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Bridges and Barriers

The Bible makes it clear that the gospel is good news for all people. But when the gospel message intersects with culture, the collision is never clean and tidy. Many cultures readily accept some aspects of the gospel message, while struggling to make sense of other parts in light of their cultural history and practices. This is seen clearly in the book of Acts, where the early church encountered various bridges and barriers as they shared the gospel with those around them. Even with the Jewish people themselves, common knowledge of the Old Testament formed a bridge between the apostles and the Jews, while the new covenant’s freedom regarding diet and circumcision created a barrier. As time progresses and the gospel spreads to the ends of the earth, the challenge is for followers of Jesus to boldly cross the bridges while trusting God to surmount the barriers.

We asked our workers to share stories of bridges and barriers in their relationships to the cultures in which they are living and working.

Encountering Abba

By Sheryl Hostetler, RMM worker in Ecuador

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“What does Abba mean?” asked fifteen-year-old Enrique. I had struggled for some time with sharing this concept of Abba Father with the group of children and adolescents at Mi Refugio (one of the houses at the Shekinah Foundation). They come from homes where fathers killed their mothers; where fathers beat or raped them, or simply told them they were not loved or wanted. How could I get them to understand what our Abba Father is like?

Not long before this, I was contacted by Jerryl Miller, a former missionary to Ecuador. He was interested in coming down with a few young people to do something for the foundation. I told him I would love to have murals painted on our walls (especially to cover the big one with the mermaid and the two children with really small bodies and really big heads!). Jerryl responded with the idea of a curriculum that they had studied in their church – all about Abba Father. They had seven lessons and we had a wall with seven sections.

Jerryl and his team came and painted the first section with the theme: Abba prepares a place for me. A mutual friend of ours from Guayaquil came a few weeks later and painted the second section: Abba wants to enter my heart. The other sections remained bare as the weeks passed until we had a couple come from a church in Missouri. They teamed up with a missionary couple and the college-age group from a Baptist church here in Manta. Within a few days, all seven sections were painted and an eighth one added.

This team not only painted, but they developed a devotional to go with all seven sections. Each night they shared verses about who Abba Father is, all the while showing through their paintings what he did for us. The children and teens were able to see what Abba did and who he wanted to be for them. I realized Enrique finally understood when he told me that someday he wants to have an Abba Father. He says he is not ready yet, but I can see the desire growing in him.

Did others understand? The answer came to me as I spoke with three-year-old Mauricio about saying bad words. We talked about God being sad when he used those words. The devotional the night before was about Abba being sad when he saw Christ on the cross. Mauricio looked at me and said, “Abba crying.” Yes! He understood!

Isn’t it great how God works these things out? I would never have thought about using murals to teach about Abba Father. Every day the children and teens can see his love and care displayed before them. It is my prayer that someday each of them will know Abba Father intimately.

Sheryl works at the Shekinah Foundation – serving the needs of at-risk children and adolescents in Manta, Ecuador.

Navigating North Africa

By Wyatt,* RMM worker in North Africa

I have only been here for nine months, and language learning is still an ongoing process. It is the biggest barrier for people to understand the truth I hope to communicate to them. I don’t understand all their questions, and I don’t know how to communicate some truths to them yet. But we are progressing, and with each lesson I continue to learn; with each conversation I continue to grow in my ability to understand and communicate.

But there are other barriers as well. One of the biggest, in my opinion, is that people do not believe they need saving. They believe that God forgives because of good works. Favor is earned by praying regularly, fasting during Ramadan, giving to the poor, etc. They are not questioning if it is the case, they all know for certain that to get to heaven they must do good works. They are so sure of this that some even believe there is an afterlife “between” heaven and hell to accommodate people who do an even number of good and bad works. So, in their minds, they do not need a Savior, they are saving themselves just fine. Forgiveness is something that God hands out at his leisure, as opposed to something that was paid for with blood.

