Church-based Mission Strategy

“You give them something to eat!”  How these words from Jesus’ lips must have rung in the ears of the twelve disciples as they faced 5,000 hungry mouths on the shore of the Sea of Galilee.  With the lunch of a small boy, just five loaves and two fish, the Master multiplied a limited supply to meet an almost unlimited need.  A willing donor releasing the best gift he could offer, combined with a distribution team of dedicated disciples and the divine intervention of God’s hands, served to teach the Apostles that they could trust God to meet extraordinary needs through ordinary means.  By feeding the 5,000 Jesus proved to all that day that it is not the size of our resource pool, but the extent of our faith and vision that determines our impact for the Kingdom of God. Today that lesson is being relived, not through the offering of a small boy, but rather in the outreach efforts of a small church.  It is being repeated not in a desert place created by the hot winds of the Holy Land, but rather in a place made desolate by the winds of war.

Over twelve years ago Northside Community Church and East Gate Congregation, two small Evangelical Free Churches in Atlanta, felt led of God to take on a long-term international mission venture.  Burdened to reach the Muslim world for Christ, they determined Yugoslavia held the least evangelized Muslim population in Europe and, in 1989, they adopted the Bosnian Muslims as their unreached people missions focus.

Fine-tuning the vision, the churches targeted Sarajevo, a city of 700,000 people with only three churches and a Christian population of less that 100 souls, as the strategic site to plant a church.  The decision to target Bosnian Muslims in Sarajevo was made two years before the war broke out in Bosnia-Herzegovina.  As the conflict with Serbia escalated, and the Yugoslav federation disintegrated, nightly news reports of the erupting civil war made this goal seem impossible.  But God intervened.

In the summer of 1992, God opened the doors to a refugee camp filled with 3,500 Bosnians, some of whom were from Sarajevo.  These refugees had fled to Gasinci, a village in northern Croatia, in order to escape the escalating horrors of war and ethnic cleansing in Bosnia.

John Rowell and Dan Burton, pastors of the two churches in Atlanta, upon hearing about the refugee camp, determined to make a trip to Gasinci to see the situation for themselves.  What they saw deeply affected them.  Almost immediately upon returning home, they contacted Dr. Peter Kuzmic, founder of the Evangelical Theological Faculty in Osijek, Croatia and organizer of a relief ministry, AGAPE, to get his advice on the churches’ emerging vision.  They proposed sending a series of two-week teams from their church to the camp.  By rotating the teams regularly, the churches believed they could help meet physical needs while having a spiritual impact.  It would be a monumental task for these two tiny congregations whose combined membership numbered less than 350 people!

Within weeks, a base team of four inexperienced missionaries was mobilized under the leadership of a Trinity Evangelical Divinity School graduate, David Lively.  David was then working in his father’s plumbing business in Atlanta.  His base team included a legal secretary, a widow and an 18-year-old high school graduate.  They agreed to stay for six months and were dispatched to prepare for the series of short-term teams that would visit Croatia on two-week intervals throughout the winter and spring.  In late October 1992, the first team arrived at the camp in a freezing Croatian rain.

For the next seven months, teams of Americans lived in the refugee camp, first in tents, and later in cabins built by the German and Dutch Red Cross.  Living conditions were hard.  Snows came, the winter weather turned cruel, and basic sanitary necessities deteriorated.  But still the teams kept coming.  Food distribution, English lessons and the Jesus film dubbed in Croatian were used to establish relationships with both Muslim and Catholic refugees in the camp.  This became the platform for sharing testimonies and the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

As expected, the teams eventually encountered resistance from the authorities directing the refugee center.  However, perseverance, strategic prayer and the power of the Gospel prevailed.  A number of Muslims in the camp trusted Jesus Christ.  Damir Spolijaric, a national leader in the Evangelical Church in Croatia, has observed that more Bosnian Muslims came to faith in the first six months of this effort in Gasinci than had been converted in all of Bosnia over the previous 50 years!

Since the initial stages of this project, Northside Community Church formed a church-based mission agency called Ministry Resource Network, Inc. (MRN) to facilitate long term ministry in the region. They have moved beyond the refugee camp into post-war Bosnia.  MRN has established the only Bible School in Bosnia-Herzegovina.  It has also been instrumental in starting several evangelical churches, a drug rehab ministry, and a Christian Campground used for evangelical outreach and church retreats.

In the years since armed conflict ended with the Dayton Accords in 1995, the Mostar Bible School has already released national graduates won to Christ during the war to pastor newly developed local churches.  The churches planted by MRN are composed of Christians from Serbian, Croatian and Muslim backgrounds.  These new Christians are proving that Jesus can bring peace and reconciliation to the warring neighbors within Bosnia.

To date, more than 1,500 short-term missionaries mobilized to join this effort.  A dozen other local fellowships in Georgia, Florida, Tennessee, California, Arizona, Connecticut, Illinois, Pennsylvania and New York have sent workers as well.

As Northside Community Church and East Gate Congregation worked together from Atlanta, initially without the assistance of an experienced mission agency, they proved that major mission ministry and meaningful relief efforts are not beyond the reach of small churches.  These churches pioneered a wartime ministry that has now been joined by the Evangelical Free Church Mission and a dozen churches from across America. Other small congregations should be encouraged by their example!  Even if a small church has a global vision, its leaders may fail to have faith to implement their plans.  They may feel they lack the resources, the networking capabilities, the mission expertise and the established contacts needed to bring a God-sized vision into reality.  But this story shows what can be done when we act on the vision God gives us!

The long term history of MRN in Bosnia also demonstrates that an extraordinary commitment to missions by a few ordinary people can fuel dramatic impact.  During its first ten years of involvement with Bosnian refugees, Northside Community Church has grew from 250 to 400 members.  The church mobilized 40% of its adults and more than half of its teenagers as short-term workers among Muslim refugees. The church’s mission investment grew from $50,000 to over $1,000,000 per year!  Each of the disciples who carried a basket full of fish and bread away from the 5,000 satisfied people in Galilee would not be surprised.  So why are we?

We need to remember the lesson of the loaves and fishes.  It is not the size of our resource pool but the extent of our vision and faith that determines our impact for the Kingdom of God. MRN is still putting into practice the insight that Jesus taught through a little boy and his lackluster lunch.  The Master remains available to multiply everything we will release into His hands.  He waits only for us to respond in faith to our own opportunities. Even now we might imagine His words ringing afresh within our hearing, “YOU give them something to eat!”  How will you respond to His call?

To learn more about this exciting ministry, read
Magnify Your Vision for the Small Church
by John Rowell

Copies may be ordered from Ministry Resource Network, Inc. (404-256-1235).
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