by Al Maxey

Issue #272 ------- October 27, 2006
The prophets were a blend of the
reactionary and radical. They preached
a return to the ancient faith and also
envisaged a new world and a new life.

Eric Hoffer {1902-1983}

Envisioning the Future
Reflecting on the Road Ahead

Let me begin by echoing the words of another man from another time, one who also felt led by God's Spirit to speak out against the spiritual and social ills of his day -- "I am not a prophet, nor am I the son of a prophet" [Amos 7:14]. Amos was simply a common man, shepherding sheep and growing figs. I lay no claim to being a prophet, at least not in the sense of being inspired of God to reveal specifics of the future. Yes, I regard myself as a spokesman for God in the more general sense of forth-telling His message of grace, but I am certainly far from being one divinely equipped at fore-telling His plans for the future. Thus, I strongly urge the reader to keep the thoughts expressed within this current issue of Reflections in proper perspective. I speak with no divine authority to legislate law or dictate decrees for the church, nor has my God revealed unto me the details of the future. I share with you only my own insights gained from my own observations over the years. Please accept them as nothing more than that. The advice of the apostle Paul to all the saints in the city of Thessalonica is quite good here -- "Do not despise prophetic utterances. But examine everything carefully, and hold fast to that which is good" [1 Thess. 5:20-21]. As I share with each of you my own personal vision for the future -- reflecting on the road that lies ahead, as I see it -- please examine all that I have to say (and all that any disciple has to say) carefully and prayerfully, embracing only that which proves, in your estimation, to be of worth in bringing glory to the Father and greater unity among our fellow spiritual siblings.

Let me provide a bit of background and perspective to this current issue of my weekly Reflections. Several weeks ago a professor at the University of Alabama sent me the following request -- "Al, perhaps in a future Reflections you could lay out your vision of the future of our movement -- perhaps not an idealized future, but where do you think things are headed in the next five years? I would be very interested in your views." In his email to me, he spoke of his own observations, and of his growing sense that we may be facing another rift in our movement. He wrote, "The grace-filled congregations continue to swell and leave behind a large number of shrinking mainstream congregations." This brother also perceives an increasing "rate of collapse" of the Non-Institutional congregations.

There is absolutely no question whatsoever that the Stone-Campbell Movement is facing some tremendous challenges at this point in its history, and how it responds to those challenges, and its flexibility (or lack thereof) toward responsible change, will have a great impact upon its future relevancy, and, indeed, upon its very survival. Churches of Christ are in decline. That is simply an easily verifiable fact. I have examined this troubling phenomenon in some depth in a couple of previous, and rather recent, Reflections, to which I would refer the readers: Issue #259 -- Churches of Christ in Crisis: Reflecting on a Movement's Decline and Issue #268 -- Delineation of Diversity: A Sectional Spectrum Analysis of Disciples in Mainline Churches of Christ. Bro. Samuel Dawson, in his book "What Is Wrong With Most Churches of Christ & How They Can Avoid Extinction," points out at the very beginning that "In the 50 years from 1955 to 2005, Churches of Christ have dwindled from 3.0 to 1.267 million members and from 18,000 to 12,963 congregations. While the population has doubled in this same period of time, membership within Churches of Christ has declined 58%. At the average rate of decline of 34,600 members per year (1.16% per year), Churches of Christ will vanish by the year 2042." A rather grim assessment in many ways, to be sure, if one is strictly viewing the matter externally and statistically. As noted in the above two articles, however, there are some positives to be perceived. I will not recover that ground in this present issue of Reflections, however.

I have been asked to provide my vision for the future of our movement. In other words, how does Al Maxey see the road ahead for Churches of Christ. To be honest, I believe the old 1950's conservative, traditional model of Churches of Christ is going to largely vanish in the next two to three generations. It is being rejected almost completely by our young people, who are leaving us in droves. I also find it interesting the number of older people who are now rejecting this model. They are discovering what many movements discover, some too late, that movements frozen in time and place become fossils. The key to survival is flexibility and adaptability. If a movement refuses to change, then that movement will not long survive [see: Reflections #49 -- Fossilization: An Extinction Theory]. Those within the Churches of Christ who refuse to embrace responsible change so as to become more relevant to their times will die out. And this is exactly what we are seeing statistically. Such responsible change does not require an alteration of the gospel message, only modification of evangelistic methodology and adaptation to differing modes of worshipful expression. Truth remains Truth, and always will; what must change is how we express those realities in our daily lives and in our conversation with the unredeemed within the context of our current culture.

