For the first 200 years the New Testament church spread to most parts of the known world. In those first amazing years the church reached Europe and into the islands beyond. It crossed north Africa and went down the Nile to Ethiopia. It saturated the Middle East and made it into Pakistan and India. It even hitched a ride on the silk road across Central Asia all the way to China and Tibet.
How did they do it so quickly with such limited resources? It was because they were using the specific pattern of growth pioneered by Jesus himself when he started his prototype mass movement in Galilee. The details of what Jesus did are explained in detail in Luke chapters 3 to 10. Growth in the world wide movement of Christianity slowed dramatically when it took on the traditions of men and settled down as yet another religion of empires and local cultures.
But what would a similar movement to the one Jesus started look like in the modern world? This document will give you the answers. It is simply a summary of the 2019 book, Bhojpuri Breakthrough by Victor John, which explains how his church planting movement has seen over 10 million previously Hindu and Muslim Bhojpuri people come to know Jesus in the last 20 years.
The Bhojpuri people group live in north India, bordering the states of Utter Pradesh and Bihar. They comprise around 100 million people, which is slightly less than the entire estimated global population in the year 200 AD. By 1994, after 150 years of modern missions to this people group, there were still only about 5-10,000 believers from among the Bhojpuri. The Bhojpuri homelands were famously known as “the graveyard of modern missions”. They were also the home of the first three prime ministers of India, Buddhism, Jainism and Yoga. They are also home to Hinduism’s holiest city, Varanasi. This region is the very heartland of Hinduism. The Bhojpuri language is the 12th largest language group on earth, however its speakers suffer from high levels of illiteracy and they are deeply impoverished compared to the rest of India. Against this sombre background there is now a remarkable and still thriving church planting movement that numbers somewhere between 10 and 12 million! It is still growing, and virally spreading to other parts of India.
The man behind this mass people movement into the Kingdom of God is Victor John. For 15 years he tried to plant traditional churches based on Western models using the latest Western missions strategies inside his own people group. His success was very modest and his frustration levels very high. But then he decided to do things the way they were done in the New Testament and everything changed. God did more than he could ever have asked or imagined (Ephesians 3:20). Bhojpuri Breakthrough is one of the most important textbooks ever printed on how a mass church planting movement started and how it works in practice. Its core emphasis is not evangelism or church growth, but deep and ongoing discipleship (Matthew 28:19).
Victor describes the Bhojpuri church climate as dismal when the movement started. Christians numbered 0.0001% of the population, they were territorial, denominationally divided and not very interested in evangelism. They basically lived in a cultural and religious ghetto, cut off from their surrounding culture. After many false starts, but with a vision always burning within, Victor called a meeting of anyone interested in reaching his fellow Bhojpuri. Around 80 attended. He shared his vision and launched everyone into a season of prayer and fasting, but with no blueprint.
Next they set up a series of one month training courses in Biblical styles of both discipleship and leadership, while keeping everything related to the Bhojpuri culture instead of Western culture. They knew the harvest was huge and the trained labourers were few (Luke 10:2). To catch the harvest they thought they had better start by getting workers ready to keep the harvest. In the first year they trained just over 70 field workers, not as traditional church planters or evangelists, but as disciplers.
These new breed of leaders modelled everything; deep prayer, fasting, evangelism and follow-up, scriptural obedience and servant leadership. The new leaders had caught the vision and their enthusiasm began to spread. That was the beginning of the movement. Victor says the one constant of the movement was never to pressure leaders to get results or numbers, just to encourage obedience to scripture and letting the Holy Spirit take care of the rest. Within two years they had worked out what worked and didn’t work.
The rest of this essay will explain what worked in point form. It summarises the last two chapters of the book. All the book’s chapters are listed below so you can glimpse the whole picture of what has been going on:
- Before the Breakthrough
- Breakthrough beginnings
- Breakthrough in caste
- Breakthrough via Community Learning Centres (CLC’s)
- Breakthrough in transforming communities
- Breakthrough with persecution
- Breakthrough with railway children
- Breakthrough in urban areas
- Breakthrough beyond the Bhojpuri
- Breakthrough among Muslims
- Breakthrough in leadership development
- principles that guide the movement
- Frequently asked Questions about the movement
2. PRINCIPLES THAT GUIDE THE MOVEMENT
Victor adamantly says that only God can create a church planting movement and every movement begins in prayer. God alone deserves the glory. Prayer is the heartbeat of any movement. Sometimes it is corporate, or combined with fasting. Sometimes it is through the day while working. Prayer is not complicated. It’s simple. When prayer stops, so does the movement.
