As Sijmen and his wife prayed for a door for God’s word to open, he and some local Christians were led to replace a rickety bridge with a new one that made it possible for people living in a nearby neighborhood to attend a Bible study. This led to the erection of a metaphorical bridge as the mystery of Christ was proclaimed and lives are being changed.
Sijmen den Hartog
Sijmen is from the Netherlands, married with Annelies, and blessed with three children: Daniel (12), Benj (10), and Marie (6). The den Hartogs have been working in Isaan, Northeast Thailand since 2006. After five years of regional leadership in Isaan, Sijmen and Annelies returned to fulltime church planting one-and-a-half years ago. They now focus on mobilizing and training the local church in Udonthani city to reach out and multiply.
Gospel Doors and Gospel Bridges
Mission Round Table Vol. 16 No. 2 (May-August 2021): 26-28
ontinue steadfastly in prayer, being watchful in it with thanksgiving. At the same time, pray also for us, that God may open to us a door for the word, to declare the mystery of Christ, on account of which I am in prison—that I may make it clear, which is how I ought to speak. (Colossians 4:2–4)
This text from Colossians 4 has caused me to reflect about something that happened on a recent Sunday. After worship, we met in a dark, little room on the ground floor of the church building. I was glad that the aircon was blowing at least some cool air around as I had been working overtime in my attempt to keep hydrated in the hot season. The pastor asked to continue our monthly meeting to align our team of church members with the roadmap for starting new groups. It was at that meeting when our brother in Christ, Lung Yong, took the courage to tell me that I should teach at a slower pace when visiting his family who lived along the railroad. As I later contemplated Paul’s words in Colossians 4:4, I wondered: how much time do I spend in prayer and ask God to help me clearly convey the mysteries of Christ for all people? Though I know I lack a lot of skills and understanding of ministry, many people around me have branded me as a teacher at heart. Clear teaching is not usually the area I focus on in prayer; it comes naturally, right? Once again, I learned how self-reliance and self-achievement can creep in and impact my prayers and ministry.
One of the things my wife and I have been praying for—far more often than clear communication—was that the doors mentioned in verse 3 might be opened. In what follows, I’d like to share with you the journey we have been on over the past two years, a journey during which an open bridge took the place of the open door. Looking back, we can fully stand by the famous words “By God’s grace …”
For about ten years, we have lived in a rural town in Isaan in the northeast of Thailand. One church has been started and though we had hoped for multiple churches, we enjoyed seeing the brothers and sisters—actually, mainly sisters—encouraging each other, growing in Christ together, and sharing the gospel with others around them. The natural lines of relationship that the brothers and sisters had ensured that many doors to share the gospel were opened. We were not the ones sharing the gospel anymore, as enough people were trained to do so. I guess this is one of the blessings we all long to see. It is the context in which we enjoy working. It is the time when we forget that there was no visible fruit in the first five years. It is the attractive part we can show when short term mission teams come over. It might be the thing that moves some to join our organization. But the truth is, for us, it’s the moment we entrust the work to the local believers and move on to a place where the gospel has not yet been preached and where people are still without church. We enjoy the fruit, but from a distance.
Praying for open doors and direction grows in intensity
An email pops up in my mail box asking if I would like to help facilitate one day of the “Perspective Course” for pastors at a Bible college. I have to think about this. We see so much training made available for church leaders that attracts many people who often do not actually use what was shared in their day-to-day ministry. Over time, I have come to wonder whether I should move away from these training sessions and start smaller mentoring groups. And though I often think it best to drop certain types of training, I am more positive when asked to facilitate a course on the multiplication paradigm in church planting. I firmly believe in the need to emphasize multiplication in the shaping of our ministries. Engaging in this training might be a great opportunity to reach out to church leaders to see how they could not just add new people to their churches, but see new groups started by church members that also multiply themselves. Training church members and new believers to become leaders in churches that don’t exist yet helps them become more than inwardly focused and gives them an intrinsic longing to see the gospel spread and church expand beyond their own control. In the end, this will force them to rely on others—people they might train. Far too often, I have seen pastors unconsciously protect and thus control the ministries that evolve from within their churches. Especially when it comes to new believers or house groups, there is a lot of fear of groups going off track, giving in to false teaching, or splitting. Instead of training people so that these possibilities are made less likely, pastors often block momentum and exercise control due to their own limited ability and their lack of time to invest in these groups.
I decided to facilitate the sessions on multiplication in the hope that some of the pastors will be enlightened by the paradigm. The result was excellent, as the participants did not just listen to what I shared, but considered it from a critical perspective and asked perceptive questions that led to helpful discussions. At the end of the day, two pastors asked for my contact details and requested some of the slides I had shared. I added their details to the main social media app in Thailand, sent them what they asked for, and, within a few days, they disappeared below the large number of messages I received from other groups and contacts.