Do I believe that Churches of Christ will completely cease to exist? No, I do not. As is true of almost any movement of any historical significance, there will always remain in existence a remnant (should that movement as a whole lose relevancy and diminish). Few movements ever truly vanish from the face of the earth; most just become so irrelevant to the world about them that they fade into the shadows of society and become little more than a curiosity. I do believe that in the next 50 years the ultra-conservative, legalistic, patternistic factions of our movement will almost entirely fade away (as, indeed, they should). More and more of their members are abandoning their ranks as they discover the grace of God and freedom in Christ. As people become increasingly enlightened spiritually, they will in direct proportion become decreasingly enslaved spiritually. Yes, there will always be a few willing to remain in bondage, and a few who are more than willing to serve as their lords. They will be tiny groups (15-20 members at most) off in the backwoods; a footnote in history, much like the snake handlers. The traditional congregations will always have a presence, in my view, but they will be mainly smaller congregations (around 100 members or less), struggling just to maintain status quo. They will largely be uninvolved in their communities, isolated and exclusivistic, convinced that they alone are the "one, true church" and that all other believers, who don't embrace their particular views, are hell-bound "denominationalists." Evangelism will center around rescuing souls from denominations, rather than from the forces of darkness; bringing them to the Church of Christ, rather than to Christ Himself, for their salvation. It is the epitome of a spirit of sectarianism, and, sadly, it will always be with us. Most people are sick of this mindset, however, and when such a mindset becomes the focus of any movement, that movement will become a stagnating pond, and few people are attracted to such a stench!

I'll be perfectly honest with you, brethren -- the future of our movement depends on how willing we are to return to the original intent of its founders and the spirit of the early church. That is: are we willing to surrender all denominational loyalties and simply be disciples of Jesus Christ? When we cease preaching personal preferences and traditional practices as "the gospel," and return to preaching JESUS, we will be well on our way to realizing that transformation. I would strongly encourage the readers to carefully examine the following Reflections articles: Issue #115 -- The Lunenburg Letter: Campbell's Controversial Correspondence with a Sister over Saints in the Sects and Issue #131 -- The Springfield Presbytery: Last Will and Testament. On June 28, 1804, Barton W. Stone, and several others, penned a document that declared their fervent desire to surrender all denominational loyalties and devote themselves solely to becoming a unified family of disciples in/of Christ Jesus. These brethren "cheerfully consented to retire from the din and fury of conflicting parties." Although these men chose to "die the death" to sectarianism, "yet they live and speak in the land of gospel liberty!" They died as a faction so that they might truly live as a family. In one of the items of the document they willed for the people of God to "pray more and dispute less!" These men never sought to create another "church," indeed that was the last thing they wanted. They sought simply to unite all Christians; they merely wanted God's children to embrace one another, rather than dividing into denominations and factions over countless party particulars.

Brethren, I am extremely encouraged about the future because I see more and more of my fellow disciples in Churches of Christ embracing this grace-centered, Christ-focused perspective. In so doing, walls of isolation and exclusion are coming down, and the former narrow, restrictive parameters of "God's Family" are being daily broadened. Thank God for this spiritual enlightenment! It was long overdue in our movement. Will this change the face of our movement? Yes, it will. Will it change how others perceive us, and how we perceive ourselves? Yes, it will. We are evolving from faction to family. It is a painful process; it is frightening; but, oh how liberating. Yes, many smaller, ultra-conservative, more traditional congregations will resist such change, and their numbers will diminish. Those more open to change in methodologies, but still faithful to the gospel itself, will come to look less and less like the Churches of Christ of past generations. They realize that there is no need to remain frozen in time and place, as long as they evolve responsibly and in keeping with Truth. We can be faithful to the latter and still relevant to our times and cultures. Thus, I firmly believe those congregations of Churches of Christ that will survive, and even thrive, in the future will be those open to greater change and intent upon increased relevancy and involvement within their communities. They will look and behave less and less like the traditional congregations. I see a bright future for such congregations who are willing to lower their walls and open their doors. They will be builders of bridges, rather than barriers, to other believers and to the lost.

