From my knees, I’m startled as I turn around and see that Sigs has joined me on this flat spot. He’s breathing hard but has a smile on his face. “This is a good place to stop,” I tell him as I get up, reflecting on the time I’ve just spent with God. “You can get some great pictures here as well. I’ll let you have this rock.” I pick up my pack and slide it on my back and say, “I’ll see you at the top.”
“For sure,” he answers, still catching his breath and grabbing his water bottle. “Maybe I’ll even pass you—I won’t be here long.”
“Yeah, right,” I answer. We both smile, because he knows how competitive I am—with a head start, there’s no way I’ll let him catch me!
I step out on the last half of the hike up the mountain. Buoyed by rest, I find new momentum on the trail. I can now average about 20 steps per intermittent pause, and it ends up taking about another hour to finally reach the crest. Aaron is waiting (he’s been there a while), and he’s already found a teahouse in a village that overlooks several valleys.
“This is where we’ll stay for the night,” he says, “and the timing is perfect.”
“What do you mean?”
“The only church that exists in these villages is meeting here tonight, and it looks like we’re going to be able to worship with them. Would you mind encouraging them with a message from the Word?”
“I would love to!”
“Great. For now, go ahead and put your pack down in a room,” Aaron says. “Then rest for a bit. We’ll have dinner in about an hour. Later, once it’s dark, the church will meet just across the way.”
I can’t wait! We haven’t encountered anyone who has even heard about Jesus for several days, so I’m eager to gather with people who not only have heard about him but also know him.
I find a room, set my stuff down, pull out my sleeping bag, and climb into it for a little warmth. I open my Bible to finish Luke 11 and then think about what to share that evening. But I fall asleep, and the next thing I know, Chris is punching my bag. “Get up, dude! It’s dinnertime.”
We gather in the teahouse for some bread and lentil soup. After we eat, Aaron invites us outside. It’s pitch dark now, and the sight of the stars is amazing. But Aaron hasn’t brought us out here to look at the lights above. He points to a valley where we can see a few tiny lights that are moving up the mountain toward us.
“Do you see those lights?” he asks. We nod, and he tells us, “Those are church members. Remember that grueling hike you climbed today to get up here? That’s the hike they’re making to get to church.”
Humbled, I see these tiny lights in the distance slowly making their way up the trail. I think about the stress people in our culture sometimes have over a 15-minute-or-longer drive to church. How about a two-hour hike up a narrow mountainside in the freezing cold, followed by a two-hour hike back down the same mountainside in the pitch-black darkness after the service?
Uncomfortable and Smiling
The church meets in a house about a five-minute walk from where we’re staying. This definitely is a “house church.” Picture an area in a home in the US that’s about the size of a bedroom or possibly a small living room. There’s a bed in the corner (envision a raised wooden platform with a thin mat on top of it), a couple of shelves against the walls, and a small cooking area in the corner. One light bulb hangs suspended in the middle of the room.
When we arrive, the owner of the house greets us with a warm smile. She motions for us to sit in seats of honor, either on or right next to the bed. Soon others arrive, and we’re shocked to see who has climbed that mountain to come to church. It’s not just the young and healthy. Every age is present, from babies to grandparents.
One by one they start to cram in, and cram is the right word. By the time everyone arrives, I count more than fifty people sitting on the floor, on the bed, or on top of each other. They will sit in the most uncomfortable positions with smiles on their faces for the next two hours. They will sing, clap, pray, and listen intently as I share from Scripture.
When I’d prayed earlier about how to encourage this church, I thought about its makeup: men and women who live in a very difficult environment, physically poor, in a battle every day for the most basic needs of food, water, and medicine, and persecuted for their faith.
Before the meeting, the church’s pastor had shared with me that his non-Christian parents died when he was just 15. A few years later, someone shared the gospel with him for the first time. He trusted in Jesus and was baptized, but as soon as this happened, the rest of his family abandoned him. His brothers told him to never come back, and he lost the inheritance his parents had left him.
But this pastor and his people believe that Jesus is worth it. “Jesus is worth losing your family,” the pastor told me. Then he quoted Mark 10:29–30, saying,
“Truly I tell you,” Jesus said, “there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields for my sake and for the sake of the gospel, who will not receive a hundred times more, now at this time—houses, brothers and sisters, mothers and children, and fields, with persecutions—and eternal life in the age to come.”
