Taking the gospel to Southeast Asia requires more than human resources.
By Laurie Falvo
The Southern Asia-Pacific Division of the Seventh-day Adventist Church is home to nearly 750 million people. This beautiful region of the world is mind-boggling in its diversity. Each country has its own exotic mix of languages, religions, and cultures.
This immense diversity makes this territory one of the most challenging areas in the world in which to share the gospel. Church growth has been slow, but exciting things are beginning to happen.
The Southern Asia-Pacific Division is made up of 18 countries tucked between China, India, and Australia. This area includes the Southeast Asia region, the countries of Sri Lanka and Bangladesh, and the Oceanic missions of Guam and Micronesia.
Another great challenge to mission in this division is its staggering population. It has more than 20 cities greater than 1 million people each. Eight of the 18 countries have fewer than five Adventist churches or companies for every million people. And 77 unique ethnic groups have more than 1 million people who may have never even heard the name of Jesus.
“We have between 800-900,000 members in the Philippines and Indonesia, where the majority of our members live,” says Rick McEdward, division Adventist Mission coordinator. “But in the areas that are more difficult to reach, it’s a real challenge. The percentage of our members living outside these two countries is quite small.”
The challenges are huge, yet the church is growing.
In 1975 the Pol Pot regime took power in Cambodia, killing millions of people and crushing the backbone of the Adventist Church in that region.
Thousands of refugees poured into crowded camps, bringing nothing with them but hunger, fear, and the clothes on their backs. Yet in their darkest night, Adventist missionaries were there to offer a glimmer of hope.
Dick and Jean Hall were missionaries in southern Asia for 25 years and personally ministered to the displaced people of Cambodia. “One day,” says Pastor Hall, “the refugees asked us why the Adventist Church bothered to help them when they could give nothing in return. We said, ‘We’re here because of Jesus. ‘Well, who’s Jesus?’ Then we’d begin to tell. ‘God sent His Son to this world because He loves us and wants to help us. We’re in need, and He asks us to go out to all the other people in need and help them.’ And they said, ‘We want to learn more about Jesus.’”
From the refugee camps a handful of new believers went back to Cambodia as pioneer workers. The Cambodian church was reborn. Today it’s growing rapidly through Global Mission pioneers, the help of supporting ministries, and a carefully planned small-group ministry movement.
The tiny country of Laos, nestled between Vietnam and Thailand, has few Christians.
Before political changes closed formal Adventist work, Dick and Jean Hall served there as missionaries, operating a small school in a mountain village.
“The thing I am most proud of,” says Hall, “is that the Lord was able to use us in reaching some of the Hmong, the mountain people, who went to our little school. They became pastors and now they’ve gone out and raised up churches.”
In 1961 the Halls were forced to evacuate. But before leaving, they helped many of their students leave via their plane. Today the church is impoverished. Without a single ordained minister in the entire country, it desperately needs training and resources.
Jakarta, Indonesia, is the largest city in the largest Muslim country in the world. It’s a city of stark contrasts. Here modern buildings and conveniences clash with shocking poverty and despair.
The Seventh-day Adventist Church has chosen Jakarta as one of its Hope for Big Cities projects, an initiative to build the church in some of the largest cities in the world. Here pastors and lay members are partnering to reach the 18 million people in their city. They’re giving Bible studies, training new workers, and ministering through small groups.
And they’re reaping a small harvest. When the church held a recent evangelistic series, more than 1,600 people gave their hearts to Jesus and were baptized.
Yet very few of these conversions were from the majority Muslim population, which continues to be extremely difficult to reach.
Jon Dybdahl, a former missionary to Southern Asia, shares some of the challenges of presenting the gospel in this part of the world.
“One of toughest challenges is that most of the people here are non-Christian Buddhist, Hindu, Muslim, and therefore we don’t share a common background. Most of us in the West—Europe, Australia, and North America—have been trained to share our faith with people from a Christian background. You don’t realize that until you move out and try to work with another religion.”
Bangkok, the capital of Thailand, lies in the heart of the 10/40 window, where two thirds of the world’s population live. It is home to many world religions, relatively few Christians, and rapidly growing cities.
Until recently there were only five Adventist churches in Bangkok. Doug Venn is coordinator for the Hope for Bangkok church planting project that is working to reach the city’s 10 to 13 million people.
“With the Hope for Bangkok project and help from the world field, we’ve started 10 new church plants,” says Pastor Venn. “These all started from small groups. We’ve had changed lives and baptisms. But the most exciting thing is that the laypeople have just seized the work. So our investment of 10, thanks to the sacrifice of the world church, has blossomed and another eight more have started.”
The success of this church planting project is astounding. Especially when you realize that the church has had a presence in Thailand for more than 100 years. Yet throughout all of Thailand we have a relative handful of believers—and most of these come from small minority groups, not the dominant Thai population.
Building bridges of understanding is what the Global Mission Center for Ministry Among Buddhists is all about. Center director Scott Griswold, who has lived among Buddhists for many years, is seeking more effective ways to help them understand Adventist beliefs. Every Sabbath the Griswolds hold a church service in their home and invite their Buddhist friends and neighbors to attend.
Recently their Buddhist landlady, friend, and aunt to their children accepted Jesus as her Savior.
“We praise God for so many good things that are happening in the Southern Asia-Pacific Division,” says Adventist Mission director Gary Krause. “But we still see the tremendous challenges that remain. We don’t have the answers. We don’t have the plans. We don’t have the resources. But we must pray that even though we are not sufficient for these things, we will trust in God who is. And we will be committed to be part of His plan to reach every man and woman, boy and girl, with the good news about Jesus Christ.”
Laurie Falvo is a Communication Projects manager for the Office of Adventist Mission at the Seventh-day Adventist Church world headquarters. To learn more about Seventh-day Adventist missionaries and what is happening in mission in the world church, visitwww.AdventistMission.org.