You are currently viewing Why a Drug Addict’s Bet Is Helping to Grow the Church in Southeast Asia

Why a Drug Addict’s Bet Is Helping to Grow the Church in Southeast Asia

At 28 years old, Massimo Gei was a wreck.

He’d been using drugs since high school. In college, he began helping friends find drugs too. Around the same time, he met a girl. They dated for six years before getting married, but seven months later, she left him to date other men. Massimo’s employer also let him go—probably because he was hooked on meth.

“I was depressive and suicidal,” Massimo said. “I thought everyone was conspiring against me. I was just surviving day by day.”

One night, he and a Christian friend named Dawn were driving around Kuala Lumpur, where they both lived. Massimo asked, “Do you think if I go looking for God, I’ll find him?”

“Of course,” she told him.

Massimo pressed her: “How about we make a bet? I’ll go looking for God. If you’re right, great. But if you’re wrong and I don’t find him, then I’m going to kill myself.”

“Deal,” she told him, using one of the world’s least recommended evangelistic strategies. “But I get to define what it means to ‘look for God.’”

Dawn’s instructions were clear: move back home, go to church, read the Bible, and pray. He did, and over the course of a year, Massimo came face to face with his sin.

“That transformed everything,” he said. Immediately all in on the gospel, he read theology books, publicly shared his testimony, and volunteered at church. After a while, the elders began inviting him to speak.

Massimo and his wife, Gloria, with their daughter, Miabella / Courtesy of Massimo Gei

“One of the elders would sit down with me and go through my sermons,” he said. “I’d be scheduled to preach during Chinese New Year, when half the church was gone.”

Eventually, he enrolled in seminary, where he fell in love with church planting. His professor recommended he train with an organization called City to City and invited him to join a pastors’ book club that was wrapping up a four-year study of Tim Keller’s Center Church.

When somebody suggested they start a gospel-centered coalition, Massimo became the first volunteer manager of Gospel City Network (GCN) in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.

Over the past five years, around 90 English-speaking and 70 Mandarin-speaking pastors have connected with GCN. Massimo has organized incubators, seminars, webinars, and five conferences (speakers included John Piper, Mark Dever, J. D. Greear, and Jonathan Leeman). He’s launched an online learning platform with articles and courses in two languages and begun printing gospel-centered books.

All this is taking place in a city that’s “one of the most strategic in the world,” said Rick Denham, international director at 9Marks and global expansion manager at Desiring God. Over the past 30 years, the metro area of Kuala Lumpur has ballooned to nearly 9 million people.

Many are coming to escape a stricter Chinese government—especially in Hong Kong, which until recently had been a key city for Asian economic and political freedom, Denham said. Others, from countries such as India and the Philippines, come to work. Around half of metro Kuala Lumpur’s residents are non-Malay, which means they have religious freedom in the officially Muslim country.

“GCN is equipping pastors and leaders from the whole region,” Denham said. “You combine a really strategic city with a great need, and that is where they are and what they are addressing.”

Growing Up Everywhere

Massimo is as cosmopolitan as his country. Born to an Italian father (who grew up in Germany) and a Malaysian mother (with Portuguese heritage), he spent his childhood moving to follow his father’s work. His dad’s job was setting up factories for a German technology company, so the transitions were huge—from Malaysia to Singapore to Germany to China, then back to Germany.

Massimo as a toddler / Courtesy of Massimo Gei

“My parents both came from a Catholic background, but our house was pretty much atheistic,” Massimo said. While they lived in China, Massimo’s mother, Maureen, became friends with a Christian neighbor who kept inviting her to church. Her persistence wore Maureen down, and she joined the woman’s Bible study.

“Within a few weeks, I just felt compelled that I wanted to accept grace,” Maureen said. When she told her son she’d converted, he thought she must have gotten into his stash of weed.

Drugs were how Massimo was coping with the moves. “I wanted to fit into a community,” he said. But this one had a steep cost. He began tanking his classes. He paid cab drivers to let him sit on the roof of the taxi while it was speeding down the highway. At 16, he landed in the hospital with alcohol poisoning.

“Think bratty, yuppie, spoiled, overconfident expat kid in a third world country where all his friends are kids of diplomats and leaders of multinational companies,” he said.

From the Top to the Bottom—Twice

Massimo was in college in Belgium and still doing drugs socially when his father took some financial risks that didn’t pay off. To save his dad money, Massimo transferred to a school in Malaysia.

Massimo at a club / Courtesy of Massimo Gei

It seemed like a great move at first—Massimo met a girl, moved in with her, graduated from school, and landed a job. A few years later, they got married. But almost immediately, she left him.

“That hit me pretty hard,” he said. “My social drug use became heavy addiction. At the same time, I started doing really well at my job.”

That’s because Massimo had switched to meth, which is a powerful stimulant. “I was able to not sleep,” he said. “I could work hard and party hard at the same time.”

But it was a temporary high. After a while, Massimo’s company noticed his addiction and let him go. He was 28 years old and had nothing—no wife, no decent job, a dwindling bank account, and missed payments on his car and apartment. All he had was a drug addiction—and a Christian friend.

