A Safe Place for Sairah

When Sairah and her parents first became Christians, they were persecuted by their community.

“My father, mother, and I were worshiping in our small church with 47 other Christians when suddenly the Islamic leader of our village attacked and burned our church,” Sairah says. “My parents and I were arrested and tortured. They wanted us to leave our faith in Christ and go back to Islam.”

Sairah recently shared this testimony with the Sopeng Listener Community in South Sulawesi, established by Back to God Ministries International (BTGMI) Indonesian leader Rev. Untung Ongkowidjaya (see sidebar).

“They soaked us in dirty water for several days to force us to deny our faith,” she said. “However, I felt that Jesus made us strong to go through this bad situation.

“I remember that my father was severely tortured. His leg was pressed by a long bench on which 10 people sat. They wanted my father to lose his legs, but our God helped him to stay alive. Although he is crippled, he is still a faithful Christian and spreads the gospel continuously.”

Christians in Sopeng, South Sulawesi, face extreme persecution for their faith. South Sulawesi is a province of Indonesia located on Sulawesi Island in the center of Indonesia’s chain of approximately 17, 500 islands.

Rev. Ongkowidjaya (often known as Rev. Untung) explained that Christianity first came to the Bugis people in Sopeng through one of their leaders who was looking for “righteousness.” He said God gave him a vision to find someone who would give him the holy book that would lead people to the creator of the universe.

The leader traveled down the mountain to the city of Makassar, where he found a Dutch pastor. That pastor gave him a Bible and taught him about Jesus Christ. Filled with joy, the leader brought the Bible and his new faith back up the mountain, and he told the Bugis people about his experiences. Many who heard God’s Word became Christians and, like Sairah’s family, they were persecuted.

“In those difficult situations, some people didn’t endure in their faith and went back to Islam,” Sairah recalls. Others fled into the jungle. Although they had no pastor to lead them, they persevered and grew in their faith. Eventually the situation eased and Christians were able to return to Sopeng.

“Now I really want to visit and bring those who did not endure back to Christ,” Sairah said. She expressed gratitude for her Listener Community. “Thank you for your ministry that helps us to share radios and Bibles. They will be good tools to introduce Jesus Christ to my neighbors.”

“So many people who thirst for God are facing obstacles, but through radio the Word of God can reach them wherever they live,” notes Ongkowidjaya. “The Listener Communities are a place for our listeners to pray together, learn more about Jesus, and experience the fellowship of other Christians.”

The Sopeng Listener Community is one of 87 such groups established in Indonesia since September 2007. Listener Communities work with local churches and are important avenues for welcoming people who inquire about the Christian faith.     

“Listener Communities are more acceptable than continued on p. 25 churches in this society,” Ongkowidjaya explains. “They have a more neutral and low-key identity for newcomers, especially in sensitive regions.”

As part of the development of Listener Communities, BTGMI, in partnership with the Indonesian Christian Church, purchased 7,000 radios to distribute in remote areas where people might otherwise have no means of hearing the gospel.

These radios are tuned to BTGMI Indonesian programs and are distributed free to families—both Christian and non-Christian—who are introduced to the gospel through the programs.

Ongkowidjaya says he is encouraged by the effectiveness of Listener Communities. “People who live in [remote regions] may find it difficult to reach a local church, but our radio programs can reach them wherever they live.

“Through radio the Word of God can reach them and open their hearts to Christ. Listener Communities provide a place for listeners like Sairah to fellowship with Christians and introduce others to Jesus Christ.”

Reaching a Diverse Population

Indonesia is the most populous Muslim country in the world. Many people living there at times face pressure from Islamic extremists. People living on remote islands often face poverty and isolation; many have no access to education, so illiteracy is a significant problem.

The official language is Bahasa, but 742 different local or tribal languages are spoken throughout Indonesia’s thousands of islands. How do you reach people for Christ in a country so vast and diverse?

Early in 2007, Rev. Untung Ongkowidjaya, BTGMI Indonesian leader, began to dream of a way to work with people on nine remote islands to build communities of faith among those who listen to the BTGMI radio broadcasts. His goal was to train key leaders to disciple people in their own local language. He wrote in May 2007, “Pray for this project. I believe it can be used mightily by God to reach people for him.”

Three months later, Ongkowidjaya brought 11 people to the ministry center in Jakarta for six days of intensive training in topics such as “The Basics of the Christian Faith,”  “How to Build Up a Listening Community,” “The Calling of an Evangelist,” and “Using Electronic Media: Script Writing Techniques.”

The 11 coordinators went back to their communities to establish Listener Communities, including the fellowship established in Sopeng, South Sulawesi.

Since then, God has used the Listener Community strategy to reach people for Christ in ways beyond all expectations.

“One of the exciting aspects of this program is the collaboration between Christian Reformed World Missions and the Christian Reformed World Relief Committe, who have teamed up with Rev. Ongkowidjaya and his staff,” notes Rev. Robert Heerspink, director of Back to God Ministries International.

“Working in partnership, they have trained 87 leaders, who have gone on to establish Listener Communities throughout Indonesia. The joint ministry is also looking at the potential of using the leadership training materials from the Timothy Institute of Calvin Seminary.”

About 3,000 families—more than 11,500 people—gather each month to pray, worship, discuss the BTGMI radio messages, and encourage one another in their faith. Each Listener Community includes about 10 percent new Christians.

