God’s Patchwork Quilt… The peoples living on one island

1 Mar 2008

Indonesia, though 10 percent Christian, has many ethnic groups and areas with little or no gospel witness. One such area is the province of South Sumatra, home to over 20 different unreached people groups. Much of South Sumatra is isolated, with only minimal educational opportunities outside the cities, and almost non-existent medical care. Most people wouldn’t choose to go to South Sumatra. When people from the outside do arrive there, residents are immediately curious about why they have come. This eager curiosity can open the door for building relationships.

A Patchwork of Peoples and Obstacles

South Sumatra is a patchwork quilt of ethnic groups with many similarities among their diverse languages. The unreached groups in this province remain 99 to 100 percent Muslim, and numerous obstacles face those who would like to bring the hope of the gospel to them. First is the poor quality of roads and communication for gaining access to various groups.

Second is the remoteness of many ethnic groups, combined with resistance from provincial and local officials toward outsiders who might influence those under their control. Many government officials are aware that Christianity is a global faith, and they would prefer to maintain the status quo.

Third, the diversity of cultures and languages greatly multiplies the effort needed to see the gospel advance throughout the province. Most groups do not even have Scripture portions or stories in their heart language.

Another barrier is the crucial role of the shamans (traditional healers and persons of spiritual power) and corrupt government officials, both of whom have a large stake in continuing activities contrary to the advance of the gospel. In addition, the relatively high crime rate is a deterrent to many who would consider working in South Sumatra.

Behind these visible challenges to God’s Kingdom lie the invisible powers and principalities entrenched within the soul of South Sumatra. As a result, few workers feel “called” to serve in this province. Of those who do come, few stay long. Disease, lack of infrastructure, family situations and depression are the visible causes, yet the “fingerprints” of spiritual opposition can often be discerned behind these.

A Patchwork of Progress

Status. Most indigenous groups of South Sumatra have no known believers among them. A few groups have a mere handful of believers, and only one group has some small indigenous congregations. At this point not many gospel workers actually live in the province.

A challenge for new believers. With the exception of the Palembang people, most South Sumatrans are not well versed in Islam. Yet any steps to follow Christ generally meet with family rejection, for in a culture where belonging to a group is paramount, such initiative calls into question a person’s core identity.

Needs and Opportunities in South Sumatra

South Sumatra has an abundance of social needs. Among the deficiencies, are job opportunities, marketable work skills, health education, water purification, and farming technologies needed to increase rice production. Many people have a strongly felt need for education, especially in English and in computers and other technical fields. They also need small businesses, along with economic development that could bring hope. The provincial government has launched significant economic development, especially in the Palembang area, but this push for development does not always translate into conditions conducive to major foreign investment.

Among spiritually related needs are translation of Scripture, discipleship of new believers, leadership training of mature believers, and radio broadcasting as a means of seed sowing and discipleship. Mobilisation of existing Indonesian churches and believers holds significant promise, since their cultural similarity will be a boon in their relationship with both the people and the environment.

South Sumatra also holds many opportunities for those who would take hold of them. An increasing number of Indonesian believers have a vision for contextual ministry, and some groups have begun praying and considering how to partner together so that God’s blessing will come to South Sumatra. These individuals and groups would be greatly encouraged by the assistance of those the Lord calls from other parts of the world. Strategic partnership and giving could advance the work already in process.

Three shortages plague the Lord’s work in South Sumatra: a shortage of workers, a shortage of literature, and a shortage of funds. All three of these constitute an opportunity and a challenge for the global church.

As I talked with Arif* about his life and work in the province, his rasping cough frequently interrupted his comments. Finally I asked if he’d like a drink of water, and he replied, “No thanks. It’s because of the smoke. It reminds me that later we’ll see the smoke of God’s glory in this place.”

South Sumatra waits: a frayed patchwork of peoples desperately in need of hope. Who will make God’s glory known here? Who will bring light to this land shrouded in darkness?

– LD Waterman*, Pioneers’ Area Leader in Island Southeast Asia. This article is an excerpt used with permission from Mission Frontiers magazine, January-February 2007.

*Not his real name

Prayer Points

  • Pray for God to free the peoples of South Sumatra from the grip of invisible powers and principalities that they might hear and receive the Good News of the One who has overcome death, spirits and fear.
  • Pray that God will bring workers who are willing to learn, able to build partnerships, and hardy enough to endure the challenges of this province.
  • Ask God how He would have you involved in reaching South Sumatra—through praying, giving, and/or going.

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