2. Instantaneous witnessing
New believers immediately begin sharing their faith with friends, family and contacts. One’s testimony is the most powerful spiritual possession they have. Sharing it from day one is crucial to their growth and the salvation of others. There has been a change, so others will be curious.
3. A culture of empowerment
Entrusting new and imperfect believers with responsibility for future growth is the heart of empowerment. They are empowered to share their faith, start new faith communities, pray for the sick, baptise new believers and begin grassroots movements. There is no laity/clergy distinction as this would limit growth. Leadership is kept local and all leaders are simply called brother or leader. There are no titles, all are equal servants in ministry. Very few leaders are paid as this also limits growth. Most are bi-vocational and self-supporting. Funds do not go into buildings as this also limits growth. Multiplication is the goal so empowerment and self-reliance is the only way to get there.
4. Reach whole families
New believers are a powerful example to their families. The family sees tangible change. In Mark 5:19 the demon possessed man was told to go home and tell his family what Jesus did. When whole families come to Jesus, a micro-church has begun and viral growth begins. This is where most growth happens the fastest and it is the perfect model for most of the world’s cultures. Families also protect each other from persecution if they all come to faith. They are Gods natural bridges into a community.
5. The Bible is the foundation
Faith comes by hearing and hearing by the word of God (Romans 10:17). Scripture is the anchor of the movement, not Christian traditions or even miracles. Leaders are always responding to questions with What does the Bible say about that? And then they investigate. The culture of the Bhojpuri movement comes from scripture, not the traditions of men. With illiterate people the scriptures are committed to memory, as is everything else is in their life. This is where local Bhojpuri worship songs are of great benefit.
6. Intentional planting and reproduction
Sharing the Good News, making disciples and planting churches is very intentional, not accidental. All systems, actions, training and culture are designed around deliberately and intentionally producing new believers, turning them into solid disciples, encouraging those disciples to train other newer believers, and planting churches as this process multiplies. That is the core of the movement. EVERYONE in the movement knows how to do all those things! It is in the DNA of all training and all training is done by apprenticeship, not sermons, except in our large conferences.
7. Godly obedience
Too many traditional Christians sadly know more than they obey. The Bhojpuri movement teaches obedience to scripture first. A godly lifestyle comes before godly knowledge. From passionate and obedient disciples we draw new leaders for training. This is the opposite of the Western model. Applying the Bible in everyday life is foundational.
8. Cultural relevance
God’s Kingdom must be relevant to the culture it enters or it will not flourish. Meeting the needs of the whole community is part of the DNA of the Bhojpuri movement. This is primarily achieved through Community Learning Centres (CLC’s), where Christians rent a room and then begin to serve the local community in whatever capacity the local community needs help with. This creates credibility, leading to opportunity.
9. Sensitivity to other religions
Believers are encouraged to never attack or criticise other religious beliefs or practices. Proclaiming the greatness, goodness and love of Jesus Christ, and the blessings to be had in life with him, is all that is needed. Allow people to make their own comparisons and come to their own conclusions as the Holy Spirit guides.
10. Pioneering outreach
The Bhojpuri movement specialises on reaching unreached areas with the Good News. We look for local partners from the harvest in that specific area who demonstrate added passion for souls. They receive extra training and will become apostles to their area.
11. Encouraging other believers
The Bhojpuri movement will partner with any other Christians, churches or denominations who want to be trained. The movement does not compete but partners withal Christians, training them to help them more efficiently bring in the harvest that is there. Men don’t own the movement or its principles. God does.
3. FREQUENTLY ASKED QUESTIONS
1. What do meetings look like?
A church meeting is usually held in a courtyard, someone’s house or any building that is available. Anywhere from a few to a hundred people will come and meetings can be held any day of the week. Most groups meet twice or three times a week. Most attendees are either discipled or being discipled. Most meetings will have curious unbelievers present. Many local churches have illiterate attendees so the meeting consists of lots of local language worship, singing with local instruments, prayer, Bible reading, testimonies, prayer for the sick and discussion on problems and struggles. Everything is interactive. Any preaching is allowed to be interrupted with questions and comments at any time. Most groups share communion monthly, some weekly. It’s all flexible so it depends on circumstances. Leaders are both men and women and anyone can baptise.
2. What is the leadership structure?
Churches usually have multiple servant leaders (Acts 11:30) and multiple levels of servant leadership. Five to six is normal with one being first among equals. This helps speed reproduction. Women usually deal with women’s issues, men with men’s issues. Love, respect and service to others are expected from all leaders. Affection rather than position is the key. Multiple leadership allows multiple ministry gifts to function (Ephesians 4:11-13). All leaders are simply called brother or leader. No other terms are ever used.