A server at a café I frequent, asked me why I am not a Muslim. Before I could answer he explained that I have more favor with God than even he does, and I am sure to enter heaven if I just convert. This encounter helped me see just how deep the dependence is on actions: a “non-believer” could have more favor with God than a “believer” has – simply based on works.

The Spirit first must bring people to a place of needing a Messiah before Jesus’ death and resurrection matters for them. They need to understand that forgiveness is free to us only because of what Jesus did on the cross. Jesus as Savior is such a powerful message for each one of us, but to them it is nearly meaningless unless they understand their works are – and always will be – insufficient.

Wyatt moved to North Africa in 2017 with a desire to see the church established among those who have not yet heard the gospel.

Sharing a Classroom

By Rhonda, RMM worker in Thailand

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Being a university student at an international university in Bangkok has been a great opportunity for me. It is a natural way for me to be a part of society here and it is something people understand. Before being a student, I found it hard to explain to people what I was doing in Thailand, but now it’s easy to say I’m studying here. It provides a long-term visa for me, which is something that can be complicated to figure out. It has also been a way for me to meet people and build relationships. The university where I study has many Thai students and also many foreign students that come from countries like China, Myanmar, South Korea, India, Bangladesh, and Cambodia. I love that I have friends from all over the world. My two closest friends at the university are Chinese and Bangladeshi.

There are so many ways that I can connect with my classmates. We all get bored in class, feel overwhelmed with homework, and stress about studying for exams. We all ask the same types of questions. What will I do after graduation? Will I stay in Thailand? Where will I find a job? In asking these questions, I have a peace that many of my classmates don’t have. I know that God is in control and that no matter where I go or what I do, He will be with me, and I have peace. I have been able to share this with some of my friends and I can tell it’s a concept they haven’t heard before. All my classes are in English, and since English is my native language, while it is a second or third language for my classmates, I have become a natural mentor to many. When they don’t understand what the lecture was about, or what our assignment is, I take time to explain it. When students have to interview others for assignments, many come to me. People know that I am willing to help, and they notice when I sacrifice my own time to help others. I try my best to show them the love of Jesus through my actions, whether it’s helping in a group project, or explaining a complicated concept to someone. Sometimes I am able to share with them about Jesus, and sometimes I am not, but either way, I pray that someday they will have a personal relationship with Jesus and know that He loves them.

Rhonda and her husband Nixson live in Bangkok, Thailand, discipling new believers and training emerging leaders.

Playing and Praying

By Andrea, RMM worker in Spain

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Many Spaniards are die-hard soccer fans, so as soon as Rolando casually drops a comment about the latest game or scandal in the soccer world, he can quickly tell by the other person's response if he or she likes soccer. Frequently this has opened up conversations with complete strangers, from taxi drivers to waiters, to bank employees. When that person animatedly states their opinion regarding his comment, we carry on the conversation as long as the situation allows. Our prayer and intent in doing this is to build a bridge between that person and ourselves piece by piece so that when we see them again we can continue where we left off, with the final goal of sharing Jesus Christ through that friendship.

One example of this is with the owners of the driving school where Rolando is enrolled (yes, one of the "joys" for Americans residing in Spain is going through driver training and exams in order to obtain our Spanish driver's license!). Through initial conversations, Rolando soon found out that both the husband and wife are faithful fans of the same Spanish soccer team that he likes, so naturally that topic surfaces when they chat before or after class. Once the World Cup is over and the local teams are playing again, this couple intends to invite us over to their house to watch a game with them. Goal!!!

On the other hand, one of the biggest barriers we have encountered here in sharing the gospel is the adoration of Jesus's earthly mother, Mary. For quite a few devoted Spaniards, Mary worship is equal to or above that of Jesus, due to the Roman Catholic Church's influence. Within mainstream Catholicism, people are not encouraged to read the Bible for themselves, but to rely on what the priests tell them. Therefore, when many of the priests are emphasizing Mary as the one to pray to and who should receive our adoration, the masses go along with that. Numerous people have claimed to have had visions of the Virgin Mary, and one of these most recent visions has resulted in a strange sect that has a following in Granada. This over-emphasis on the Virgin Mary often causes Jesus to fade into the background and to lose importance.

