Visitors to Nepal usually notice the air. It feels different to breathe, almost as if you can’t get a full breath. A perpetual haze hangs over the ancient land, muting colors like the fade time brings to a precious stone. Weaving through traffic on the roads of Kathmandu is as unforgettable as the air. Clinging to my seatbelt in the back of a swerving taxi, I wondered what it would be like to spend a lifetime there. Samuel Tamang gave me an answer.
Pastor Samuel is the sort of jovial, welcoming person anyone would want as a friend. He has a charming accent, an infectious laugh, and a bellowing cough that he attributes to breathing Kathmandu air for the better part of five decades. Now 61, his story of becoming a leader in the Nepali church sounds like something out of the Book of Acts.
Today, common persecution includes everything from social ostracism to threats to overt physical violence.
Samuel comes from a Buddhist background, with a father who served in the military and was well-known in local government. At age 10, his father sent Samuel to Kathmandu—some 200 miles east of the city—because the village lacked adequate schools. Only in 1960 was education widely provided in Nepal, and there were few decent teachers. Samuel remembers being taught by a military official under a tree because there was no school building.
Most of the infrastructure that exists in today’s Nepal was built after 1960. Prior to a significant political revolution in 1951 the country was completely closed, operating under monarchic rule for centuries with little contact to the outside world. It was only after the revolution that the country opened to outsiders. This shift made it possible for missionaries to bring the gospel to Nepal in places where it had never been preached.
Samuel explained that his first experience hearing about Jesus came through meeting and listening to one of these missionaries in 1977. He had met the missionary after suffering throughout his high school years with an illness that caused him chronic pain. His family had sought every solution they could, from Buddhist priests to foreign medicines to witchcraft, and Samuel was at the end of himself. The missionary shared the gospel and, praying for healing, Samuel surrendered to Christ.
“Lord, if I live, I live for you,” he recalls praying. “If I die, I’ll die not taking these medicines anymore. If you help me to survive, I’ll live for you.” After describing what he called “a divine touch,” he threw away his medicine, convinced he had been made well. “I knew it was the Lord,” he says simply. “That was the beginning of my Christian life.”
Photo: Joel Parker
Even his Buddhist parents were convinced of the miraculous nature of Samuel’s healing. Though they disagreed with his decision to convert (before coming to faith themselves many years later), they never opposed his ministry because of this supernatural event. To this day Samuel remains pain free, and has never needed medicine again.
A church under pressure
Trained in architecture and construction, Samuel used the opportunities afforded by his travel to various building sites to share the gospel. To do so was entirely illegal. At that time, any new churches functioned underground because proselytism and conversion were punishable by several years in prison. In 1979, Samuel was caught on a job site with gospel tracts, arrested, and interrogated for hours by police, only to avoid incarceration because the officers knew his father and wanted to avoid the shame he would incur for his son’s imprisonment. Such arrests remained common throughout the 1980s, and at one point his own father-in-law was jailed for converting, undergoing a years-long court process.
He and his family live among and care for their neighbors to show them that Christ is the savior of all—not a white, Western God, but their creator who comes to them in their own clothing and their own language. This God offers freedom and transformation from within, not cultural destruction from without.
While finishing school he continued to attend underground churches. At one of these meetings in 1980, a missionary from Singapore prayed over Samuel and prophesied that he would be a pastor. Samuel then heard God tell him “I will be with you,” and felt his calling confirmed. The following year he rented a room for the monthly equivalent of less than three dollars today and began holding prayer meetings. From those, he eventually started a church (called Bethel), which today has hundreds of members, holds multiple services weekly, and has produced dozens of daughter churches and scores of church plants.
“As a result of what God has done through Bethel over the last few decades, more than 250 local leaders have been raised up and have planted churches across Nepal,” he says. Because of the poverty of most Nepali people, however, this growth came with many setbacks. Samuel’s church waited twenty years to move into its own building, and even then could only do so with support from partnering American churches. Less than five percent of Nepali church leaders will receive any payment for their pastoral work because of the financial state of their churches.
“Financial needs are significant, yes—but what we really need are leaders,” he says. “That is my focus now: developing and training leaders.”
Photo: Joseph Carlson
Another persistent barrier to the growth of the Nepali church is the continued persecution and resistance at the state and local levels. In 1990, Nepal did away with their monarchy and introduced a democratic system, consequently loosening some of the previous persecution. Conversion no longer results in incarceration (although proselytism is still banned). Today, common persecution includes everything from social ostracism to threats to overt physical violence. “A man from one of the rural villages came to a training I held two years ago,” Samuel says. “A group of young people followed him, planning to beat him and force him out of the village. This kind of thing happens everywhere in the villages—often”.
Part of the reason that there is such resistance at the local level is because the Nepali view Christianity as something that threatens to destroy their religion and their culture. “They see it as Western,” Samuel explains. “They see Christianity representing the Westerners who come and invade, destroying their values and way of life. We constantly work against this false accusation.” To this end, Samuel’s pastoral and discipleship efforts illustrate how the message of Jesus brings about a change of heart and mind, rather than a change of cultural identity. In sermons and in conversation he emphasizes Jesus’ incarnation within his own first-century culture, and points to the disciples’ personal (rather than cultural) transformation.
