Three weeks on the road with three primary destinations and one mission – advancing the Kingdom of God. Pastors Tom Green, John Houseman and I set out to conduct a total of five 2-day Organic Outreach Intensive Trainings for pastors in Pagidyala (southeast of Hyderabad) and Visakhapatnam, India, and Rakwana, Sri Lanka. We had a general sense of how we thought the training would be received since two of the three in-country leaders we were partnering with had attended the same training in Monterey, CA in the previous year. Still, I have to admit that I had some reservations as to how well the concepts would translate into the context of these two countries that are about as far away from America culturally as they are physically. Boy were we in for a surprise!
As this was my first trip to the country, I was mentally prepared for what others had shared with me about the general environment. The chasm between mental images and actual immersion in the environment was startling to me. As we left the airport in Hyderabad, the temperature was about 95 degrees and the humidity was around 75%. This much I had gotten from my weather app in advance. What struck me most viscerally were the sights, sounds, and smells. There were amazing aromas of cooking mingled with the stench of small fires that were apparently burning whatever could be found to fuel them – regardless of potential toxicity. And prevailing overall was the cacophony of car horns and the sight of hundreds of thousands of people crammed into one sprawling landscape that seemed to go on for miles.
The first training was set in Pagidyala, India – about 5 hours southeast of Hyderabad. As we arrived and got oriented for the first morning, attendees began to trickle in. We were told to expect around 75 pastors, but it was looking like that would be a stretch. When we finally began (about two hours later than our optimistic schedule), we had about 45 in the church and a lot of empty chairs. Even though this was a little disappointing and didn’t bode well for the other four trainings we had ahead of us, we faithfully forged ahead, knowing that God would be glorified even if there were an audience of one.
By mid-afternoon, the number of pastors in attendance had risen to 65 – 70. All in all – pretty respectable against the original expectation and certainly an improvement over the beginning of the day. The real surprise came on the next morning. When we began, there were nearly 100 pastors who had traveled, in some cases hundreds of miles, to participate in the training. Two hours into the second day and we were up to 124 with no empty chairs and people seated outside the building listening on loudspeakers placed just outside.
We were absolutely baffled by this pattern of attendance so we had to ask our host if this was typical and something we should expect as we approached the rest of the trainings we had ahead of us. His answer was no….and yes. He explained that in general, many pastors have become ambivalent to outsiders coming in to put on “seminars” for them. More often than not, these seminars focus on straight biblical teaching and they can only listen so many times to the Gospel. They are pastors, after all – who have not only heard the Gospel myriad times but have been teaching it to others for years! The ones who commit to attend an event like this typically do it out of respect for the host – and often as the date draws near, other priorities arise and many do not follow-through and actually attend. In our case, the initial pattern was typical (75 commit, 45 show). But once those 45 had a picture of what we were teaching, they began to call other pastors and tell them that this was something they should not miss. From that point, through the end of the second day, there was nothing typical about the pattern of attendance. This same phenomenon repeated itself four more times over the course of our three weeks in-country.
The difference was certainly not the quality of teaching as I know there are many who are far more engaging than us. It was in part due to the difference in content – although I am certain others had preceded us in bringing lessons on evangelism and outreach. The biggest difference was the combination of God’s timing and the Organic Outreach approach to evangelism. When these areas were “Christianized,” they were taught one way to evangelize. It was based upon the pastor leading their flock to the streets of a village several times a year to street evangelize – trying to share the Gospel with anyone who would stop long enough to hear it. While this method had historically enjoyed a modicum of success in these areas, government restrictions in the current environment have made this approach to outreach strictly against the law. Pastors have been at a loss as to how to continue to do outreach with any effectiveness. As the principles of Organic Outreach unfolded in the Intensive training, the concepts were revelatory for them. Over and over again, we were enthusiastically told that this was an answer to their fervent prayers.
Over the course of those three weeks, over 600 pastors attended at least some portion of the Intensive Training and over 300 attended the full two days. After each training concluded, as the attendees gathered together in small groups of twos and threes to say their goodbyes, a buzz of excitement permeated their conversations. There was a visible transformation in their demeanor from when they arrived. There was a renewed hope in their eyes and an eagerness in their voices.
I praise God for providing five very strong in-country leaders, native to these countries, who will be carrying this momentum forward as we continue to develop resources for them in the background. We have already been licensed to publish Organic Outreach for Churches and Organic Outreach for Ordinary People in Hindi, Telugu, Tamil, and Sinhalese. Translation work on these books, as well as all of the Outreach Influence Team resources, is underway by teams of pastors and lay leaders led by those in-country leaders. God is mobilizing His army in India and Sri Lanka and we feel privileged to have been able to play a small part in moving the Gospel forward.
Thank you to all who prayed for our team as we were there. Please continue those prayers for the in-country leaders (Sudhir, Jayakumar, LD, Suresh, and Cedric). Finally, thank you to those who continue to pray for our ministry and our families as we continue to do His work.
Walt Bennett is the Executive Pastor of Organic Outreach International in Monterey, California.