, where we have prayer teams strategically praying for unreached people groups and some of the most resistant areas in the world.”
Whatever the opposition level, AGWM continues to look for every available means to connect with lost people and tangibly communicate the love of Jesus Christ.
“We want to more effectively be the ministries and missionaries ‘without borders,’” says AGWM International Ministries Director Joann Butrin. “We want to use our skills and services to creatively reach the most remote, the most rejected, and the most restricted peoples of our world.”
“The world’s population—encompassing 1.5 billion Muslims, 1 billion Hindus, 600 million Buddhists, and untold numbers of animists and secularists—needs to hear the gospel,” says Greg Mundis, AGWM executive director. “Tragically, many of them live in countries openly and adversely resistant to any Christian influence. Not just millions, but billions, have limited or no access to the gospel message.”
Perhaps the next breakthrough for the gospel among these multitudes will begin with you.
The 2019 State of the Mission contains more information and testimonies from our global missions team. You can read more about how God is moving in regions around the world here.