Discipleship at a distance: lessons from the church in remote Bangladesh

26 May 2020

Photo: Vana Bawm (centre in blue shirt) with one of the local churches he oversees in South-East Bangladesh.

By Emily Ferguson

In the Bandarban Hills Churches of Christ in south-east Bangladesh, Christian community and discipleship has often been done at a distance – even before restrictions imposed by the coronavirus crisis. 

Made up of 16 churches in small hillside villages, the church has around 700 members. Some meet in bamboo and timber church buildings and others in members’ homes. Stretches of 15 to 20 kilometres of rugged terrain separate one church community from the next and, with no transportation, if you want to visit another village you must walk. Given the challenges posed by distance, when your Christian brother or sister in another village runs short on food, there’s not much you can do to help but pray.

Vana Bawm, General Secretary of the Bandarban Hills Churches of Christ, planted these 16 growing churches by walking from village to village sharing the Gospel and raising up local leadership so the churches could continue to grow while not physically present with him.

“Jesus knew he would no longer be here on the earth after 33 years, so he trained and taught his disciples. He laid down a strong foundation for them so I want to lay down a strong foundation for my whole team so they can carry the same leadership qualities in the days to come, generation after generation,” Vana said.

“I want to empower leaders and teach faithfulness so they can pass the same lesson to others. I train my leaders to be stronger in my absence than what I am today.”

Empowering others to lead where they are means that evangelism and discipleship can flourish in each village despite the challenges of distance.

“Once someone becomes a new Christian we generally provide a Bible and songbook, and the local pastor guides them by offering individual training or inviting them to participate in training with the local church members.”  

As well as empowering local leadership, which Global Mission Partners (GMP) supports financially and through training, the churches use whatever means they have to stay connected, encourage and pray for one another – despite the dual challenges of physical distance and unreliable network access.

“Our way of communication is through apostle communication,” Vana said. “Like the Apostle Paul wrote to the church at Ephesus, we print our message on paper and send a word of encouragement to the church. They read it out in a Sunday service when all the people are gathered together. 

“This is what partnership is: sharing things together and working together to the glory of God. This is what we love about our partnership with GMP and among the 16 different churches of the Bandarban Hills Churches of Christ.”

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