After we recognize the centurion as a model of faith, we should keep our gaze on him and discover two other ways he unveils realities of church life.
First, he was one of the first crypto-believers in the New Testament. His faith was crystal clear—personally unworthy, not presuming, and firmly believing in Christ’s power to heal his servant. But it is possible that his faith was concealed until this crisis. A believer who had chosen to keep his faith to himself, on no church roles, counted as a crypto-believer. The number of these Christians is startling. I will give a profile of today’s crypto-believers in the second section.
Second, we see a two-fold response by the synagogue. They did not expect a non-Jew to be so faithful, and they did not extend their membership to include him. They held him in high regard, that is obvious, but this man, as a member of the army of Herod Antipas, was Gentile. Not only were there rules about not permitting Gentiles into full status, there was no inclination to include non-Jews.
Statistics, conversations, and efforts generally support congregations’ failure to expect from and extend to people not like us. In the largely monochrome cultures of most churches, our list of the overlooked would include:
Different incomes, especially the poor;
Different races, marginalizing those whose women wear the head cover;
Different locations, recognizing the social distinctions of neighborhoods;
Different life positions, omitting large segments, like international students;
Different diverse sexual preferences and marriage choices.
The Holy Spirit alone breaks up this resistant hard soil and brings forth a harvest.
Let me give two examples of expecting and extending.
The roots of Christianity in my home diocese, Makurdi, in Benue State, Nigeria, go back to Igbo Christians who lived there as merchants and railway workers. Tiv people were the major tribe in the area, but the Igbo never thought that the Tiv would be interested in Jesus Christ. As a consequence, the Tiv church did not rise up through the Igbo but through the vision of a Tiv worker, Ityotom Moti. Now the Tiv Christian majority is learning to expect faith and extend the Gospel invitation to the Muslims in the area.
Another example comes from South Sudan. Several years ago a cathedral was burned to the ground by Muslims. The charred ruins of the cathedral were visible reminders of the usual hostilities between the two faiths. Now an initiative is afloat to rebuild the cathedral. Remarkably, those mobilizing to do the reconstruction are the local Christians and …Muslims! Surely some of those Muslims share the faith of the centurion.
World Christian Trends
There are seven reasons given for Christians to conceal their faith:
Unorganized individuals in Christian legal churches (as in Muslim women of Christian faith);
Political prisoners or exiles;
Unregistered Christians (as in underground churches);
Deliberately clandestine Christians
Anti-state minority sectarians;
Isolated radio and Internet believers.
The total number of crypto-believers was approximately 123 million in 2000 and expected to be 190 million in 2025. Although by definition they are beyond the reach of traditional channels of ministry, there are effective ways to minister to them. Some are overt: tourist, tentmaker, pilgrim, part-timer worker. Others are covert: messenger, smuggler, mole, and courier. The chief and most essential piece of all these roles is Holy Spirit-inspired imagination.
One example is a group who called themselves “DART” – Do A Risky Thing. They entered a closed country, carried multiple suitcases, stuffed in dozens of copies of the Jesus Film in the local language, deposited them at a key distribution point, and departed.
The Unexpected and Unextended
When Christians reach only to those like them, that church gets saturated and reflects a flat growth response. Those, however, for whom the Gospel is new receive the word with astonishment and thrill, and dramatic growth is reflected.
The locations of people saturated are easy to document. The countries with the flat growth response are: Ireland, Poland, France, Lithuania, Italy, and the Czech Republic.
The reasons are not difficult to recognize. 90% of all mission resources go to where the church already is established. 40% of all mission resources go to countries who have their own strong citizen-led ministries. These lands have heard the Good News over and over and over–often with little variation in the medium.
On the other hand, the countries with the most responsive ethnic groups are: China and India. The photo at the top is a cattle herder in one of the groups in India, the Bihari of Rajasthan.
From reports of the crypto-believers, three of the most responsive of these groups are: hidden Buddhist Christians in Japan, hidden Buddhists Christians in Viet Nam, and hidden house church members in North Korea. These three are all showing a growth rate of 65% per annum.
A related footnote is that the cost per baptism in one of the saturated countries is 700 times as much as a baptism in Nepal.
How do we respond to these different situations? To those countries saturated with resources, the first and foremost response ought to be prayer and listening. How does God renew and convert in well-tilled soil?
One response to these under-resourced may be to shovel resources in their direction, but that step needs restraint and caution. Such transactions are fraught with many pitfalls. The response for us outside should again be listening and prayer. What are their true needs for God’s harvest to continue?
Solomon gives us the closing word, from his prayer at the dedication of the Temple:
When a foreigner, who is not of your people Israel, comes from a distant land because of your name–for they shall hear of your great name, your mighty hand, and your outstretched arm–when a foreigner comes and prays toward this house, then hear in heaven your dwelling place, and do according to all that the foreigner calls to you, so that all the peoples of the earth may know your name and fear you, as do your people Israel, and so that they may know that your name has been invoked on this house that I have built. (I Kings 8:41-43)