3. What about social functions such as weddings, baptisms, childbirth and funerals?
Couples are encouraged to have legally registered weddings, then we have a ceremony ourselves. Every local leader is equipped to lead weddings and funerals that are culturally sensitive but with a Christian flavour. Our songbooks have general instructions for these special occasions, but no prescribed liturgy. The Bhojpuri approach at these events often leads to much meaningful interaction with unbelievers. Regarding baptism, the person who led them to Jesus or a family member usually does the baptism. Sometimes it is their local leader. Often a whole family is baptised together. These procedures minimise persecution. Once baptised, the person or the family head will give their testimony. Baptisms can be done anywhere and normally women baptise other women, but it’s not a rule.
4. How are numbers counted?
Numbers are not the focus, discipling is. When new believers are baptised and start regular meetings, then it becomes a church (Matthew 18:20). Rapid reproduction makes it difficult to count numbers, especially as the movement is so large. The government census is now the main way of keeping track of numbers.
5. How can the work grow without paying pastors?
All leaders are initially trained but not paid. They are bi-vocational as was the apostle Paul (Acts 18:3). Ordinary believers are continually starting house churches so they stay in their jobs as long as possible. Paying pastors slows the growth to a crawl.
6. How do new groups start?
Multiplication happens right from day one. It’s in the DNA of the movement and not a result of meetings getting too large. Everyone disciples, anyone can become a leader and anyone can start a new church as the Holy Spirit leads. Where there two or three believers coming from a village or slum or suburb and they are enthusiastic, we start (Matthew 16:18). They invite seekers. Initial meetings will be once a week with interaction in between. New groups are very relational. Initial meetings emphasise prayer and singing, then testimonies and the Bible, beginning with the Psalms. The group leader from the previous group these church planters came from will encourage the new group as much as needed in the first few months. From then on he or she would visit once a month.
7. Do you use discovery bible studies?
The Bhojpuri movement uses the Discovery Bible Study method to train believers, but not with unbelievers. We use four simple questions after reading a passage:
What does this passage say? (Can you put it in your own words?)
What is the main principle in this passage?
What should I do to obey this passage? (How do I apply it?)
Who can I teach what I have just learnt?
8. What is the role of preaching and teaching?
It is a regular part of church meetings (Acts 20:9-10) but it is interactive and varies in length depending on the circumstance. The once a month training of all church leaders also involves teaching and preaching, as do the more irregular but larger conferences.
9. What prevents heresy from creeping in?
Scripture is the authority. If someone brings a teaching that does not agree with scripture others will openly challenge it in the meeting. The movement’s emphasis is on obedience, not knowledge. This emphasis takes care of a whole range of doctrinal issues. Accountability to scripture is shared by the group and movement as it grows into Jesus, instead of one knowledgeable person. Having said that, our Curriculum for New Believers conveys Biblical truth in a way designed to eliminate nominalism in the next generation and the importation of syncretic ideas.
10. How does the movement understand Jesus?
The whole point of the movement is following Jesus! Most have abandoned 330 million false gods to follow the one true God, and they suffer some persecution for that. Salvation is Christ-centred, not doctrinal, miracle, attractional, benefit, or personality-centred. That’s when people discover the love and power of the real Jesus. He is the living God, the creator of the universe who died just for them.
11. What does prayer look like?
Prayer is the essence of the movement. Whatever God does in the Bhojpuri movement, it started with prayer. Most of the leaders pray for several hours each day, usually when working in their vocation (1 Thessalonians 5:17). Modelling prayer for new believers is crucial. as is corporate prayer. This teaches new believers that prayer is not a blind mantra, or a liturgy, nor a ritual, but real communication with the living God, Jesus. Indian unbelievers find this very different to their lives where prayer is usually for one of three things; wealth, protection from demons and victory over their enemies. Prayer for unbelievers, prayer for miracles, prayer for politicians, neighbours and new areas, all are given petitioned before God. Prayer is also paid forward. Leaders pray for their people, and their people pray for each other and unbelievers. Prayer walking is very important when going into a new area, as is prayer with fasting. Prayer is spontaneous and it never stops. Answered prayer is a powerful part of our movement.
12. How do you disciple someone?
There is an interactive booklet on discipling that gives basic knowledge on salvation, sin, scripture, God and man, but we model everything as well and emphasise obedience to what is learnt. Relationship comes first and is the core of discipling, just as Jesus did. Relationships are usually well established when someone gives their life to Jesus. Learning is active, not passive. It begins the day they come to Jesus. Committed prayer is the first thing they learn, then sharing their testimony, then becoming part of a fellowship, then understanding scripture and how it outworks in our lives. Then the process starts all over again as they disciple others!