Despite this resistance, Samuel sees a great spiritual hunger among the people, many of whom are seeking alternatives to Hinduism or Buddhism and are finding answers and life in Christ. Young people especially tend to perceive an emptiness in the traditional systems, Samuel says, and he’s witnessed a strong response to the gospel among this age group. The result is a rising need for more leaders to guide those who are coming to faith.
The next generation
Kiran Chand, a pastor in the western city of Kohalpur, agrees. Kiran is in his early thirties and represents a new generation of Christians in Nepal. Raised by a Christian family—some of whom were imprisoned for their faith—he is now building on the labors of Samuel’s generation. Kiran explains that most pastors and leaders are not well-educated and do not have much biblical knowledge, so while the churches are growing, many of them suffer from an inability to effectively disciple their people or resist false teaching.
“Another big problem,” he adds, “is the poverty and unemployment here, which makes many young people leave Nepal for foreign countries in order to earn a living. What happens, then, is that we have fewer ministers. We also see resistance from the community and our neighbors.”
The construction of the building in which his church, Pratigya, meets was opposed by locals for years. “It is hardest for the young people who come to Christ in families of other faiths,” he says.
In my interactions with these young Christians, I saw that to be profoundly true. After leading a service at Pratigya through Kiran’s translation, a teenage girl asked me for prayer because she had come to faith a few months prior and was being beaten regularly by her family for doing so. Every time she attended a service, she had to lie to them about her whereabouts. Hers was only one of many similar and humbling stories.
“We need strong leaders because even though the church is growing here, at the same time, anti-Christian movements and organizations are growing,” Kiran says. “The energy and zeal that we see in the people gives us hope in the face of that.”
“We see young people radically coming to faith,” Kiran says. “But it is hard to sustain them and help them grow because of resistance from their families, who view Christianity as foreign.” Kiran works to demonstrate God’s character through incarnational ministry. He and his family live among and care for their neighbors to show them that Christ is the savior of all—not a white, Western God, but their creator who comes to them in their own clothing and their own language. This God offers freedom and transformation from within, not cultural destruction from without.
Like Samuel, sustaining new believers in the face of opposition is one of Kiran’s primary focuses. He frequently meets with leaders to help them establish biblical training programs as well as vocational programs geared toward the poor. “We need strong leaders because even though the church is growing here, at the same time, anti-Christian movements and organizations are growing,” Kiran says. “The energy and zeal that we see in the people gives us hope in the face of that.”
Photo: Joel Parker
Something in the air
Samuel likewise lamented a rise in violent opposition lately, telling me that he had just participated in a Zoom call with a Nepali pastor’s family who was killed by Hindu radicals in neighboring India. Knowing this gave a certain weight and beauty to the services that Kiran and I held, as we watched the people worship God passionately but struggle to understand their place within their culture and among their communities.
The services at Pratigya church were vibrant and lively. The members, especially the women, wore traditional Nepali clothing in bright colors. Sermons and singing lasted for hours, and the majority of the people held rapt attention, taking notes and interacting with the speakers. About once an hour, the power would cut out and the speaker or singers would continue in the dark without a microphone while a pastor left to turn on a generator. After a service, the members shared a traditional meal together. Many who left Pratigya that day would return not to a comfortable home but to opposition and difficulty.
While their burdens are real and heavy, Samuel and Kiran maintain hope for the church’s future in Nepal. Regardless of the resistance, both leaders told me that the growth of their churches has been both exponential and sustained for years on end.
Seven years ago, Gordon Conwell Theological Seminary—from which Pastor Samuel obtained a degree in 2005—called the Nepali church “the fastest growing church in the world.”
Seven years ago, Gordon Conwell Theological Seminary—from which Pastor Samuel obtained a degree in 2005—called the Nepali church “the fastest growing church in the world.” Both Samuel and Kiran support this based on their first-hand experience. Both pastors testify that the hardships they faced on a daily basis as a minority within the broader Hindu and Buddhist culture have not hindered God’s work in their ministries. That both pastors describe witnessing more conversions than they can keep track of, as well as regular miracles, is a testament to God’s faithfulness, to the tenacity and perseverance of the leaders, and to the sincerity of the people despite few resources and many obstacles.
There is indeed something in the air in Nepal, but unlike the pollution, it is not so easily observable. The Spirit is working in the cities and villages, in the young and the old, in the leaders and in their churches. A subversive movement, sustained over decades of upheaval, is bearing fruit and changing a nation long resistant to the gospel.
There is much that the Western church can learn from the Nepali church. The stories of Samuel and Kiran serve as a reminder that to worship openly, with minimal (if any) cultural resistance, is a privilege often taken for granted. Their stories invite the Western church to prioritize empowering local leaders when supporting its global sister churches. And their stories bear witness to the gospel’s power to take root anywhere, to transform anyone, and to withstand any resistance.