I walked into the jewelry room the other day to find only a few working–others were away at classes. Right away “Nan*”, a gregarious 18 year-old, with beautiful skin tone and features from her African-American father, said she wanted to be baptized. She pronounced the unfamiliar Thai word slowly, “baptisma”. I looked at her quizzically. Nan has a lovely personality to complement her gorgeous smile, but has never shown more than a casual interest in matters of faith.
We are very clear with everyone that our love for them and the benefits of The Well are in no way dependent on their changing to Christianity. The Thai desire to serve and please is such that many will gladly change to for our sakes-obviously not what we want.
Bam, a bright 20 year-old who has risen to manager status, changed the subject. “Dad, you need to take us to the beach!” she ordered. “My daughter hasn’t seen the ocean yet, and I want to take her.”
“Sure, that would be great!” I said, seeing an opportunity for Bam to step up in leadership. “Why don’t you work on putting something together with a cost per person, and the ministry perhaps could help some?”
Two weeks ago Saun had handed out instructions on how to become a Christian. Saun, who met Jesus at The Well 6 years ago, along with his wife Gik, teaches a class for newer women on basic Christianity. “You can do this on your own if you want to,” Saun had instructed. “It’s completely up to you.”
“I did what Saun said,” Nan reported. “I prayed to God, and confessed my sins. And I saw light. Jesus was in the room with me. I kept hearing him say, ‘Welcome! Welcome! Come in!'”
Now Nan was glowing. “I keep thinking over and over about that woman, you know, the one who was being punished and Jesus let her go? I keep seeing her in my mind and thinking, ‘I am that woman! I am that woman!'” This girl who had so far only shown casual interest was now totally in love with Jesus.
Living in a religiously free, highly evangelized but barely reached culture has taught us to work solely from a perspective of God’s work in people. The traditional ways of reaching folks that bore fruit in the West don’t work here. And with no quick answers, the sheer numbers of desperate people are overwhelming and discouraging. Instead we have learned to let God lead us to people, and then to let God grow them, one by one.
On the crowded block known as Soi Cowboy, where some 2000 scantily dressed women and ladyboys entertain Western and Japanese men, we don’t think about passing out tracts or preaching on the corner. Neither when we visit Circle 22, where hundreds more come to solicit on the street. We pray, “Lord, we don’t know what we’re doing. If you have someone for us to meet, would you lead her (or him) to us?”
Judy and Jessica Mangiameli met Nan that way, at a Soi Cowboy coyote bar last year. Nan was then 17, and about to enter 12th grade, but was wavering. She never knew her father, and her mother has lived in Europe for years. Nan said at the time that she needed to quit school in order to take care of her grandmother. Judy and Jessica’s best efforts failed to convince her. Around last December, Nan became pregnant, and agreed to join The Well.
When someone joins The Well, we explain that we will teach her about Jesus as the example that we follow-the reason we came to Thailand, the reason that people give financially etc. We do not compare religions. We do teach the Bible to show God’s heart and principles for living, but most importantly, we love and pray.
We can now tell multiple stories of men and women becoming all-in followers of Jesus through this approach. After some time God, in His own way, breaks through their natural barriers of self-centeredness. They walk out of that prison of self, understand sin and grace, and are able to love as they are loved. It’s great fun when it happens. After that point we see very little relapse into old ways.
Of course there are many, both current students and alumni of The Well, who are still very much in process, some after many years. But we see progress often enough to remind us that God doesn’t quit. Alumni contact us regularly, and every year some return.
It is completely freeing. We don’t have to worry so much about doing just the right thing in order to bring someone to wholeness in Jesus. The best we can do is enjoy them-care for them not because we are supposed to, but because they are precious. We plant and water. God does the growing.
We wish you all could enjoy the opportunity we have here in an unreached culture, to introduce Jesus to people completely fresh, not having to wade through misconceptions or baggage of previous bad experiences with Christianity. But we believe the same approach is right for the West as well.
The time has largely passed when leading someone through the plan of salvation and referring him or her to a church is adequate. By all means that is not to say we should not look for such opportunities. But when we listen to what folks are saying to us in the U.S., it appears that there is a need to grow in learning to love people to Jesus, in that order.
Here are some suggested steps to try. They are not original by any means.
- for people in your life, for God to draw each one to Himself. Always think Ephesians 2:10. It’s not your job to make things happen.
- for God to bring new people into your life that have a need you can meet. If your relationships are mostly Christians, look for new ways to meet others.
- for God to prepare your own heart, that you will truly have His love for folks.
2. Love. Find God’s glorious image in each person. When you see it, you will naturally love out of enjoyment, not out of duty or obligation. See Paul’s example in I Thessalonians 1-2.
3. Explain when asked, cf. I Peter 3:15. Simply tell your story-why you follow Jesus, why you love the Bible, etc. Don’t expect others to see what you do. Especially important in the current age: don’t be afraid to mention the highest standard of morality and sacrifice that Jesus taught and embodied, along with grace for sinners. When we truly love, people will let us bring up this point, even welcome.
4. Wait. Don’t think that someone has to change within weeks or even months. Don’t be discouraged at 3 steps forward, 3.9 back. That’s normal. Keep going, don’t give up, cf. Galatians 6:9.
Of course Nan has a long ways to go. Her private, subjective experience must be confirmed and relearned in daily life; her new childlike faith must be tested and stretched. But indeed that is happening. She talks now of getting answers to prayer, but more importantly, of realizing God’s presence daily, including in stressful situations. We are confident that God is the one who is working in her, and that He will complete His work in His time and His way. Our job is to watch, enjoy, and praise His Name.
*By policy, we usually use pseudonyms.