13. What does mentoring look like?
Mentoring is what Jesus did (Luke 9:1-6, Luke 10:1-24). It’s all about encouragement and empowerment leading to multiplication. It is usually in person, needs-based and spontaneous, addressing needs as they arise. As time goes on it will become less frequent as the learner gains confidence and becomes a mentor themselves. It can be across gender, but only in a group if that’s the case.
14. What role do women play?
Women and men are equal partners in the Kingdom of God and this ministry. This is against mainstream Indian culture but is deliberate. We have many women who are leaders participating in all functions of a leader.
15. What spiritual battles do you typically face?
Satan does not give up without a fight. He uses persecution, sickness, division or false accusations. Prayer and unity is the key to defeating Satan. This is a war for the future of the world and we have been assured of the victory by our Lord. Satan was under his feet and under our feet. However the biggest battle is usually in the mind; doubts, wavering, fear and other emotions. We teach believers to take every thought captive to obey Christ and his word (2 Corinthians 10:4-5), to always remember back to the amazing things he has done in their lives, and to use the scriptures as a defence just as Jesus did (Luke 4).
16. What are Satan’s typical strategies?
Discouragement is his greatest strategy. He uses persecution initially, and often a counterfeit argument or distraction through materialism. Sexual sin is also always an issue, as it is anywhere.
17. Do you often see miracles?
Yes, they often accompany the preaching of the Good News. They are common but they are not our focus. They confirm the truth of the Good News but do not replace it.
18. How do you maintain momentum inter-generationally?
Local believers and their leaders own the process of growth, not the hierarchy. Their focus is their lost community, not the hierarchy. The hierarchy supplies vision. We are simply thousands of these mini-movements with the same vision to see the lost and downtrodden set free in Jesus. Passing on what you have received is built into the DNA of the movement. Everyone taking ownership for growth is the key to momentum. The momentum is at the edges, not the centre. It is not a shallow movement either. Shallowness is knowing more than you obey. Being obedient to what you know, bearing spiritual fruit and seeing lives discipled can never be shallow.
19. Can your type of movement work in other places?
If growth is a problem it isn’t the message that is at fault, it’s our lack of faith or unbiblical traditions. Fix those and growth will always happen.
20. How do you deal with the “foreignness” of Christianity?
We did research and found most people object to the outward Western trappings of Christianity such as eating habits, dress codes, taking new names, adopting Western lifestyles or eating meat and drinking alcohol. This perception is especially true in the villages. So we got rid of those external obstacles and blended with the local culture as long as it does not contravene scriptural principles.
21. What do you call yourselves?
We do not call ourselves a Christian church or denomination and we do not have titles for leaders. We don’t want our name on anything. It belongs to Jesus. Many people have negative reactions to the term Christian so we don’t use it, just as the early church didn’t use it for themselves (Acts 24:14). Sometimes we call ourselves Yesu Bhakta, or disciples of Jesus. We try to use terms that point to Jesus, not distract people from Him.
22. How is the movement connected to the global church?
Educated believers in our movement instinctively know we are connected to the global and historic Church, but at the village level new believers do not. They just know they have been set free! Our various levels of conferences are where connection to each other and the outside body of Christ takes place. We greatly appreciate the teaching and resources that come from outside believers. We have partnered with outside believers from the beginning. They help us in fields such as medicine, education and business. Documenting our movement is also welcomed. However, we don’t need help with evangelism or discipleship.
23. What valuable lessons did you learn in the early days?
Doing something totally outside the Christian box was hard. I lost all my friends, felt very alone and not much was happening. Many people thought I was crazy because I couldn’t explain what I was doing. I had no support, so I leant on God. It was during this time that he revealed himself as my friend and not just creator or saviour. That was when I was liberated. I could just be in his presence. If I hadn’t met God in this way then the movement probably wouldn’t have happened. I died so it became his movement, not a man’s. If you want to start something for God, then become his friend. Nothing more needs to be done but to follow.
4. BREAKTHROUGH VIA COMMUNITY LEARNING CENTRES
The establishment of Community Learning Centres (CLC’s) has turned many struggling leaders into fruitful and influential church planters. It is ideal for moving into hostile communities as it directly meets local needs and enhances the reputation of the local church that emerges. CLC’s show people that church planting is not just a spiritual exercise but a community service that serves and blesses the whole community. The first CLC opened in 2008 and they have now changed the field for leadership development. We train leaders to use the CLC to do good to all people (Galatians 6:10) and to locate the people of peace inside the community.
