From his experiences in church planting in southern Taiwan, Thomas shares personal lessons about partnering with the local church. Lessons include working with partners in humility, “knowing what is essential and what is not,” and adopting a model of church that makes sense to the local people.
Thomas is a missionary with OMF International in Taiwan. He is a graduate of Reformed Theological Seminary in Orlando and is ordained in the Evangelical Presbyterian Church. He and his wife, Jennifer, with their two children, are church planting in one of the most unreached areas of Taiwan.
Let the Nations Be Partners: Pioneering and Partnering in the Plan of God
Mission Round Table 13:3 (Sep-Dec 2018): 25-27
“Yuque A-yi, I baptize you in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, Amen!” At 60 years of age, she came out of the water slowly, but up she came. “Don’t slip,” I said as she climbed out of the large orange recycle bin filled with chilly water. Our small congregation at the Sanhe Gospel Center burst into song and clapped. A new life in Christ! As we presented Yuque A-yi with her baptism certificate and listened to her testimony of leaving ancestors and idols behind to become a Christ-follower, we couldn’t help but remember that this day would never have been possible without our partners.
It was only five years ago that my wife and I started a new church planting work in Zhongpu, Chiayi County, an area of south Taiwan that’s only 0.3% Christian. Upon graduation from Taiwanese language school, we were ready to conquer the world for Jesus. My prayer for Taiwan could have been described as the famous hymn says, “May His beauty rest upon me as I seek the lost to win, and may they forget the channel, seeing only Him.” The problem was, in rural Taiwan, everyone kept remembering the channel. I was a tall, white foreigner with a hairy body in a sea full of Asians. To make matters worse, while we had learned Taiwanese, the young families primarily speak Mandarin. Practically, this meant that I spoke in one language and they often answered in another—all the while laughing at me! I quickly realized how little of the culture I truly understood, and that often the only Christian these people knew was me. To them, Jesus was probably an American, and he was the Son of “Amen”—because, for some reason Christians always say “Amen.” “So that’s your god’s name, right?” I would hear. The barriers to the gospel, it seemed, were insurmountable.
Not long after that I decided to study Mandarin part-time at a local university. To surround myself with the Chinese language, we started attending a church in the neighboring city. By that point we were desperate for help. Hearts were hard, the work was slow, and discouragement had already set in. The work, it seemed, was impossible to do alone. I’ll never forget when the mission director of the church asked if he could meet with us, because they were looking at several opportunities to get involved in local mission. We invited him and the lead pastor out to our small center on the edge of the city to meet over tea. As we shared our vision of reaching working-class people with the gospel and planting an indigenous church, they not only sensed our passion, but our desperation for local help. When we got the news that the church had decided to partner with us, they made a point of saying that of all the ministries they observed, we were by far the most “pitiful.” We lacked workers, fluent language, and cultural experience. But what we lacked, God had now provided in Chiayi Baptist Church.
Baptist church partners
Our weekly seekers’ Bible study quickly went from my wife and I being solely responsible for the teaching to having seasoned elders and deacons leading the discussions. Yuque A-yi quickly spoke up during a spirited discussion. “I just don’t know how I can believe in Christ if I can’t worship my ancestors.” I had tried to answer this question before, explaining that the most filial way to honor one’s ancestors was to worship the One who created our ancestors. But this dilemma was never something I had personally experienced. Ancestor worship did not run in the family of a boy from Tennessee! No matter what I shared, it seemed to fall on deaf ears, until our partners spoke up. “Actually, Yuque, let me tell you my story,” the deacon said. He then shared his testimony of how God had helped him overcome ancestor worship. As he shared, others from Chiayi Baptist had their own stories to tell. Week after week, our local partners pointed this little old lady to Scripture, prayed for her, encouraged her, and reasoned with her. I’ll never forget when she came back to our Bible study so excited to announce that she had not worshipped her ancestors or idols over the weekend, and that nothing bad had happened to her as a result. She was in awe. We were in awe. It was a courageous step of faith, and her life would be changed forever.
