If you ever have the opportunity to taste a fresh mangosteen, take it! Do not miss the chance to enter a whole new realm of juicy sweetness with this “queen of fruits.” I have never met a person who dislikes mangosteen, and there are many who join me in calling it their favorite. The jury is still out, however, on the so called “king of fruits,” the durian. There is enough disagreement as to the flavor and appeal of durian among those who have eaten it that you can kick off an intense debate by merely mentioning the subject. Indeed, the members of our own family are in disagreement as to whether it is even edible!
One of the blessings of living in Thailand is having affordable access to an abundant variety of fruits. And no one can accuse our family of not taking full advantage of this. We buy so much fruit that our favorite vendor at the local market once asked if we have our own store. We have not, however, spent much time wondering about the process involved in getting this produce to the fruit stand. Not, at least, until recently when we were talking about how not everything (or everyone) grows and produces fruit at the same rate.
A quick check on the Internet told us that “conventional vegetative propagation of the mangosteen is difficult.” It takes two or more years for mangosteen seedlings to reach one foot in height, after which they can be transplanted. It takes at least seven years, even up to 20, before the fruit can be harvested. Durian trees, on the other hand, grow in any soil type as long as there is enough water, and they produce fruit within five to ten years after planting.
There are many good reasons why the process of planting, cultivating and producing in the agricultural context serves as a good metaphor for spiritual growth and mission. One of the major themes that stands out to me as I reflect on our experience with church planting is that it is a process, and processes take time. The concept of process is more helpful in this line of work than seeking predictability with a focus on immediate cause and effect.
One of our language/culture helpers told us of a study done by a large missionary organization that found it takes an average of seven years for a Thai Buddhist to become fully committed to Jesus—a solid follower who internalizes the Christian identity. When someone comes to you ready and open, drinking in what they are learning, you need only listen to their story to realize that the Holy Spirit has been at work a long time, and that other people, organizations and events have prepared the soil of their heart and planted seeds.
Take Pear, for example, a high school student in Khon Kaen. When we arrived in Thailand almost five years ago, Pear and her friend Anna (who has an Adventist background), occasionally came to our little worship group at Pastor Wanlop’s house. We learned that Pastor Wanlop had started a Bible study group in Anna’s home a year before, and Pear had attended eagerly until her parents had forbidden her from becoming a Christian. They believed that being a Christian and a good daughter were mutually exclusive.
A year passed, and Pear and Anna, along with several of their high school friends, began faithfully attending our Friday-night small group. This lasted almost two years, but when Anna started her senior year, she got busy and they rarely came. One of the things that kept them connected to church, however, was joining some of the Sabbath afternoon hikes and sundown worships that our teammates, the Sorensens, facilitated. Gradually, Pear and Anna (and other friends of theirs) began to regularly attend church again. After Nok’s baptism, Pear expressed a desire to resume studies and get baptized. Her parents no longer feel threatened by the idea of having a Christian daughter. Perhaps they even recognize that her exposure to Jesus’ teaching has made her a better person. Now, Pear and Anna regularly join other young people at the Friday-night group led by student missionaries Tiffany and Nina. Pear will soon begin the Discovery Bible Studies with our teammate Kyle Tumberg and Tum, a Thai Adventist young woman who lives near Khon Kaen and will be mentored by Kyle in the Bible-study process through this experience.
Awareness of the nature of growth keeps us humble even as we recognize the importance of our role here and the impact of our ministry. It helps us avoid making quick judgments that come from a narrow focus leading to a distrust of God’s ability to fulfill His master plan. It also serves as a defense against discouragement. Knowing that everything we do in Jesus’ name has a long-term impact—every personal interaction and every prayer we pray for someone—keeps us hopeful and courageous.
May Pear’s story encourage you and give you a glimpse of the value of your interest, support and prayers in this process of growing God’s Kingdom in Thailand. May you be encouraged, knowing that God is lovingly at work in the process of your own life and in the lives of your loved ones.