RICHMOND, Va. (BP)--"You could be killed for talking about Jesus around here."
That's what a Muslim named Bershi* told missionary Luke Jenkins* after Jenkins shared the Gospel with him.
Bershi was an illegal immigrant looking for work when he came to the Central Asian nation where Jenkins serves as a church planter. But his warning didn't stop Jenkins. He continued to discuss Jesus with Bershi, and as the young man's interest grew, they began studying the Bible together. Eventually Bershi gave his life to Christ and was baptized.
Since that time Bershi has begun to actively share his faith and even baptized three others he led to Christ earlier this year. He also has returned to his own country, a place with severely limited access to the Gospel and very few believers.
Bershi's baptism is among the more than 506,000 recorded by the International Mission Board in 2008 -- an average of one baptism per minute. Southern Baptist missionaries and their partners also reported starting more than 24,650 new churches last year. (Baptisms were 10.6 percent below the 2007 total; new churches, 8.6 percent below.) Meanwhile, the total number of overseas churches topped 204,000, up from 111,000 just five years ago.
The IMB also reported engaging 93 new people groups with the Gospel for the first time.
The numbers are evidence of the way God is continuing to use Southern Baptists to complete the Great Commission task.
Missionaries Karl and Anna Rickman* work with college students in East Asia, an area of the world that sometimes presents some unusual challenges when baptizing new believers.
The Rickmans led a Bible study group where five of the students accepted Jesus as their Lord and Savior. As the Rickmans began discipling the students, one of the first lessons focused on baptism. After reading the story of Philip and the Ethiopian eunuch in Acts 8, one of the students, Esther*, raised her hand.
"I want to be like that Ethiopian eunuch," she said. "I want to be baptized now."
"When she responded to the story so quickly my husband looked at me and said, smiling, 'I think you should go prepare the bathtub,'" Anna remembers. "We knew that the Holy Spirit was leading her, and we were not about to quench it."
But the typical Asian bathtub is a lot smaller than the tubs most Americans are used to -- only about 3 feet long. Esther is 5'8". She had to scrunch up her knees to sit down in the tub and leave enough room to be immersed. Karl proceeded with the baptism, but even with the tub filled to the brim, Esther's knees remained dry.
"She looked at Karl and pointed to her dry knees and said earnestly, 'What about these? Can you please baptize my knees, too? I want to be completely clean,'" Anna said. "So Karl helped slide her legs back into the water so they would be covered.
"Oh, if we could only possess that kind of heart. With tears in our eyes we were reminded that it is God's Holy Spirit that prompts us, and it is only by the blood of Jesus that any of us can become clean -- even to our knees."
You might think missionaries would jump at the chance to baptize someone. But that wasn't the case for Jack Kirk*, who works in a Central Asian nation known for violent encounters between Muslims and Christians. He met Assan*, a local believer, through a mutual friend and wanted to hear his testimony.
Assan explained that he gave his life to Christ in prison after a fellow inmate gave him a copy of the New Testament. He read through it dozens of times during his five-year incarceration, and though he had no one to disciple him, Assan knew he wanted to be baptized.
Soon after his release, Assan went to one of the few churches in town. He visited with a priest for three days, repeatedly asking to be baptized. But the priest refused because he suspected Assan was a government spy or an Islamic radical.
The experience left Assan discouraged, but the Holy Spirit didn't allow that to squelch his passion to be baptized.
Four years had passed before Assan met Kirk. Almost immediately he asked Kirk to baptize him. Kirk was more than willing but felt it would be better if Assan was baptized by one of his own people. He set up an appointment for Assan with a local Baptist pastor, but before they could meet the pastor was thrown into prison for evangelizing.
Again, Assan asked Kirk to baptize him.
"I was still hesitant, so we read Scriptures concerning baptism," Kirk said. "When we read the story of the Ethiopian eunuch, with tears in his eyes, Assan said, 'Every time I read this I cry.' At that point I knew that the Holy Spirit was giving me the OK to do this."
So Kirk brought his children's plastic swimming pool into the house, filled it with water and baptized Assan. After rising from the water, he sat still for a few moments, trying to regain his composure.
"I believe he was trying to not cry, which is very shameful in this culture," Kirk says. "The joy that flooded the house was incredible."
*Names changed. Don Graham is a writer for the International Mission Board.
Copyright (c) 2009 Southern Baptist Convention, Baptist Press www.BPNews.net