As a result of the church partnership, our weekly Sunday park ministry also suddenly had helpers. Normally, I would play the guitar as we sang Christian songs, then tell a Bible story, while my wife would evangelize, organize the children’s craft, and talk with the parents. At first, the Baptist Christians were hesitant to do this type of work. Relational evangelism in a public park was not something that they were accustomed to. But as time passed, we began to encourage them to sing with us, help act out some of the Bible stories, and play with the families. Before long, they had built up the courage to share the stories all by themselves and even share their faith—and they enjoyed it. Years later, we realized that not only had they been helping us, but we had helped them by modeling relational and creative evangelism. One Baptist worker even shared a testimony during his church’s worship service of how the OMF missionaries had impacted his desire to reach out to his own people. The partnership had become mutually beneficial.
Acting out Bible stories in the park
Now, Chiayi Baptist sends us two seminary graduates to preach at our Sunday services, and we are discussing and praying over our long-term plan to possibly hand over our work to them in the future. These seminary graduates are getting invaluable practice in preaching and evangelism that will prepare them for whatever God has in store for their future, while we are receiving local help that keeps our church as indigenous as possible.
As I’ve had time to reflect on all that has happened, I’ve realized that God has called us to Taiwan not only to reach working-class people in Zhongpu, but also to mobilize a local church to do the work with us. It’s a ministry of both pioneering and partnering in God’s great plan to redeem a people for himself from the working-class in Taiwan. Some have asked what they might be able to do to have a similar partnership in their context. Of course, there is so much that God in his providence has worked out for us, we could never take credit for any of it. But I have identified three key traits that I do think can be beneficial for anyone looking to build church partnerships.
The first key trait that helped us along the way was humility. This was something that I lacked when I first got started in pioneering church planting ministry. But God has a way of taking care of that quickly. When I realized that I could not do this without his help or the help of locals, my heart was truly humbled. And I’ve come to believe that humility is not only foundational for our spiritual lives; it’s the foundation for developing healthy church partnerships. Practically, what does this mean? It means asking questions. Even if you think you know all the answers, keep asking questions, and you might be surprised what you learn. I would often sit down with Pastor Li of the Baptist church and pour out my heart to him, describing the challenges and frustrations of ministry. “Pastor Li, what would you do in this situation? How would you answer this objection to Christianity? Would you baptize this person yet? When would you start serving communion to a new church?” I began to see that by asking questions, not only did I give the pastor face, but it displayed a humility that built a lasting friendship of trust. Often, missionaries come to the field with impressive theological credentials and creative ideas, ready to train the locals in the newest, trendy methods for church planting and growth. But deep impact rarely happens without trust. And trust is rarely built without humility.
The second key trait that has helped us along the way was knowing what is essential and what is not. I’m ordained in the Evangelical Presbyterian Church, and our motto is “In essentials, unity. In non-essentials, liberty. In all things, charity.” That’s a good motto for partnership, too. If you want to partner with a church, you need to know what is worth fighting for and what isn’t. If our partnering church believes you need to be ordained to administer the sacraments, then we go along with that, even if we’re not convinced that is entirely true. It’s a non-essential. Just as we must contextualize to working-class people, we must also contextualize to the local church if partnerships are to succeed.
The third key trait that has helped us along the way was our model. We began our work thinking we would have a house church. But we quickly realized that Taiwanese people did not see this as a legitimate model, so much so that it was a stumbling block for them. “Where’s your church? What? You meet in a house? Are you a cult?” some would ask. They understandably would think this because the existing church in Taiwan has buildings, a cross on a steeple, and an ordained pastor. For us, these were non-essentials, so we simply adjusted our model so that it corresponded to what was expected locally. The last thing we wanted to do was create even more barriers to the gospel. This not only helped our evangelism and church planting work, but it also helped us in establishing a solid partnership with a local church. Rightly or wrongly, we were now seen as a legitimate church with a facility, a Sunday service, and in need of a local seminary-trained leader. Once the barrier of our house-church model was removed, we began to see God grow both the church and the partnership. We also noticed that by adopting a model that was similar to the existing Taiwanese church, families that moved away from our ministry area due to a change in occupation would all quickly get plugged into a local church in their new context. This was not always the case with ministries that used radically different models of church from what the locals expected church to be.
As our church continues to grow, I consider it the highlight of my life to be a small part of what God is doing in East Asia. Pioneering work is rewarding. But partnering is even more so. In my career, I might be able to reach a handful of people for Christ, if the Lord wills. But with partners, as a local church is mobilized to reach their own people, the vision of an indigenous biblical church movement seems suddenly alive. My prayer for Taiwan and for everyone working in East Asia is that we fall on our knees, lift our hands in the air, and cry out with one voice, “Let the nations be partners!”