Praying with my wife for guidance in our future ministry decisions
A couple of years ago, we informed our church members that we were intending to move, though we were not yet sure where to go. Then, we heard about a Christian international school opening 150 km north of where we were living, in the same region, though in another province. For the past several years, there has been talk that this would happen. Home schooling for seven years has been fun, but it’s also challenging. Could this schooling option be an answer to our prayers? But do we want to live in a city where we don’t know anybody and have no connections? And what about the fact that it’s not the nice, cozy, rural surrounding we have loved so much? And why would we move to a city if the most unreached areas are outside of the cities? We obviously need more prayer.
Visiting the international school helped change our minds. It would be a big move, but also a big relief from home schooling. It would also set both of us free to focus on ministry more than ever before. Consulting God and people around us gave us peace to make the move. Our move—which took place between Coronavirus lockdowns—went pretty smoothly. However, starting a new ministry during a lockdown has some negative aspects. Not knowing anybody while stuck in our village gave us time to rest and get to know the people nearby. But where and how would we start a ministry in this new setting? Previously, we could do whatever we wanted as we lived in an open field. There were no churches nearby and no Christians to work with. Now, in the city, we would not be able to do the same. Ignoring the existing church not only feels wrong, it is wrong.
At that time, I remembered one of the two pastors who had given me their contact details the year before during the “Perspective Course”. I recalled that he lived in this city. After scrolling through the Line app for some time and missing his face several times, I found him. Though I wasn’t sure if he would remember me, see me as a threat, or welcome us, I made the call. The next day, we were warmly welcomed in the church and, the week after, I was invited to share more about our dreams of seeing new groups and churches started. The pastor was looking for a new perspective. This confirmed my idea that the “Perspective Course” was one of those training opportunities when many nice ideas are conveyed, but very few practiced when it is all over. I praise God that even though my negative thoughts about the effectiveness of training programs to some extent were confirmed, he also showed that the training had fit his purpose very effectively. The pastor was frustrated and tired and was very enthusiastic to see his church members participate more actively in church ministry. So, he offered us a mentor role in the church to train him and church members in starting new groups.
Wow! God opened the door wide. Even better, he had been opening this door for us for the year since the training had taken place. We just had not seen it or known about it. Together with the church members, we started to make a prayer list of their relatives, friends, and neighbors. We encouraged each other to pray for opportunities and bridges into the community so that we could share the gospel.
Just a few weeks after this, Lung Yong walked into the church. One of the church members had shared the gospel with him when she passed by with her vegetable cart. He asked for prayer for his foot since a toe amputation resulted in an infection. When God answered his prayer, he was convinced to follow him and invited us to share the gospel with his family members. God had given us a bridge into a community, though we were actually still missing a bridge.
A gospel bridge
On the edge of the city, hidden behind the trees that line the railway, lies a poorer neighborhood. For the people who lived there to enter civilization, they had to wade through a ditch or cross over “the bridge”—an old, wobbly structure. After two Bible studies in the poorer neighborhood, we saw that a number of people would rather wade through the ditch than lose their balance on “the bridge.” We instantly decided to build a new bridge. Within one day, a more solid bridge was built with the help of colleagues and two men from the neighborhood.
However, that tangible bridge wasn’t the only one built. Our interaction with these people led to a warm welcome for more Bible study. More people were invited. Lung Yong tried to convince his family to follow Jesus. His alcoholic brother-in-law started trying to leave the bottle. The mother of this man was so impressed that she wanted to follow the Lord Jesus too.
Just two weeks later, we were invited into a new community five kilometers south of the city. Several family members had heard bits and pieces of the gospel story and wanted to know more. What a joy to see several of them get baptized in March. Each Thursday and Friday, they meet for Bible study and a number of other interested people are joining too. We are thankful how God has reached into their hearts.
I have read too many stories written by missionaries that sound too nice to be true. And I am fully aware that some readers might wonder whether this is true for this story as well. It can’t be right, can it? As most people are aware, all church planting projects somehow seem to face true challenges and go bad. And to those who are thinking this way, I have to admit that you are right!
Lung Yong currently seems to be walking the wobbly bridge again. We are not sure if he is fighting a previous addiction or if something else might be the cause. The oldest lady in the railway community is trying to keep her family members away from Christ. As a result, several people are not ready to take a stand for Christ. The alcoholic is still an alcoholic. And after their baptism, some people in the community south of the city ended up fighting and one family did not join the meetings for two months.
In the past, I would have been severely stressed about the things that are currently happening. But I’ve come to realize that the bridges opened into the community brought light into the lives of these people simply because God answered our prayers. We still see him at work and we know his work is much stronger than any stronghold of sin or Satan. Yes, we still see an alcoholic. But he is one who knows his need of Christ. We still see a lady trying to keep people from following Christ. But she only does that because people are following Christ. We see people who fight with each other. But we have also seen them, after two months, forgive one another. And yes, we see people who are not following through on their commitments. But praise God that he follows them wherever they go.
We pray and rely on his work that he started and will finish. We do not know what the end will look like, but I am sure it will be an end filled by his grace and full of his glory. Pray for us, and for other missionaries you know, that God may open to us a door for the word, that we may boldly declare the mystery of Christ, and that we may make it clear so that many would know the love of God that he has demonstrated through his Son Jesus Christ and become members of his eternal kingdom.