At a conference of 4,000 Christians from every part of the world, the most fascinating learning doesn't necessarily come from the platform addresses. It can come from introducing yourself. Seated next to you is likely to be someone from a different world and with an incomparable experience. Here are notes on three fascinating conversations I have had:
Finny Philip did his PhD in NewTestament at Durham University under James Dunne, but he hardly lives in an ivory tower. The school where he is principal, Filadelfia Bible College, is the training institution for a denomination that began with a dream in 1981. Finny's father in law, Thomas Mathews, attended a meeting in the Indian state of Rajasthan led by the famous missiologist Donald McGavran. Seized by McGavran's message on church growth, a small group began to pray about their response. They were drawn to pray for the state of Maharashtra, even though none of them knew a single person there. Eventually five of them boarded a bus, sure that God was calling them.
When they arrived at their destination in Maharashtra, a man approached them. "Are you from Rajasthan?" he asked. They said they were. "I had a dream, in which I was told that five people were coming from Rajasthan with suitcases. I was told to meet you and take you home."
The five followed him home and stayed with him for one month. By the end of that month they had baptized 500 people. Since the converts knew nothing at all about the Bible, training was called for. An informal school at first moved from place to place. Gradually the church multiplied to include hundreds of congregations; gradually the training courses became the permanent institution of Filadelphia, which offers courses up to the master's level.
The church has continued to grow. Persecution of new believers is very strong, Finny told me, so nearly all their converts are serious in their commitment. A strong academic curriculum serves a lively, expanding church.
Ivan Satyavrata is a pastor in Calcutta, India, who spun off for me the following statistics. His congregation each Sunday comprises 4,000 people, meeting in eight different services in eight languages. (Periodically, they all meet together as one congregation.) The church is also a mission center, which has planted and helps sustain 400 congregations and 30 "mercy centers" in three states. The church supports 14 schools in Calcutta, ten of which serve the poor, providing free primary and secondary education and one hot meal a day. Altogether there are 2,000 students. Ten thousand people are fed free meals every day on the streets of Calcutta. The church has 830 employees, counting teachers; over 200 work in the office.
And you think you have responsibilities!
Hwa Yung is a Methodist bishop in Malaysia. He told me of growing up in a world of active and potentially malevolent spirits, where superstitions were strong. He often saw people walk on fire or put skewers through their cheeks or other body parts.
As a science student who became a Christian in high school, he pushed that world away. Doing his college education in Australia, he appreciated the rational arguments of Francis Schaeffer and others. He knew nothing about the charismatic gifts.
When he finished school and returned to Malaysia to teach school, however, he found himself in a different world–the same world he had grown up in. Those rational arguments provoked mystification in his friends. "Rational arguments were not a way to come to any kind of belief."
Hwa Yung's world cracked open when one of his best students became one of his worst, almost overnight. The girl eventually quit school. Her best friend told Hwa Yung why she had cracked up. Another student, a boy, had been attracted to her, but when she didn't respond he had put a charm on her.
"I was 24 or 25 years old. The girl and her friend came to see me and another teacher. This whole situation was totally new to me. I listened in fascination as I heard how her family had taken her to temples seeking a cure, as well as seeking the best psychiatric help. Nothing helped. She couldn't concentrate. She couldn't do anything. She couldn't even help her mother in the kitchen.
"'We can't help you,' I told her, 'but Jesus can.' She accepted Jesus as her savior, and within two weeks she was completely back to normal."
That began a re-thinking of supernaturalism. He took years reading deeply into Christian history, the Bible, and Asian Christian leaders like Sunder Singh. Now, as a bishop, he is committed to spreading a supernatural faith that holds word and Spirit together.
This afternoon I was talking to Ian Buchanan, the leader of a prominent Christian organization in the UK, Langham Partners. He mentioned how encouraging it was to encounter people like these. When he looks at the shrinking church in the UK he finds it easy to become discouraged. But at Cape Town he is constantly reminded of the greatness of the church around the world. There really are amazingly fabulous things going on through the lives of wonderful people whom you have never heard of. And they are seated next to you.