Jesus and culture

written by Ellyn Schellenberg

“Just a few weeks ago, they baptised their first two Jesus followers, a mother and her daughter, [who are] both from the Bama people group,” said Palin*, an OM worker involved in discipleship training in Southeast Asia, about a local couple’s ministry in Myanmar. “Around 20-30 people gather together on a weekly basis. Some of them are Jesus followers, some are seekers and some are just interested in hearing Jesus’ stories.”

This new fellowship formed over the past year in a community that previously had no church. It began with a man, Ferb*, who prayed and sought God’s direction, and who attended an OM seminar and caught the vision for ministry in the least-reached parts of his own country: Myanmar. Ferb had recently graduated seminary but left the capital city, moving his family back to a rural southwest village near where he was born.

The village consisted of people from the Bama and Karan groups, who are predominantly animistic-Buddhists. One monk, in particular, resisted the ‘foreign’ Christians moving in. The couple, despite being from the area, was viewed as foreign because they followed Christ. The rural community also had no schools, so elementary-aged children travelled long distances on foot, or by motorbike if their family owned one, to the closest schools. But since they had never attended any kindergarten classes, the students often fell behind in their studies, unable to keep up with their peers. To address this educational gap, Ferb gathered the youngest village children together and taught them in order to give the children a solid learning foundation.

Then suddenly, Ferb’s four-month-old daughter got sick and died. He and his wife were devastated and thought about returning to their life and family back in the capital city. There were many cultural and religious differences between how a Christian and an animist-Buddhist handles death. The community expected monks to be involved in the funeral of the child, and some even viewed the death as bad luck. Ferb was unsure how to navigate the situation without breaking trust with those they were there to serve and love.

Through consultation with Palin and other leaders, Ferb and his wife agreed to bury their daughter in the village and pay to feed the monks, something the community expected. “That created more opportunities, rather than seeking outright conflict,” Palin explained. “Instead of saying: ‘We are Christians and we don't do any of this stuff,’ [Ferb] built bridges with the truth of the gospel, sensitivity and a loving attitude towards people.”

After the funeral, the couple’s relationships in the village shifted. The community offered Ferb and his wife a plot of land to build a house so they could continue tutoring the children. When there was a water crisis, Ferb helped dig a fresh well. Now, just over a year since the death of their child, through their faithful ministry of educating children, helping with some practical projects, building relationships within the community and sharing about Jesus, there is a small fellowship of people worshipping together. They gather together to study God’s Word and to sing songs that Ferb has written in the local language.

“I believe [his ministry] is in line with the Apostle Paul, who taught to become all things to all men,” Palin said. “And so we teach how to keep the biblical truth of the gospel and the Scriptures, and yet allow [local Jesus followers] the freedom to work through their social and cultural issues.”

*name changed

Myanmar: Children are a source of joy and life. Photo by Ellyn Schellenberg.

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