Therefore, I envision more and more congregations of Churches of Christ maintaining their "name on the sign," but striving for increased fellowship with other believers of differing traditions, rather than the shameful practice of shunning that has been our trademark in the past. We should never reject a brother or sister in Christ over differing traditions. Withholding of fellowship should only come at the point where one consciously and willfully abandons revealed Truth --- not just one's perception of Truth, but Truth itself. Brethren in God's family have been estranged too long; it is time to seek common ground. That common ground is there, if we will simply lay aside our pride and our party loyalties. I am convinced that this will continue to happen in more and more congregations of the Churches of Christ. In fact, it is already happening, which is why the ultra-conservative, legalistic, tradition-bound among us are in such a panic. They clearly see where all this is leading, and they don't like it one bit. Brethren, they will become increasingly vocal and vicious in the years ahead; they will indeed sever themselves from those they deem "digressive." They will continue to be frozen in time and place, and will continue to be the calcified callous recalcitrants of which I spoke in Reflections #206. If you want to be little more than a fossil in a faction, then this is the pathway to follow. If, on the other hand, you're looking to be part of a focused, functional family, you might want to consider making a change. And that change must start in your heart!

The Readers Speak Out

Several weeks back I sent a special request to the thousands of readers who are subscribed to these weekly Reflections, a request in which I sought input as to what the readers saw in the years ahead for our movement. As you might imagine, the diversity of vision was vast. The responses numbered in the hundreds, and I read every one. In the remainder of this current issue of Reflections I would like to share the insights of several of the readers. Although I have very briefly provided my own vision above (and very skeletally), I will elaborate upon my own view as I comment upon the various statements given by some of the readers. Hopefully, in my comments below, my vision above will be fleshed out somewhat. Although I obviously can't provide quotes from all the responses I received, please don't feel your input was not appreciated if it isn't given below. Space constraints, and consideration that I not unduly weary the reader with too much information, some of which would easily be redundant, dictate that I only provide representative selections from the readers.

Many of you believe the "winds of change" are already blowing, and in some locations quite vigorously. You see individuals within our movement rising as "voices in the wilderness" to call those within our faith-heritage to greater unity in a Person, rather than uniformity in a pattern. A reader in Oklahoma wrote, "Max Lucado, Rick Atchley, Lynn Anderson, Jack Reese, Doug Foster, Jeff Walling, Jeff Childers, Rubel Shelly, Mike Cope, Al Maxey, Tim Woodruff, and Bob Russell, who is in the Independent Christian Church (and God bless you all), are leading the way in challenging traditional thinking about what it means to truly be the Body of Christ." As was previously noted, if responsible change is to come, and come it must, then that change must begin in the hearts and minds of God's people. Thus, the type of reformers needed at present are those who can successfully challenge our thinking; who can motivate us to place all of our various perspectives, perceptions, preferences and practices on the table for intense scrutiny in light of God's Word. This can be a painful process, as well as a frightening one, but the desired transformation of a people or movement will never come without it. Someone said, "We don't need bomb throwers in the church, but mind blowers!" We need to increase our reflective openness and decrease our religious closed-mindedness, something a good many of us, and not without personal risk, are seeking to accomplish through our daily ministries, whether local or global.

A reader in Alabama wrote, "I wish we could declare the death of the sectarian spirit among us!" That is exactly the goal for which many of us have devoted our lives. Jesus prayed that His disciples might be ONE [John 17]. I personally believe He meant for us to seek diligently to achieve that for which He prayed so fervently. What is the key to achieving this noble goal? It is purely and simply -- Love. The apostle Paul wrote, "Put on love, which is the perfect bond of unity" [Col. 3:14]. A brother in Texas correctly observed, "This is the basic need we must keep in front of us always: Christian Love." A reader in Georgia put it this way: "Christ was about relationships, and He taught love, love, love." The New Covenant writings are filled with this call to brotherly love. When we lose it, our unity suffers; when we practice it, the walls of separation come down.