The goal is to establish 120 Listener Communities by mid-2009. Your support will make this possible, enabling BTGMI to reach more people in Indonesia with the message of Christ.

BTGMI Listeners Tell of God at Work

Thanks to your support of Back to God Ministries International, we hear testimonies like these submitted by Listener Community coordinators:
Mr. Piranandi is a new believer in the East Sumba Island Listener Community. He says, “My family and I practiced the Merapu faith (a Sumba ancestor religion). But we have become Christians and were baptized at the Christian Church of Sumba on Aug. 10, 2008. I first learned about Jesus through your radio program months ago and was eager to know more about Jesus. I’m a new Christian, but I’m really blessed because my family and I can hear about Jesus every day through your radio program. We are a very simple family who lives in the hinterland. The radio [you gave us] is very helpful for us to hear Christian programs. Please pray for us, so that our faith will grow daily.”

Rev. Stefanus Sarjani is one of the Listener Community coordinators for BTGMI Indonesian ministry. He is from Temanggung, Jawa Tengah, located in the center of the island of Java. He established a Listener Community for children with disabilities and gave them some of the special radios tuned to our children’s radio drama programs. He says, “We found that radio helps the disabled children learn melodies and rhythm, some vocabulary, and also to function in a calmer and more focused manner. However, this is only audio stimulation. Could you provide a DVD player, so that the children can also be stimulated visually?” Rev. Untung notes: “In response to Rev. Sarjani’s request, we sent a DVD player and copies of our Indonesian children’s TV program Evergreen House.”

Mrs. Indo Settiama is a member of the South Sulawesi Listener Community. She writes, “I’m 65 years old from the Bugis tribe. The majority of Bugis people are Muslim. I have Christianity as my faith, but my husband is Islamic. I cannot change my faith to Islam. I really believe that in Jesus Christ we have salvation. In my life as his wife, I’m always persecuted because of my faith. However, I try to be patient and pray for him. Until now he is still Muslim and has married again with another woman. I keep praying for my husband and hope someday he will become a Christian. Praise the Lord for the new radio we have received from you. I believe it is powerful to make my faith grow day by day.”

Mr. Dakhi on Nias Island writes, “After I became a member of the Listener Community, I felt so many blessings in my life and family. I like the radio and your programs. We always hear the Word of God program together in the evening and discuss it. We are grateful.”

The Making of a Listener Community

You may wonder how I go about developing Listener Communities. It’s only through God’s grace, and we know God goes ahead of us.

Because of illiteracy and language barriers, our vision was to build a network of support groups, working with local churches where possible, in order to provide radio broadcasts in local languages. We presented the vision to the local synod of the GKI (Indonesian Christian Church) to explain the power of radio for sharing the Word of God and to engage them in this ministry. Their response was very positive!

Then I began to visit remote regions to recruit local leaders and train them to deliver our messages in their local languages. When I plan my visits into these regions, I often don’t know who to contact in order to begin sharing the vision. But the power of our ministry is prayer! We ask God to show us his great plan for this country, and God guides me to contact someone with whom I can discuss the mission strategy.

It’s a miracle when we find someone who fulfills the requirements necessary to be a coordinator: someone who lives in the area, speaks both the local and national Indonesian languages, who loves our radio programs, has a humble heart to serve God, and who knows the area well enough to build up a Listener Community. But God knows who they are!

God has led us to farmers, retired army personnel, skilled laborers, educators, media personnel, pastors, lawyers, musicians, and business leaders. After training, these leaders visit people in their area, distribute the special radios tuned to our programs, and invite listeners to a monthly gathering where the programs will be discussed in the local language. Because we give out radios free of charge, non-Christians often ask to receive one, giving the coordinator an opportunity to explain our ministry.

At the meetings the coordinator leads the discussion based on our messages, facilitates prayer and fellowship, invites testimonies, and offers Bible correspondence courses to those who wish to grow in faith. Often the coordinator will need to translate the radio messages into the local language, especially for the older people who do not speak Bahasa, the national language.

The main task of these volunteer coordinators is to disciple believers in the Christian faith. They submit a monthly report about their meetings and provide ministry feedback from listeners and radio stations. Some, like Mr. Sukiman who leads a group near Yogyakarta, do even more. Sukiman has engaged the members of his Listener Community to develop fish and sheep farms to increase their communal income.

My contact with these coordinators makes me more aware of how poverty and social circumstances in Indonesia present obstacles to hearing the Word of God. The government provides subsidies and assistance to those who want to increase Muslim influence in areas where there are many Christians. We have to start in small towns, engaging local churches and leaders, and then go into the very rural areas, even the jungles. Understanding the local cultures helps us share the gospel in the right way.

When I share with church leaders our vision and mission and the power of media ministry to win people for Christ, they are very enthusiastic to work with us for the glory of God.

Pray for me in my travels. Pray also for those who coordinate the Listener Communities. In many ways this is very dangerous work because of poor transportation as well as the sensitive societies in our community. But we are called to do God’s work, and I believe God protects his servants.

—Rev. Untung
Ongkowidjaya is Back to God Ministries International’s Indonesian leader.

About the Author

Nancy Vander Meer is a staff writer with Back to God Ministries International in Grand Rapids, Mich.