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  • July 11, 2014 - Reflections

    By Jean S. Horner
    The other day while walking down a corridor in a public building, I saw what appeared to be someone walking toward me. On coming closer, I found it was my own reflection in a huge mirror. For a moment it frightened me. Somehow a full-length reflection of one’s self is a startling thing. ...

Reaching Buddhists

By Russ Turney
Sept. 1, 2013

Ban Mai Sammakii is a Lua tribal village in northern Thailand. Numbering nearly 7,000 people, the Lua are considered an unreached people group. Of the 300 people living in Ban Mai Sammakii, only five are Christians. The nearest AG church is in the village of Pha Daeng, more than 12 miles away across rugged terrain. Services at Pha Daeng are held in the language and cultural context of the Akha tribe, both of which are unfamiliar to the Lua.

Yet every Sunday for two years, a couple from Ban Mai Sammakii rode their moped over the mountains to the church in Pha Daeng, arriving promptly for the 7 a.m. service. Their hunger to worship God was greater than their need for comfort or familiarity.

Pastor Daaw leads the little church in Pha Daeng. Originally from China, she came to Thailand as a young girl. Eventually she met a Burmese refugee who led her to Christ and discipled her.

Over the years Pastor Daaw never forgot how her life was transformed after someone from another culture and place made the effort to reach out to her. As she observed the Lua couple’s faithful attendance at the Pha Daeng church, her desire to share Christ with other people groups grew. She is now leading a church planting effort in Ban Mai Sammakii. Along with one other couple, the husband and wife who faithfully attended Pastor Daaw’s Akha church are the founding members of the Ban Mai Sammakii congregation. Despite obstacles, such as resistance from the community and a shortage of funds, Pastor Daaw is determined to press forward.

“I have never heard of a small tribal church like Pastor Daaw’s planting a church for a different tribal group,” says Mark Durene, AGWM area director for PenAsia. “It is a completely cross-cultural mission. The Akha and Lua speak different languages, wear different styles of clothes, have different cultures, everything! This is amazing.”

Through the church planting efforts of one determined woman and her congregation, the Lua people are being introduced to freedom through Jesus Christ. And their story is only the beginning.

Across Thailand, Myanmar (formerly Burma), Cambodia, Vietnam and Laos — the five countries of PenAsia that form the largest Buddhist concentration on earth — marginalized and oppressed minorities are bridging cultural and religious gaps to lead the nations’ majority groups to spiritual freedom.

Buddhism and the Unreached

PenAsia is home to 372 unreached people groups — 137 live in Laos, 82 in Thailand, 68 in Vietnam, 54 in Myanmar, and 31 in Cambodia. The majority of these groups live in villages with no local church, no Christian witness, and no opportunity to hear the gospel.

Such staggering numbers are compounded by the fact that nearly 80 percent of the world’s Buddhists live in PenAsia. And while the variations of Buddhism differ from country to country, one thing is constant: They are challenging to penetrate with the truth of the gospel.

To reach Buddhists with the message of Jesus, believers must be present on both local and personal levels. To lead Buddhists to Christ requires befriending them and depending wholly on insight from the Holy Spirit. The distance between Christianity and Buddhism is immense, so a good understanding of the Buddhist mindset is essential to living and serving within the culture.

Christianity is based upon the lordship of Jesus and the belief in the Trinity. Buddhists have no ultimate deity, although the existence of celestial beings is widely accepted.

Within Christianity, the fall of mankind and sin are universal, and the only solution for sin is forgiveness through Jesus Christ. Buddhists, however, are taught to dismiss bad deeds because everything eventually becomes relative.

Buddhism teaches that life is suffering, and the only way to be liberated from suffering is by eliminating all desire. The ultimate goal of a Buddhist is liberation from the cycle of death and rebirth by doing good deeds, or “making merit.”

As with Hinduism, Buddhism revolves around a belief in reincarnation. While a Christian looks forward to eternity in heaven with Christ, the ultimate goal of Buddhism is nirvana, an enlightened state of nothingness.