A good many of you have realized that another key to the survival of our movement ... and of any movement, for that matter ... is reaching out to, and relating to, and re-involving, our young people. Brethren, we had better face facts, and face them quickly -- we are losing our youth. There are a number of reasons for this (which would make a good Reflections study), but one of the keys is that in too many congregations we have become set in our ways (typically in the past) and we simply don't want to be bothered with these forward-thinking young "upstarts." Therefore, many are simply leaving and going where they feel more welcome. This must change! And that means WE must change. Our youth are not the "church of the future" (as many like to say); they are just as much the church of today as the rest of us. Maybe more so, in that in this group one finds great energy and openness, and a more accepting spirit. Brethren, if we are going to survive and be relevant to our communities, we had better start looking more to our youth, instead of expecting them to imitate us. There is so much we can learn from them. So maybe we should be listening more, and lecturing less.

A minister in California writes, "I think the ultimate answer to your question as to the future of our movement lies in our ability to transmit our current values and dreams to our young people. Where the Non-Institutional churches fall short is that they are completely unable to energize their youth. Therefore, I believe the current trend will continue: the grace-centered churches will continue to grow, and the legalistic churches will continue their decline. At one time, the Non-Institutional churches were able to create new batches of young people who were ready to carry the torch of legalism. For reasons that I can only speculate on, their message no longer has any resonance with the youth. If we are smart in our movement, we will start providing outlets for our young people to experience Christ in a personally powerful way. Our future is only as strong as our ability to inspire our youth!" A reader in Missouri correctly observes, "Our young people have stopped buying the 'old answers.'" Simply put, our youth are thinking through the "issues," and they are asking some hard questions. The "old reliable" responses we were trained to provide to such questions are being rejected as being more tradition than Truth. We have called "tradition" Truth for so long that we have come to believe it ... our youth do not. Thus, if we are unwilling to become personally honest in distinguishing between the two, we are going to continue to witness the mass exodus of our sons and daughters. Bro. Randy Harris, in his recent article titled "Will Churches of Christ Survive the 21st Century?", stated that part of the reason for our continued decline is that "we continue to defend positions (because they have been passed on to us) that biblical scholarship makes increasingly indefensible." Brethren, if even our youth are seeing through this, you know others outside our movement are! A reader in Texas wrote, "I find it highly doubtful that my children, as adults, will be a part of a Church of Christ as we know it today. Part of that will be my fault, as I will encourage them to seek Truth, not tradition."

Some readers bemoan the "dumbing down" of disciples of Christ, believing we have become so distracted with the lure of this world that we have abandoned serious, in-depth study of the Word. On the other hand, many feel this is changing, and will continue to change in the future. More and more brethren are realizing the value of deeper studies of Scripture, not just the shallow dabbling too frequently found in our Bible classes. A brother in Texas stated that the people he knew "were tired of the nebulous, watered-down truths that were being taught." A reader in Tennessee observes, "A new wave of scholarship that is amazing in its devotion to the teachings of Christ, and in its rejection of inference and tradition, has emerged." When I first started sending out my Reflections, several criticized me for this ministry. "They're too long!" "They're too deep!" "Nobody is going to be interested in wading through such writings!" I refused to believe, however, that God's people were that shallow. Yes, many are, but time and a continually growing list of subscribers has silenced the nay-sayers! I still have a note Dr. Leroy Garrett sent me a couple of years ago with regard to my Reflections. He wrote, "Al, I want to join others in commending you for taking biblical exposition seriously, and for believing in your readers that they are willing to think and to consider a different point of view. You consistently show both resourcefulness and responsibility in your essays. Soldier on!" Those words meant a lot to me (and still do). I'm encouraged about our future when I see more and more disciples willing to truly think, challenging all things by the Word, and holding fast to that which is good.

One statement that occurred in a great many emails from readers was the conviction that more and more brethren within our movement are finally beginning to discern a significant difference between a focus on "church" and a focus on Christ. "Church" was too frequently viewed as some organizational structure heavily regulated by law to which men owed allegiance. "Church" was something we "went to" or "attended," and what happened there was our "Christianity." As men began to think and reason, and as they returned to Scripture for insight into Truth, rather than for proof-texts for their tradition, they began to realize that their view of "church" was fallacious. In reality, WE are the "church." It is not a place, it is not a structure, it is not an organization with a set of rules and regulations ... it is US. A minister in Kentucky said that our preaching and teaching must cease focusing on what is legally permissible in a "church service," and instead begin focusing on daily "Kingdom living." What does the "church" look like? Well, it has nothing to do with the kind of music, or number of cups, or whether the building has a kitchen or fellowship hall -- rather, it has everything to do with living Jesus visibly and daily before those about us. What does the "church" look like? It looks like the widow who spends her days visiting the hospital to encourage the sick. It looks like the teen who turns down drugs and says, "What would Jesus do?!" It looks like the mother who prays for her children, and the father who tells them of the Lord. It looks like US living like HIM. By failing to truly perceive who we are, "we have created a lot of good 'Sunday church-goers,' but not a lot of everyday disciples!" I think this Kentucky preacher has hit the nail on the head. Our future depends on making this transformation.

