Planting churches in a pandemic

The restrictions placed on our work has forced us to think of creative ways to reach people through smaller groups instead of the bigger crowds that turn up for medical clinics or pastor trainings.

In Malawi, we continue to face restrictions as our coronavirus cases continue to rise. Thankfully, however, by God’s grace, the number of cases has been very few and limited here, especially when considering the overall population of Malawi.

The restrictions placed on our work has forced us to think of creative ways to reach people through smaller groups instead of the bigger crowds that turn up for medical clinics or pastor trainings.

Starting next month, we will be sending out nine teams across southern Malawi on bicycles to preach the gospel and plant churches. The past month enabled us to do some of the ground work of researching new areas for church planting.

Stacy Leigh and Jude enjoying worship south of Nsanje, only ten miles from the southern border.

The Muslims of Machinga District

One day, Josh explored an area of the Machinga district, north of where we live, with coordinator Donald and pastor Patrick. As they drove across the foot of the Chikala hills to the northern shores of Lake Chilwa, they confirmed that the people living there were primarily muslims from the Yao tribe. The area was filled with mosques and prayer houses like the one in the picture below.

Pastor Patrick has visited the area twice more to plant churches, and both times he faced outright rejection. Pray for us as we seek an opening into this area among a people who are blinded by Islam to the gospel.

Coordinator Donald and Pastor Patrick on the north shore of Lake Chilwa with the mountains in the background.
One of many muslim prayer houses in the area, built by foreign aid from the UAE.

Chisi Island

On another day, Josh visited Chisi Island in Lake Chilwa with coordinator Donald. Donald has shared the gospel with a couple there who have believed. They are eager to preach the gospel in their village and establish a church. Josh will be returning there twice this month with Donald and his church planting team to preach the gospel and, Lord willing, establish a church there.

On Chisi Island, there remain four other villages. We believe that only one of those villages has a gospel-preaching church. Beyond Chisi Island, there are three more islands in Lake Chilwa with villages. While Chisi is the largest, Thongwe Island also has a significant population. Added to these is an inhabited island in nearby Lake Chiuta.

This means there is a total of five remote islands that we hope to reach and establish healthy churches. It is our prayer that this first church on Chisi Island will help open doors to the more remote islands in Lakes Chilwa and Chiuta.

Chisi Island in the background with the small boats that we use to reach it.
This husband and wife on Chisi Island believed the gospel. Donald is now giving them a Bible.

Crossing the Mwanza River

In the Lower Shire, Josh joined Michael and Friday to visit a new church in the Chikwawa district. Two months ago, Friday came and began sharing the gospel with some acquaintences in the village. One man believed the first time, and on the next visit several more young men believed.

To reach this church, we must travel around the Majete WIldlife Reserve and then drive through the Mwanza River. The people there are completely inaccessible to us by Land Cruiser in the rainy season. This village, however, is the gateway to even more remote villages located between the Mwanza River and the foothills that mark the Mozambican border.

This young church in Chikwawa district meets under this tree.

Pastor Training on a Card

The last two weeks of June should have been modular pastor trainings for our nearly 160 pastors, but with schools of every type remaining closed in Malawi, we were unable to host the pastors on our two campuses.

Instead, we loaded almost 20 hours of teaching, the Jesus film in two languages, and an audio New Testament in two languages onto micro-SD cards that the pastors could play on their simple phones. We distributed these cards and accompanying printed materials to our district coordinators who will then distribute them to the pastors.

Already, we’ve received word from the pastors that they are enjoying the lessons on the gospel, discipleship, and church planting. Some have even been hooking their phones to speakers for their entire church to hear. It’s amazing how God is using this crisis to help us reach even more people than we would otherwise.

We hope to resume pastor training in August, but if the ban on schools continues, we will again give the pastors digital training instead.

Coordinators in the Lower Shire showing off their memory cards and materials.
Coordinators in Zomba preparing to take these materials to the pastors.

Inching toward Normal at Gospel Life Baptist

In May, Gospel Life Baptist in Zomba began meeting again for worship, although we are meeting in two services to keep the congregation within the limits set by the government.

In the last couple of weeks, we’ve started back our women’s prayer meeting. Stacy Leigh has begun teaching basic discipleship to the women of the church, and she had 11 women in attendance last week.

On Saturday, we began a men’s prayer meeting for the first time. We are hopeful that ministry to men will help grow our church to greater maturity.

Stacy Leigh at the restart of our women's prayer meeting.
Men praying at our inaugural men's prayer meeting on Saturday.

God’s Plans and Our Plans

We have all been learning and relearning the truth of Proverbs 16:9.

The heart of man plans his way, but the LORD establishes his steps.

Our plans for this year were radically different from what has been described in the prayer update, but we are thankful that God has established our steps differently from our plans. We continue to follow the leadership of the Holy Spirit as he guides us into his plans, which are better than our plans.

Picture of Joshua Hutchens

Joshua Hutchens

Joshua Hutchens (PhD, The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary) is the president of Gospel Life as well as Associate Pastor of Discipleship and Missions at Overland Church in Fort Collins, Colorado. With a heart devoted to spreading the gospel, Joshua, alongside his wife Stacy Leigh and their five children, dedicated six years to serving in Malawi before returning to the United States, where he continues to lead Gospel Life.

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