In this setting I hardly know what to say. Who am I to share anything? I wonder. Sure, I have been to seminary, written books, pastored churches, and led ministries, but compared to these brothers and sisters, I know so little of what it costs to follow Christ. Compared to them, I know so little of what it means to depend on and trust in Christ for all that I need. I know so little of what it means to take risks to make his love known.
Nevertheless, trusting that God’s Word is sufficient to encourage them, I open up to Nehemiah 8 and 2 Timothy 4, and I exhort them to hold fast to God’s Word, even when it’s hard to do so. They nod their heads as Nabin translates. I hope they are encouraged.
It’s not until I finish, however, that I am most encouraged. After our time in God’s Word, they begin to share their needs with one another. One older woman in the corner of the room mentions a physical challenge she is facing, and a woman on the other side of the room offers to help take care of her. A young man tells of someone he recently shared the gospel with who is now persecuting him, threatening to harm his family. In response, an older man shares how the same thing happened to him, prompting the pastor to encourage them both based on his own experiences with persecution. That leads to a couple who tell about how they shared the gospel with another family and how that family believed in Jesus. They are now thinking about starting a new church in that family’s home in a nearby village.
As I watch what is happening in this room and listen to these conversations between brothers and sisters in the family of God, it hits me: This is it! This is what these villages and the people in them need most! Absolutely, they need the gospel. Without question, they need to hear the good news of God’s grace that gives them eternal life. But they need more than that, too. They need community—the kind of community that treks for two hours—not just to worship with one another but to care for and encourage one another. The kind of community that takes responsibility for one another’s physical needs. They need brothers and sisters who, as we read in Mark 10, provide for one another as family and love one another as themselves (Luke 10). And these villages need a community of men and women who will take great personal risk to share the greatest news in the world with people who have never heard it.
In other words, these villages and the people in them need the church. The church as God has designed it to be. A people fearlessly holding on to God’s Word while selflessly sacrificing to share and show God’s love amid need around them.
This kind of church can change the world!
It’s surprisingly simple when you think about it. Not easy, but simple. This church has so little of the things you and I think about when it comes to church in our culture. They don’t have a nice building. They don’t have a great band. They don’t have a charismatic preacher. They don’t have any programs. They just have each other, God’s Word in front of them, and God’s Spirit among them. And, apparently, that’s enough.
I wonder if that would be enough for us. I wonder if that would be enough for me. Would you and I be content with belonging to a community that is simply committed to seeking God, loving each other, and sharing the good news of God’s love with the world around us no matter what it costs us? Isn’t this the essence of the church according to God’s design?
As I sit in the middle of this family of brothers and sisters on this remote mountainside, I can’t help but think of how easy it is to get caught up in so much extra stuff in the church that we miss the essence of who God has called us to be and what he has called us to do. I think about what I read in Luke 11 earlier before dinner. There, Jesus confronts the leaders of God’s people because they were missing God’s design for their community. Verse 42, in particular, sticks out:
Woe to you Pharisees! You give a tenth of mint, rue, and every kind of herb, and you bypass justice and love for God. These things you should have done without neglecting the others.
Jesus indicts the religious leaders because they were so focused on small things, including their traditions (which weren’t all bad), that they missed the most important things in God’s Word—namely, the spread of God’s love and justice. And I wonder if the same indictment could be made against church leaders like me, and the church culture you and I are a part of. Isn’t it so easy for us to focus on small things in the church, including our traditions (which aren’t all bad), that we miss the most important things—namely, working for justice among the oppressed and loving people in need as we love ourselves?
In light of all the faces of urgent spiritual and physical need I’ve seen here in just the last few days, I long to be a part of a church like this. I want to be part of a community that is simply committed to the most important things: caring for the hurting with compassion and spreading God’s love to the hopeless with courage. I want to be a part of a people who are fearlessly holding on to God’s Word while selflessly sacrificing to share and show God’s love amid urgent needs in our world. I want to be part of the church like God has designed it to be. The kind of church that can change the world.
As these thoughts flood my mind, the pastor asks me to pray for this church at the close of our gathering. Of course, I’m honored. But I’m also humbled, because I know I’m the one in this room who has the most to learn.
David Platt is lead pastor at McLean Bible Church in metro Washington, DC, former president of the International Mission Board, and founder of Radical Inc., a global ministry that serves churches in accomplishing the mission of Christ.
Excerpted from Something Needs to Change: A Call to Make Your Life Count in a World of Urgent Need. Copyright © 2019 by David Platt. Published by Multnomah, an imprint of Penguin Random House LLC.