I have to "Amen" a statement made by an elder here in New Mexico with regard to evangelism. He wrote, "Perhaps we should have amended our approach twenty or thirty years ago to teach folks about Jesus, instead of trying to convert them to our idea of the 'Church of Christ.'" In other words, when we start preaching the Christ, instead of the Church of Christ, we might start seeing some very dramatic results. A reader in North Carolina made this observation, "Ten years ago we were a typical Non-Institutional church. We taught issues before Truth much of the time." That has changed there, thankfully, and they are now focusing on the Lord, not on Law! It has made all the difference in the world. A reader in Florida said that in their congregation, "we are witnessing with our lives before ever using our lips." Like the old saying goes, "I'd rather see a sermon than hear one!"

In keeping with this, our survival depends upon us getting out of our buildings and living Jesus in our communities. One reader wrote, "I don't think it is that hard to reach the post-modern world. Post-moderns accept the truth lived. And if Churches of Christ are going to survive, they are going to have to do more than open their doors and wait for the world to come in and learn the truth. We are going to have to engage the world in meaningful ways that have little to do with our particular theological hobbies." He continued: "The early church's love was not so much preached from the pulpit, as demonstrated in the daily life of the church! The best way of spreading Truth is not by preaching, although that is still required, but by doing." It should be pointed out that those congregations that are truly prospering are those who are "scratching where people itch. They're meeting real needs. They're being the hands, feet, mouth and arms of Jesus to hurting people," say a minister in California. A reader in Virginia said it this way: "The future of 'our movement' is in service to others."

If we are to be relevant to the world about us, we must be a people of purpose ... and a people who daily live that purpose. An elder in Missouri wrote, "I don't think the church of the future will be grandpa's church. It will be one that has a sense of purpose, and that purpose will be to stay focused on the true message of Christ." I think that message is largely loving service unto God and man! Our purpose on earth is NOT "to tell everyone else how hot their hell will be," wrote a brother in Indiana. Another brother wrote that he believed our greatest problem was in "our insistence upon being the One True Church," and proclaiming that our doctrine is right in every instance, but the doctrine of all others is "false doctrine." He believes we use these doctrines and practices unique to ourselves to "delineate those we think are going to heaven against those we think are going to hell." To be perfectly honest, the world is sick to death of such arrogance. A minister in California said, "Legalists will continue to hiss and spew forth their filth, but no one will be listening. The more they pound their shoe on the table, the less credibility they will have outside their own diminishing circles. They will continue to foam at the mouth, make loud noises, and disrupt everything they can, while their numbers noticeably decline. There isn't, and never will be, any joy in the Pharisees' Mudville -- they have struck out, and don't even know it."


This has been, admittedly, rather brief and skeletal. As was noted initially, I am not a prophet. I have no special knowledge of our future; I only have studied opinions, and I have shared some of them in this current issue of Reflections. I could very easily be wrong in some of my assessments. I am not infallible. However, I hope that I have at least provided some food for thought; something to chew on; some insights that may make you think. A reader from Texas asked the following question that really made me do some thinking --- "If this church closed its doors tomorrow, would anybody notice?" Wow! How you answer that question for your own congregation will be quite revealing! If a group of disciples is just "keeping house," and they're not really involved in their community, the likelihood is that they would never be missed. Why? Because they were never relevant in the first place. They were not impacting their communities. This reader further stated, "We believe we should be involved in our community. How many churches have closed their doors with the community not really noticing any difference?!" Sadly, way too many!