In April, during the Holy Week processions, we were able to see how much devotion the people have for their Virgin. Everyone lined the streets to solemnly observe the floats with the much-beloved and adorned Virgin Mary. Sometimes her followers were so touched by seeing her statue that they would break out in song in front of her float, and the procession would stop for the devotee to pour out his or her heart of gratitude to her. It is difficult for people who are so devoted to the Virgin Mary to understand that she has no powers, cannot intercede for us, and was only a person who found favor with God. Jesus is all-powerful, intercedes for us, and was God in the flesh here on earth to show us the way to heaven. We have committed ourselves to keep bringing these people before God's throne in prayer, imploring Him to take away the blinders over their eyes so that they can see that Jesus is the way, the truth, and life and that no one comes to the Father without him.

Andrea and her husband Rolando live with their two sons in Granada, Spain. They are working on building authentic relationships that best communicate the gospel.

Dreaming of Serpents

By Karly, RMM worker in Thailand

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I thought it was just another day in class, but God had a different plan. When learning the Thai language, you not only learn how to speak, read, write; but you learn to slowly understand the culture and beliefs. As we fumbled through the pages learning about many different words and their meanings we came across the word dream (ฝัน).

In Thai culture, they believe dreams have true meaning behind them that bring good luck or bad luck. My teacher asked me, “Karly what do you dream about?” Then followed with, “Do you dream about snakes?”

I chuckled and wondered why I would dream about snakes, but I did not fully understand the depth of meaning behind this reptile.
Dreaming, seeing, and praying to snakes here in Thailand all have meaning. The teacher shared with us that the serpent (snake) is a meaning of good luck depending on the color. If you dream about a colorful snake, you will soon meet your soulmate. And if you already have your soulmate then someone is interested in you even though you are married or have a significant other.

Encountering a snake usually means good luck as well (depending on the type of snake). If it’s a cobra, then it’s the God of snakes. What shocked me the most (besides the deification of a snake), is that we both call the snake a serpent. Knowing what Christians believe when it comes to the word serpent made me question the full understanding of what and why Buddhists believe this.

At this moment I opened up my phone and looked up the definition of Serpent from Merriam-Webster:

1: a noxious creature that creeps, hisses, or stings
2: devil
3: a treacherous person

I read this definition out loud to my teacher and asked her what her thoughts were. She stood there in a quiet pose, unsure of what to think or say. This teacher and I are pretty close and we have talked about many different topics before. While this topic isn’t something I would easily talk to anyone about, I felt comfortable asking her. Sadly, she had no response. I lightly ended the conversation with my beliefs and thoughts about the serpent: how we do not fear him for we only fear one thing in life and that is God – the one who we believe is the only true God. I hoped this would open doors for questions about God and what he gives us, why we pray to him, and so on. But nothing happened, and I walked out of that classroom discouraged.

But then God brought truth to me; Romans 10:14-15…

“How, then, can they call on the one they have not believed in? And how come they believe in the one of whom they have not heard? And how can they hear without someone preaching to them? And how can anyone preach unless they are sent? As it is written: “How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news.”

When I have conversations like these with my Buddhist friends, I don’t understand how they could believe such things and worship so many gods; but now this scripture is something I’m resting on. We are seed planters. We don’t need to fully understand or have all the answers; we only need to share one answer: truth. We need to be his hands and feet and trust that God will do the rest.

Karly and her husband Jacob live with their two sons in Pattaya, Thailand. They are focused on anti-human trafficking efforts, seeking God’s guidance for long-term restoration work in their city.

What bridges and barriers do you have in reaching those around you? Take time to thank God for the bridges he has provided, and ask him to help you overcome the barriers.

*name changed for security