A beacon in a Hindu nation

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NEPAL — Imagine heading to church on Sunday, but this week you walk in the doors — not of a large brick building with a cross ascending from the roof — but of a fellow believer's humble home.

"Rather than using podiums and pews, the whole group sits on the floor, including the presenter," a Nepali believer said, describing the indigenous worship at house churches in which he is involved. "The music is performed with traditional instruments, not Western keyboards or drums.

"Bible messages are presented as stories, not in 'traditional' three-point sermons," he continued. "Leaders are trained not from Western theological schools but through mentoring by local leaders in sound biblical practice and in the local tribal language."

Christian worship has not always occurred in this form in Nepal, a country of 29 million people. Many churches in the Asian country started out similarly to those in the United States.

Royce Allard*, an international Christian who mentors Nepali believers, said because of multiple threats that Nepali Christians face, two Western-style churches in Nepal now see many benefits to practicing indigenous forms of worship.

"Both churches were successful in raising financial support from outside of Nepal for building meeting centers, in one case supporting the local pastor with foreign funds and in the other case constructing a school facility," Allard said.

Then the country's instability interrupted the churches' plans. Nepal's political volatility stems from short-lived governments whose promises of progress have fallen flat as well as from the recent escalation of the violent Maoist movement in the country. The Communist Party of Nepal (the Maoists) began as a political party in Nepal in 1994 and launched a "People's War" against the government early in 1996.

Nepal — the only official Hindu state in the world — was ruled by a monarch until 1951 when the monarch instituted a cabinet system of government. In 1990, reforms established a multiparty democracy within the framework of a constitutional monarchy, according to The World Factbook published by the U.S. Department of State. In 2001, the crown prince massacred the royal family, including the ruling king, and then killed himself.

In 2002, the political situation underwent a dramatic change when "the [new] king made the decision to remove the standing government and directly take on the Maoist insurgency," Allard explained. A negotiated ceasefire between Maoists and government forces broke down early the next year.

"The Maoist insurgency has forced the closure of the [church's] school, the elimination of outside funding for one pastor and the restriction of meeting in the outside-funded buildings," Allard said. "Now the churches meet in believers' homes, rotate leadership among local elders, grow with greater autonomy from the original leaders and demonstrate more dependence on the teachings of the Bible."

The goal of the Maoist party was to replace the constitutional monarchy with a communist republic that they say would give the people more direct control. Their goal is peace, but, according to many in Nepal, the Maoist insurgents' methods have been anything but peaceful.

"One insurgent who visited a church shared with the pastor that the insurgency was seeking to 'bring peace to the people of the nation through guns, but you [the church] are seeking to bring peace to the people of the nation through inner spiritual renewal,'" Allard related.

Throughout Nepal, Maoists have targeted Christians for persecution because of the perceived foreign influence they represent. The violence, however, has not diminished the faith of Nepali Christians.

One such example is a Nepali church leader named Narayan*. Maoist forces have approached Narayan on more than one occasion. He has "used this experience to share with the Maoists, sometimes while at gunpoint, that he has chosen faith in Christ freely because of the inner peace and joy it brings, without any material gain," Allard said.

"Many have had to deal with war and the difficulty in the country that goes along with it so long," said Trevor Perrin*, another international Christian serving in the country. "Often you would get a sense of just despair."

Conditions continued to deteriorate in the beleaguered country until late 2006 when the opinion of the people convinced the king to reinstate a parliamentary government.

Since that time, power has shifted from total control by the monarchy to control by Parliament and the prime minister, with the monarchy serving a significantly reduced position in the government. Not long after the political shift occurred, the Maoists declared a cease-fire, to which Parliament reciprocated.

The agreement, signed Nov. 21, 2006, ended a 10-year conflict that had resulted in 13,000 deaths, said Rebecca Millsapp*, an international Christian who serves in Nepal.

"Now, the people have a great deal of hope that things are finally getting better," Perrin said.

The largest demonstration since the change in government occurred on Feb. 13, the 11th anniversary of the beginning of what the Maoists call the "People's War." However, even this political demonstration turned out to be a display of how God's name can be glorified despite difficult circumstances.

"The [Maoist] party arranged to bring in thousands of supporters and observers from the countryside and forced many private individuals and groups to house and feed the out-of-town attendees," Allard reported.

"One church here was 'invited' to house a group of several attendees of the rally and responded that they would do so, but on the condition that those staying must take time to listen to the church's Gospel presentation," Allard said. "During that presentation, many heard the Gospel clearly for the first time."

Through this ministry, the church gave out 100 Nepali Bibles to the Maoist supporters they took in, and all 120 guests heard the Good News, Allard said.

Nepal now has a new government, a new declaration making the country a secular state, new peace deals in the works and new hope for the future of the country. The government has scheduled an election for a constitutional assembly in June.

"A new constitution will be made by the people of Nepal for the first time in Nepal's history," Allard said.

During the intervening time, the Nepali government is trying to work for a peaceful resolution with the Maoists. Recently, the interim government and the Maoist party signed an agreement that granted Maoists representation in the government.

This action has brought an end to the tense stalemate between the interim government and the Maoist party, but the agreement has not stopped the violence completely, Perrin said.

Nevertheless, Christians serving in the country said they believe there is reason for hope in Nepal that reaches far beyond any political circumstances.

"With the government change in Nepal and a newly elected secular state, some international Christians decided to test the waters," said Truman Cleversey*, another international Christian who serves in Nepal. "They set out for a new ministry area, where they asked God for men and women of peace [see Luke 10:6] and for five new [house] church plants."

These Christians went out armed with tracts, audio Bibles and "JESUS" films. While passing these out and sharing their testimonies, the Christians met a group of Nepali believers who asked to join them.

"As the day went on, they were emboldened and went to the bus park, where hundreds of people were waiting," Cleversey said. "Within 10 minutes, they had given away about 800 tracts telling the story of Jesus' life. They were able to share with many who were headed all over Nepal."

"What has happened in the past and is happening now in the land of Nepal is a miracle," Allard said, "although it has taken many lives, and properties and infrastructures have been destroyed as a result of the political upheavals during the course of the people's movement for over 10 years.

"What was impossible for people was possible for God, who is the true source of peace, justice and reconciliation," he said.

With so many changes occurring around them, the Nepali people now seem more open to the Gospel, Perrin said.

"They have seen the lives of believers in the midst of the chaos and they are interested in what we have to offer that makes us behave like we do," Perrin said. "The Nepali Christians often are an inspiration to us in this time, standing for the Gospel in difficult circumstances."


*Name changed for security purposes.