Saved

He remembers the car ride.

“Hey, what’s the deal?” he asked Dawn. “I’m suicidal. I’m a meth addict. I’m just surviving day by day. Why are you friends with me? Aren’t you afraid I’m going to pull you down into depression with me?”

Dawn (far right) celebrating Massimo and Gloria’s wedding / Courtesy of Massimo Gei

“Don’t worry,” she told him. “God won’t let you pull me down.”

A few minutes later, they bet Massimo’s life that he could find God too.

Per Dawn’s rules, he moved back home, where he had to pretend to be sober. Even that was helpful, and he was able to land a job. He started going to his mom’s Baptist church. Sporadically, he read Scripture and prayed.

“It was really awkward because I didn’t believe in God,” he said. “I was like, ‘Dear wall, I pray to you because I see you. God, I don’t see you, so I’m just going to talk to the wall.’”

Sometimes he texted prayers to Dawn, just so someone would receive them. She always replied, “Amen.”

At church, the sermons began to sound so pointed he worried someone had told the pastors to preach directly to him. “I was a drug addict, so I was paranoid,” he said.

Other weird things began to happen. He was invited to a Christian businessmen’s lunch, where the speaker shared that he used to be a drug dealer before Christ changed his life. Massimo’s father came to Jesus through a Bible study for unbelievers at his mom’s church. And a local Indian Christian encouraged him to start praying about his drug problem.

Massimo started to believe in Jesus, but only as someone who could fix his problems, not as Lord.

Massimo on “a Bible study evening [his] mom dragged [him] to” / Courtesy of Massimo Gei

“I still thought I was a good person,” Massimo said. “I didn’t want to harm anybody. I didn’t hate anybody. Even helping friends get drugs—I was just providing party favors. I was trying to make people happy, to help them enjoy life.”

And then one day he heard a preacher say that the opposite of love isn’t hate but apathy.

“It helped me understand that I really didn’t care about anybody else, only myself,” he said. “I didn’t care that my parents were struggling financially and I had lots of money that I was just blowing through my nose on drugs. I didn’t care about the person I was giving drugs to—whether they were healthy or not. I didn’t even care about my surroundings, or what would happen to me.”

It struck him he wasn’t a good person after all.

“The penny dropped,” Massimo said. “I needed a Savior. I couldn’t save myself. I didn’t need Jesus to help me become sober. I needed Jesus to save me from me, to change who I was.”

He finally understood: The drugs weren’t the problem. Sin and brokenness were the problem. And the answer he’d been seeking in drugs was offered by Jesus.

Systematic Theology

Massimo began attending a small charismatic C3 church plant. He loved the fervent prayers and the way the pastor checked in on him. But he was also intrigued by a potential church plant meeting in his parents’ house.

“They would open up Genesis, and read it, and explain it,” he said. One of the leaders, Scott, offered to read through a Christian book with Massimo. On his Kindle, Scott pulled up a list of about 10 titles.

Sharing his testimony on the day of his baptism at C3 church / Courtesy of Massimo Gei

“I was a doing system designs and electronics, and I wanted to learn about God,” Massimo said. “So I saw this book—Systematic Theology. And I thought I would really enjoy it because I like systems and structures.”

He laughs now. “I had no idea how thick Wayne Grudem’s book was until I was already committed,” he said. “That was the first Christian book I ever read.”

It took them a year to work through it. By the end, Massimo wanted to enroll in seminary.

Here’s why he didn’t: he was loaded down with debt—$20,000 for drugs consumed, a car loan he’d defaulted on, a pile of credit card bills. I’ll go to seminary after I get all this paid off, he told himself. By now, he’d taken another well-paying job. Switching to a ministry internship meant slashing his income by about 75 percent.

It wasn’t a bad thought. But when giving his testimony to a college group one evening, he referenced Luke 9:60, where Jesus addresses a man reluctant to follow him: “Leave the dead to bury their own dead. But as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God.”

“I’m not sure how convicted the students were, but I was really convicted,” he said. “I looked at everybody and I said, ‘I’m going to quit my job.’”

Gloria and GCN

He did. Massimo lived with his parents to save money while interning at First Baptist, paying off his debt, and attending Malaysia Baptist Theological Seminary. One of his favorite classes was “Church Planting in an Urban Context.”

“My class project was to start a young adults’ congregation at First Baptist Church,” he said. He wrote a plan and showed it to the church. They loved it. His professor did, too, and introduced him to Guna Raman, the CEO of City to City Asia Pacific.

Massimo (center, back of the table) at his first City to City training in Hong Kong / Courtesy of Massimo Gei

“He invited me to a church planting intensive training in Hong Kong and Singapore,” Massimo said. Both those cities, which are easy to access and have historically ensured freedom of religion, are important church-planting hubs.

Massimo came back energized to work on his young adults’ project. It grew well and was eventually enfolded into the main congregation. Massimo, whose appetite was whetted, wanted to start something else.

He teamed up with his professor, Chris, who was praying with a small group about planting a new church. As part of his research, Massimo began visiting area congregations to glean what he could from how they conducted their services.