PenAsia’s Christian Origins in Myanmar

As early Christian missionaries went to minister in China, the gospel message trickled into PenAsia. Adoniram Judson arrived in Myanmar in 1813 and eventually translated the Bible into Burmese. Today the oldest and strongest churches in PenAsia are in northern Myanmar, where nearly 500 AG churches have a combined attendance of more than 100,000 people. Two Bible schools in northern Myanmar are training 360 students for ministry. Nationwide, Myanmar has more than 1,000 AG congregations.

Myanmar was closed to AG missionaries in the mid-1960s. For the next 40 years, although believers were not persecuted in the typical sense, they often got caught in the crosshairs of struggle as majority groups clashed with tribal groups. Despite strict regulations and persistent scrutiny, the church flourished.

Tribal Evangelism Pioneers

Discrimination and conflicts between majority and minority groups are common problems across PenAsia. Many Buddhists believe that a person is poor or suffers adversity because of misdeeds in a past life. Therefore, the largely poor tribal minorities are widely discriminated against and even attacked. Many of these disenfranchised groups have fled into northern Thailand.

Unwelcome and in unfamiliar territory, the refugees are forced to live in isolation in ill-equipped camps or become squatters on land belonging to churches. Often the regional animosity is so strong that they cannot earn a living or safely return home.

But among some of these struggling peoples, a dynamic revival is taking place, and church growth and Bible school attendance are strong.

“Ethnic minority groups in Myanmar make up our strongest churches in PenAsia,” says Mark Durene. “Of these groups, the Lisu is strongest. In many ways the Lisu people are our greatest hope for bringing the gospel to this area.”

The move of God among the Lisu is similar to a revival that began in 2007 in northern Thailand among the Karen, another marginalized minority group. Village after village experienced revivals, many of which were led by children. Thousands wept and repented in meetings, and many saw visions of heaven and hell. Miraculous healings also occurred.

The vision of the AGWM Asia Pacific region is to see communities of Christ followers among every people group. Translations of the Fire Bible are helping make that vision a reality. In addition, we are also focusing on these specific goals:

* Establishing and placing teams in unreached areas with the goal of planting churches among people groups. Several locations have been identified, and teams are being formed.

* Missions personnel are praying specifically for unreached areas and for additional teams to be raised up.

* All missions personnel within the Asia Pacific region are being asked to prayerfully consider how they can be involved in reaching these least-reached areas.

* Encouraging congregations worldwide to join in these church planting efforts by praying, giving and participating.

Leading the Way

God has a way of using the least among us to lead the great, so it is not surprising to see marginalized tribes like the Karen and Lisu rising into leadership in PenAsia.

These leaders are eager to take the gospel into unreached villages, but they lack training to properly disciple those who come to Christ. Lisu and Karen translations of the Fire Bible are currently underway with the assistance of missionary Rolly Hurst. Providing the Scriptures to these two people groups will help pastors as they reach across cultural lines with the message of salvation.

Pastor Somsak is an example of a village pastor with a heart for the unreached and forgotten. This Thai pastor takes no salary for his work; rather, he tends his small farm while learning the languages necessary for him to pastor five tribal churches in the surrounding area.

One day Pastor Somsak was asked to go to the hospital to visit Chomg, a critically ill woman from the Hmong minority. When he prayed for Chomg, the woman was healed and received Christ as her Savior. Chomg is now the only Christian in her Hmong village, but she is no longer forgotten. Pastor Somsak regularly travels two hours by moped to her mountain village to encourage her in her faith.

“When I visited Chomg’s village and home, I saw no pastor, no church and no Bible. Chomg is a lone voice,” says Rolly. “We are working to provide Pastor Somsak with the resources he needs to reach and train believers like Chomg.”

Hmong is one of the Fire Bible translations to be prepared as part of the Asia Pacific region’s church planting effort. The goal is that soon Chomg and others in her village can read and study the Scriptures in their own language.

Across PenAsia, believers are crossing barriers of culture, language and prejudice to give the message of salvation to those who have never heard. In the power of the Holy Spirit, Buddhists are being reached by a reaching church.

Russ Turney is the Asia Pacific regional director for AGWM.


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