Some of the local needs met include educational issues, access to government programs, youth issues, mental illness, employment needs, empowering the handicapped, women’s issues, legal disputes, drug awareness, sickness that needs healing, fitness, debt traps, budgeting, micro loans, alcohol abuse, funerals, sports and sporting facilities, women’s rights, local infrastructure development, caste discrimination, literacy development and the list goes on! Below is the typical life-cycle of a CLC:
A leader and their assistant will go into a hostile or unreached area
They interact with community leaders to find out the local needs
They identify a location for rent or lease. This becomes the hub
They work with local leaders to help in any need the locals have
As needs are met the local community opens up and healthy relationships develop
Only then is the Gospel introduced and people evangelised
Discipleship begins with the people of peace who are then trained as local church leaders
The CLC will move on to another village to meet other local needs
The new local church takes over the role of the CLC
Contact and relationship between the local church and the church planter continue
Training to run a CLC doesn’t take long, usually a day. Most CLC planters will go on to plant many CLC’s. The mother church will maintain contact with the CLC planter. Churches started via a CLC experience much less persecution than those started via straight evangelism. A CLC is a great way to transform a slum. Sustainable churches planted via a CLC are well enough connected to the local community and culture that the Good News doesn’t feel like a foreign religion.
5. BREAKTHROUGH WITH PERSECUTION
The Bible says anyone who wants to truly live for Jesus will face some persecution. In our Indian experience persecution doesn’t last forever and we do not favour pulling people out of a community when it happens. Persecution often happens because people are not used to a new idea, religion, or group in their midst. It’s like when a new baby arrives, it disturbs the peace but everyone eventually gets used to it. Many of our people have been beaten up, had their property damaged or been jailed. So most of our believers have faced some form of persecution in their Christian walk. Most communities get used to a Christian community in their midst after a while.
Persecution is often part of a sense of nationalistic intolerance. It is born out of Satanic ideologies that try to control humanity. This is a spiritual battle and the church is often the target of these persecutions. The church stands for the poor and downtrodden, justice and equality, so those in power do not like those under them leaving their ideological control system behind. The purpose of the church is to eliminate evil from society. Everywhere it goes the church begins a process of transforming individuals, families, communities and regions. This process will often come into direct conflict with the entrenched evils of those families, communities or regions. It is first and foremost a spiritual battle.
If a believer runs away from persecution it creates a wall between them and their community that can never be taken away. Persecution often lasts a few days or weeks and dies down. If a believer can persevere then it strengthens them and people begin to accept them and their message, so it’s like a test. We give moral support when we can, but not the same day. Reacting too quickly can produce dependency. Then they would run to us for help at every minor problem. Well-meaning soft heartedness can be its own problem. They are suffering on account of Jesus, not us, so He is the first person they should go to for help. It’s his work not ours and he suffered persecution too so knows their suffering.
We do not encourage our believers to demand their legal rights or to get involved in street demonstrations against persecution. It just makes things worse. Most Indians are oral people and reading rights to them doesn’t get the result it would in the West. We encourage wisdom and self-control.
Once someone has survived persecution they become very bold. Fear is replaced by confidence because that was the best Satan could do and it had no effect. The church then grows much faster. We have also designed a people-centric system of church so that if persecution is sustained then the communities of faith can go underground and continue to function. We avoid using special buildings, special names and dress codes, lifestyles and traditions that would separate us from the culture we are trying to reach for Jesus. We even did research and found that local Indians often associated Christianity with foreign practices like drinking alcohol, eating meat, changing names and not wearing the red dot on the forehead to signify marriage. We found that when we avoided these practices locals were more interested in our message
Many times persecution is avoidable. If Christians criticise other religions or ideologies they are asking for trouble. Instead of attacking evil or ideologies we encourage people to share the love of Jesus and respect those aspects of the local culture that do not conflict with Christian values. We encourage believers to celebrate events and holidays with their neighbours, and to share their concerns. The stronger the relationship with the local community the less persecution believers will experience. Our goal is complete social regeneration for the Kingdom of God so we try to blend in as much as scripture allows so we can reach the lost.
Persecution is sometimes unavoidable, but rarely does it last. For particularly dangerous areas like Muslim communities we often provide a safe house so that we can protect our workers.
1. Tell some people five things you liked about this movement
2. Ask the Holy Spirit how you can be involved in such a movement in your area
3. Obey what the Holy Spirit tells you!