I realize that some will consider this issue of Reflections to be somewhat sectarian in nature, in that I am speaking of what needs to be done to assure the survival of a movement within Christendom. As most of you know, I do not personally equate any particular movement, or any faction thereof, with the One Body universal. Individual saints within Churches of Christ are part of that One Body, but they are NOT the family of God in its entirety. Nevertheless, just as 50 unique states can be one nation under God, so can diverse disciples be one flock under one Shepherd. Our Lord has only one flock, but many folds [Reflections #57], each of which is precious in His sight. My personal goal is not to force all other sheep into a single fold, but rather to try and educate my fellow sheep to the reality that those lambs in different folds are equally part of the Shepherd's one flock, even though those sheep may not look exactly like us.

Our future depends upon our appreciation of unity in diversity and our acceptance of one another in Him. In our hearts and minds we must become transformed, refusing to recognize the sectarian barriers previously erected. I would simply echo the words of a brother in Texas, who wrote, "My view on the situation is that our heritage should follow the example of those who started our movement over 200 years ago. I believe we should have the attitude of those who thought out and signed the 'Last Will and Testament of the Springfield Presbytery.' We should be happy to resign our creeds, cults, and patterns, and simply sink back into the overall Christian community." Dear Lord, in the years to come, help us to work toward achieving the prayer of Your precious Son, who broke down the barriers and prayed that we might all be ONE.

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Readers' Reflections

From a Reader in Kentucky:

Al, Thanks for letting me spend a few minutes with your mother this morning! She sounds like a very sweet and godly woman. I appreciated her lesson on Hannah and will "reflect" on it as I go about today.

From a Reader in Colorado:

Al, I love your folks, and have known them for many years. It was great for you to share your mother's article. Thank you also for your articles. I have been coming up with the same kinds of conclusions you have presented regarding the "silence" issue. One thing about this hermeneutic is that it is so subjective. I was taught to be rather skeptical about dealing with the biblical text subjectively, yet when I hear arguments based on silence, that is exactly what we end up with. Thanks, Al, for your work.

From an Elder in Arizona:

Al, Would it be of any value, when dealing with those who advocate the "silence of the Scriptures," to enumerate all that the Bible has to say in the Old Testament concerning instrumental music, then connect that to the "next period of our lives" in heaven? Isn't it a little strange that there was a lot of music in the Old Testament, none allowed in "these last days," and then music again in heaven? Thanks, Al. You are an excellent communicator of thought, purpose and intent of so much in Scripture.

From a Minister in New Jersey:

Bro. Al, Please give your mother my thanks for sharing such a beautiful story. Now we have an idea where you get at least some of your ability to write meaningful articles. There is one passage in your mother's Reflections that caught my attention and raised my curiosity. She wrote, "If Al, Jr. is remembered at all in the little congregation we attended when he was small, it will be for the number of times he had to be taken out of the service and ... 'reasoned with!' And the problems don't end when they get past the 'terrible twos' ... or at least mine didn't. They just change." I am quite sure that many more of her stories would be equally interesting -- but I guess we would not have enough weeks for her to share all of them with us!!

From a Reader in Florida:

Dear Al, Your life is a reflection of your parent's success at great parenting! Please thank your mother for me for granting you permission for the transcription of "My Friend Hannah" to appear in your weekly Reflections. Her presentation is insightful, touching and inspiring!

From a Reader in Arkansas:

Al, That was wonderful! Thanks for sharing your mother's talk with us. I too suffered childless, for twelve years, before the Lord blessed me with a child. And I also prayed that if the Lord were to answer my request, that I would raise the child in a Christian home. That vow led to my being involved as a Bible class teacher, a "Children's Church" director, and a youth group chaperone.

From a Minister in India:

Dear Bro. Al Maxey, I thank you so much for your Reflections. I read the article by sister Mary Maxey with good interest. Truly the story of Hannah and her character is a great example for all Christians. I learned many things from this article of Reflections. We all tell our thanks to sister Mary Maxey. I read another two lessons of yours: "Speaking Out On Silence" and "The Missional Church." Your lessons are so good and very useful for us here in India. I print out your lessons always and make copies for our brethren to study. The brethren here read your lessons [I make translations] with good interest, and we use your lessons in evangelism. I thank you, brother, for these wonderful lessons of Reflections. The brethren here pray for your health, strength and welfare. We feel you are a gift from God for us, and brothers and sisters here at Repalle remember you all in every prayer. I am sending some pictures of our work, our baptisms and congregation here at Repalle. Please pray for our evangelism here.

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