Churches in Northern Pakistan: The Crucial Need for Conversion
Before churches in northern Pakistan can thrive, they must have a clear understanding of conversion.
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When we planted a church on in the Arabian Peninsula, we knew we were in a place of strategic importance―largely because of the number of nations represented in this desert land of opportunity. Consequently, the diversity in both our city and our church highlights the power and potential of the local church as the vehicle for the Great Commission.
We’re grateful the Lord has granted our church access to ministry beyond our little city. For example, over the past three years he has brought a number of Pakistanis to us. Among them was a believer named Summar. Summar eventually became a member, then a church planting intern, and now he’s a commissioned church planter back in his home of Pakistan.
Pakistan is a staunchly Islamic state that has a Christian population of around 4 percent and an evangelical population of 0.6 percent. Summar and I have spent many hours discussing the needs and challenges of evangelical churches there. You might be surprised to hear his primary concerns had nothing to do with the harsh reality of persecution. Instead, he worried more about a theological issue that, in his mind, was more internal to the church itself.
During one of our many conversations, I asked him, “What’s the biggest obstacle to Pakistani churches being a witness to their Muslim neighbors?”
He answered: “The people in the churches are not converted. They don’t understand the gospel of Jesus Christ.”
Of course, Summar―himself converted and discipled in Pakistan―was speaking in broad strokes. But his response confirms a noticeable trend our church had experienced, too. Bad theology, prosperity teaching, and a general misunderstanding of what it means to be a Christian is all too common with Pakistani Christians. Most of those who identify as Protestants think they’re Christians because they were born into a Christian family. They know very little Scripture and couldn’t articulate even a simple explanation of the gospel.
PERSECUTED CHURCHES ≠ FAITHFUL CHURCHES
For some in the West, this may come as a surprise. When we hear about Christians being persecuted in Pakistan we tend to assume that because a church is persecuted, it is faithful. But like in many other places in the world, “Christian” has become an ethnic label more than anything else.
Without a clear gospel message and a biblical understanding of conversion, the church is indeed powerless as a light to the tens of millions of unreached people around them. It’s true that the gospel “is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes” (Rom. 1:16), but that message must be rightly proclaimed in order to provoke a right response.
Nonetheless, churches in Pakistan face challenges most can only dare to imagine. Calling people to discipleship is likely calling them to alienation, imprisonment, or even death. But the problem in Pakistan—and beyond—is that there’s neither a clear presentation of the gospel nor an emphasis on biblical conversion. Because of this, the rigors of this “discipleship” are unbearable. A disciple is an ambassador of Christ, someone who is controlled by God’s love and therefore obedient to God because they were first loved by him. But what’s the foundation of that love and obedience? Conversion! (c.f. 2 Cor. 5:14–20)
A church can only be a light in a dark place like Pakistan when it’s filled with people who understand that without Christ they’re sinners under God’s wrath, but that God demonstrated his astounding love by sending Christ to be the propitiation for their sins. Only churches that are filled with those who have been called out of darkness and into his marvelous light will offer a living, vibrant witness to the watching world.
CONVERTED CHURCHES ARE THE GREATEST WITNESS
But how will the millions of unreached in Pakistan begin to see the church as a vibrant witness? What’s the remedy for this crisis?
In a word (or two): healthy churches. We must plant churches that are founded on the clear proclamation of the gospel; we must train pastors who call their people to a life of discipleship through the door of “repentance toward God and faith in our Lord Jesus Christ” (Acts 20:21).
Summar believes this, too, and his work confirms his conviction. Every Friday, he gathers predominately nominal Christians from Catholic or Pentecostal backgrounds and preaches the gospel to them. On Sunday, they gather again to pray, sing, and ask questions about the sermon they recently heard. He’s heard testimony after testimony of people who thought they were Christians, but have now been converted, baptized, brought into the church, and discipled.
Summar’s burden has been to see gospel ministry in Pakistani villages that are often neglected. His vision is a refreshing one because there’s not a focus on numbers but on the establishment of churches, one village at a time. He’s eager to see these churches become faithful witnesses to the gospel, from which others churches in other villages will one day be planted.
The problems Summar faces in Pakistan haven’t been helped by some movements that create a false dichotomy between conversion and discipleship. When a group of unbaptized people who haven’t repented of their sin and trusted in Christ gather to study the Bible is called a “church,” you’re sowing confusion for future generations. Make no mistake―a call to follow Jesus is a call to repent and believe in the gospel. The two cannot be separated.
And yet, the need for a right understanding of conversion doesn’t end when a church is established. As we’ve learned in Pakistan, it must be maintained. This means pastors cannot assume the gospel in their preaching, and fellow Christians cannot cheapen the importance of genuine repentance and faith when they speak to their children or their lost friends and neighbors.
If there is ever going to be an ongoing and sustainable movement of healthy churches in Pakistan and beyond, then there must be a clear understanding of conversion.
Pray for Summar and others like him. They live in a hostile environment and are doing the slow-going work of calling people to repentance and faith, and then gathering those who believe into compelling communities that, Lord willing, will reflect God’s character and wisdom among the unreached for generations to come. It’s difficult, but necessary and God-honoring work.