Soon after he began, he got a text from a girl he knew at First Baptist. She was coming out of a broken engagement and was looking for a fresh start in a Christian community. She wondered if he could recommend any good small groups meeting near her workplace she could attend.

“Hey, you can visit churches with me and maybe you’ll find something,” he told her. It wasn’t long before they fell for each other, and visiting churches turned into going on dates. A year later, they were married, just a few weeks after Massimo was appointed an elder in the brand-new Gospel City Church.

Growing Movement

Gospel City Church is part of an emerging movement beginning to spark in Kuala Lumpur.

One of the movement’s catalysts is seminary professor Michael, who spent part of his childhood in Malaysia with his church-planting parents. The family moved away in 1987.

“My wife and I came back to Kuala Lumpur in 2010,” he said. “And we saw there were almost no new churches among the Baptists—very little growth. I think, with some exceptions, it was a barometer for all the churches in Kuala Lumpur. They were growing, but it was more biological growth, and not really engagement with a city that had grown to six times the size it was when we left.”

Then, in 2012, a Chinese Presbyterian pastor named Wong Fong Yang hosted about 35 pastors for a two-day City to City training. Afterward, a dozen of them decided to read Keller’s newly released Center Church together.

Discussing a chapter each month took them four years. By the time they were done, they’d forged friendships, coalesced around a vision for ministry, and decided to start a church planting and revitalizing network—GCN. They’d also grown in number, picking up seminary students and pastors along the way. One was Massimo.

Jonathan Leeman spoke at GCN’s first conference / Courtesy of Massimo Gei

“I was the guy with the most free time,” he said. They tasked him with organizing the efforts.

Massimo launched in with the level of energy he used to get from meth. In 2017, he started a two-year church-planting incubator, hosted a conference on healthy churches with Jonathan Leeman, and held a discussion on marketplace discipleship. In 2018, he organized GCN as an official organization, set up a board, and began monthly pastors’ gatherings to discuss practical ministry.

Since 2019, Massimo and GCN helped cohost a conference for 3,000 Chinese house church pastors, held multiple regional conferences (with speakers such as Greear and Dever), and offered webinars in both English and Mandarin. Massimo hired a team and launched a website, filling it up with webinars, courses, ebooks, and articles. He gathered professionals for faith-and-work discussions, denominational leaders for lunches, and women for Parakaleo seminars.

Last year, Massimo formed a publishing arm called the Greenhouse, which has already printed 15 books—including Piper’s Seeing and Savoring Jesus Christ and Mark Dever and Paul Alexander’s How to Build a Healthy Church—with plans to add 200 more titles in the next five years. With a network that has grown to more than 150 English- and Mandarin-speaking pastors, GCN trains more than 500 leaders annually and financially supports four church plants, one replant, and three church revitalizations in five cities.

“There are more gospel-centered churches around the city than there were 14 years ago,” Michael said. “And that’s going to build the whole ecosystem here. That means more people are getting a good diet on a regular basis—and that will affect how they impact their workplace and their neighborhood and their family. And that means they will be more infectious with Christ—at least, that’s our prayer—which will lead to more disciples and healthier churches.”

Caveat

There’s a caveat here: Malaysia is a Muslim country—has been since Arab and Indian traders arrived in the 10th century. Malays, who make up around 60 percent of the country’s population, are legally required to remain Muslim.

But Malaysia’s location—north of Australia, south of China, with easy water access to India, the Middle East, and the east coast of Africa—means it’s always been full of diverse ethnicities and religions.

GCN’s first Kuala Lumpur church-planting incubator cohort / Courtesy of Massimo Gei

“It sort of unites the East and the West,” Denham said. “In recent years, Malaysia has experienced migratory trends due to pressures associated with a stricter Chinese government and the closure of Hong Kong. They’ve seen higher influxes of Chinese and others who have sought to live in a more diverse and free economic system. It’s a natural place for people in the region to invest in and come to.”

And a natural way to reach those people with the gospel is through faith-and-work content, Massimo said.

“The average person here works about four hours of unpaid overtime a day,” he said. “That’s the context in which most people spend their lives—60 percent of their waking hours are at work. So faith and work isn’t just another subject. It’s the context in which most people live.”

He’s leaning into that, with a faith-and-work conference planned for the fall and Bryan Chapell’s Grace at Work at the top of his publishing wish list. He’s hopeful that good theology will help local churches be effective witnesses to this population. The gospel isn’t more work, he wants to tell them, but grace.

Even the work of introducing gospel-centered theology, which “is like pushing a boulder,” is grace, said Gideon Lim, who heads the Mandarin-speaking branch of the GCN network. “Back then, it was so hard to push. But now, we begin to see a little bit of movement.”

Lim is hopeful for the future—three-fourths of those in his network are under 40. “I see huge differences for those who get it in the way they change,” he said.

“We are building a ship,” Massimo said. “But if God doesn’t blow the wind, it isn’t going anywhere. It depends on God. He has been gracious to us.”

​  

Leave a Reply