By Stefan J. Bos, Chief International Correspondent BosNewsLife reporting from Temuan Jaya, Indonesia
TEMUAN JAYA, INDONESIA (BosNewsLife)– They suggest their faith in Christ spreads as fast as the new coronavirus. Pentecostal pastors of several Muslim dominated jungle villages in Indonesia’s South Sumatra province report church growth. That’s despite local protests, poverty, and occultism. “I even received one hundred boxes of tiles from the village chief to complete our church building,” explains Pastor Frani Pondaag.
His congregation in the jungle village of Temuan Jaya is a small but vibrant part of the leading ‘Pentecostal Church in Indonesia’ or ‘Gereja Pantekosta di Indonesia’ (GPdI), a three-million strong denomination.
Reaching this village church requires a two-hour drive from the nearest airport over shaky Dutch colonial-era bridges and narrow roads.
The tense calm is interrupted by a loud noon call to prayer. “We are used to these Muslim prayers in the background. But we sing our Christian songs,” Pondaag says after climbing a massive coconut tree to provide quests with the fruits and coconut milk. The pastor admits it’s not easy starting a church in this volatile and heavily Muslim neighborhood.
“As a young man, I felt that God called me after graduating at the Bible School in the provincial capital Palembang. I knew that He wanted me to reach people for Christ,” recalls Pondaag. However, people were not standing in line to join his congregation. “In 2002, I started here with zero people. I later discovered just four Christians here.”
But Pondaag noted opposition from local Muslim groups. “And the ancient occultism observed by many people is very deeply rooted here in this area. That impacts many. But every Friday, we have a day of fasting and prayer for them.”
The 47-year-old pastor, who is married with three children, didn’t give up. “The Muslim people saw the miracles taking place in the church. It happened after I started praying for the sick, and God healed them. As a result, these people urged others to come to this church regardless of their religious background. It’s as simple as that.”
He now boasts a congregation with dozens of regular members and has big plans for the future. “Even the village chief is helping me to construct our Church now,” he says, showing boxes of tiles near the entrance door.
The enthusiastic Pentecostal minister often adds “Hallelujah” to his sentences. “I believe that God blesses us here. Most of the people in my church are former Muslims.”
It’s a similar situation in other villages where many Muslim villagers turn to faith in Christ, BosNewsLife established. Pastors say at least some Muslims became Christians after watching how people were healed from “demons possession,” blindness and other ailments.
Pondaag’s church has also helped to organized risky evangelistic “crusades,” the word used in this region for open-air campaigns. “Some 90 percent of the people who came had a background as non-believers.” Pastor Pondaag was among several church leaders and individual believers meeting BosNewsLife this month as part of an investigation into the spread of Christianity in Indonesia, the world’s largest Muslim nation.
After speaking to a BosNewsLife reporter, he and pastors from the area participate in a happy worship service in Pondaag’s GPdI congregation. Several traveled for hours to reach the GPdI church in humid conditions.
During the worship gathering, these faithful leaders and other believers are encouraged to remain committed to Christ despite the spiritual and physical turmoil around them. Among those attending an evangelistic team led by longtime jungle-trotting Indonesian evangelist Ferry Mamangkey. The soft-spoken and often smiling 63-year-old has led the GPdI-backed ‘Elshaddai’ group or ministry.
Mamangkey is praying with many people coming forward after an altar call at the packed church. He has done that for decades across Indonesia. “Many turn to Christ, we have to find rivers to baptize them. I have seen that during a crusade, God is mighty working. After the first day, people will share their testimony. The next day many more people, sometimes thousands, are coming,” he tells BosNewsLife.
Mamangkey and others also claim that many people “possessed by demons” or suffering of blindness or other ailments have been “healed.” And Church officials note privately that hundreds of thousands of Muslims are turning to Christ nationwide annually. Many of the new converts heard the Gospel in rural areas of this many-islands-nation. Some who look like Muslims, now preach in their local villages, according to evangelists and pastors.
Evangelist Mamangkey suggests that he is harvesting the seed planted by local church leaders such as Pastor Adrianus Zalogo, who is 35. Zalogo arrived with his young wife and two children a few years ago in the impoverished village of Karya Teladan. “We started with three people. But with them, we could build this,” he says about his small shack-like church.
Some palm trees protect against the soaring heat. Chickens walk nearby. “We managed to get this plot of land,” he explains, visible thankful. “But we want to have better larger church building one day. Now we have 11 persons who come here regularly, but we began with three people.”
While others his age may leave the village, the young missionary wants to stay. “I believe that since God has opened the way already, He will help us to see more people coming to church.” His 31-year-old wife Elisabeth Tri Utami supports him in that mission. “I am also assisting my husband with worship and praying, and I am visiting church members where they are in need.”
The young woman notes many difficulties among villagers. “We need rice, for instance, and other necessities. There is a lot of poverty here. The majority of people here are impoverished,” she concedes while trying to hold a toddler.
Her husband admits: “It’s not easy to speak about the Gospel in these circumstances. Sometimes we feel isolated. And these people don’t respect us so much, and there are protests. But I know that God placed us here. Sometimes we feel uncomfortable, but there is joy behind these difficulties.”
The work of the young family isn’t limited to church services. “Besides conducting church meetings, we are also involved in all the activities of this village, ranging from social aid to sports,” explains Elisabeth Tri Utami. Her husband says he realizes they are a young family and could have a different life. “It is a mystery to outsiders. But we are ready to bear the cross for Christ. And we are convinced that we will see more people to Christ.”
The couple is disappointed that fellow Christian Millenials “tend to go stay in more comfortable cities.” But he wonders: “Who will go here and preach the Gospel to these people? It is a joy for me that despite these difficulties, we can work for the Lord in this village.”
His words move GPdI Secretary-General Johannis (‘John’) Hus Lumenta close to tears. The elderly Lumenta, who accompanies BosNewsLife, says the church needs a new generation of missionaries.
“Sometimes, I am afraid that I am one of the last pioneers of the GPdI. But it is very encouraging to see these young people arriving from cities to humble themselves and serve the Lord here in these villages.”
He fears that the modern life of the smartphone generation has moved many young people away from Christian principles. “But, it is wonderful to see the congregations here growing despite the circumstances.”
That’s certainly true for the GPdI congregation in Suka Menang, a village visited by an evangelistic team and BosNewsLife the previous day. “Amen’s” reverberate through the church building hidden between palm and rubber trees. It wasn’t always like that, recalls Pastor Marfil Tangkere, 40. “In the beginning, there were protests from Muslims. They did not want to have church services. They regarded it as a disturbance.”
He remembers “moments when they came to disturb the service.” Despite these hardships, his congregation grew in recent years from a church of just three families to more than 100 people. And calm has somewhat returned to his service.
Those attending his workday service today hear that Christ is as a Good Sheppard looking for that one sheep that is still missing in His flock. Several people respond to that message and come forward. “I know for sure that God placed me here,” Tangkere says.
That’s music to the ears of Pastor Michael Sampotan, who is the regional coordinator of 14 jungle village churches here. “I see that many churches report miracles. We have seen manifestations of people possessed by spirits. But I personally also witnessed three persons set free from demons. They came to my church. After that miracle more arrived.”
While in Western countries churches close, pastors in jungle villages look for building materials to expand. “We started with two families, but now almost 50 people are coming to my congregation,” says Sampotan.
“God is good. ”