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Go East Young Man?


Practicing personal evangelism

Certainly that’s not right. The direction is supposed to be west, is it not? Well, if you live in Merida, and your goal is ministry among the Maya, then east is the direction you want to travel.

And go east we did, Joseph and I that is, to be a part of another Action Group training for the Jesus Film in Maya. We travelled three hours on a rather circuitous route to make it to the city of Tizimin, where one of my former students, Alex Canul, served as our host.  Once there, churches from Tizimin, Espita, and Dzonot Carretero, five in all, were trained with the view to participate in a Jesus Film outreach in their area.

Of course, the goal of the Jesus Film is much more than simply the projection of the film itself. The goal is to leave a nucleus of believers, a functioning church, in each place it is shown. To do so, Action Groups are trained in everything from personal evangelism and testifying to teaching discipleship classes to new believers.


Pastor Alex Canul

Our time in Tizimin was a full day of teaching strategy, methods, and techniques, but we took time as well to emphasize our dependence on the work of the Holy Spirit to create opportunities, to open doors, and to work in the hearts of those reached by the film. We left satisfied with the ground that we were able to cover, but more desperate than ever for God to reach Maya speakers in the Yucatán with a clear presentation of the story of Jesus and a church home full of the sound of their native language.

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Speaking with prayer group members

We were in San Isidro de Ochil on Monday night. We went there as as family in order to meet the new congregation planted by Jesus Film team member, Efren Sánchez. We made our way through a driving rain to meet Efren and his team, and then picked our way through the back roads that led from Efren’s village of Pixyah to the town of Ochil. Once there, we met the owner of the home where the church was meeting. Then, I got busy interviewing those who were there while Efren and his group went out to invite those who had not yet arrived.

The prayer service was quite standard in many respects, except of course for the Latinized Maya language that flowed through the house. We sang, prayed for the needs of those in the home, and received a message from Efren about the uniqueness of Christ. It wasn’t until all was over that the significance of the situation struck me.

With the service over, several members of the team from Pixyah headed to a corner store. They came back with bags of snacks and bottles of soda. The snacks were placed in a common bowl and passed for all to share. Plastic cups were then filled and distributed among those who had gathered in the house. It was as I reached my hand in the bowl that I couldn’t help but wonder if this was what Paul had in mind when he gave his rules for communion in 1 Corinthians 11.

Here were people of different levels of education, social circles, and economic status all gathered under the same roof. There were those who spoke Spanish, Maya, and English, conversing with each other, granted, some better than others. There were people from all walks of life sharing from a common bowl. We were disparate members, each with his or her own story, but in this one spontaneous, boisterous, yet holy moment, we were unified as the body of Christ.

There, in that little room, was a congregation. There, in that gathering, a new church had met. This is why we came. We remain so that others might live moments like these, moments that give opportunity for changed lives.

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Decay, abandonment, death. Entering the town of Santa Maria the signs are everywhere, from the dilapidated central plaza to the disheveled houses on the streets leading to it. However, none of these scenes speaks the volumes that does the ruins of the town’s cathedral. It’s proud facade tries to hide the harsh reality, but, passing through its closed doors, one finds nothing but a crumbling edifice: the roof, collapsed, the windows, replaced by rough hewn boards to keep out trespassers and truth seekers alike. It stands as a testimony to a proud community that could not stop the passage of time. Its monument, like its people, ravaged by the relentlessness of progress.

Still, there is another ruin, perhaps less visible, but no less remarkable. It appears as nothing more than a mound of rubble. To the untrained eye, it could be no more significant than any small hill or rocky bluff, but, in reality, it is the remains of an ancient Maya temple. This culture had once reigned far and wide throughout the Yucatán peninsula, extending its influence, its learning, and it’s power. Now, however, all that it once boasted of is ruined, forgotten, at best left to be stumbled upon by an unsuspecting passer-by.

It’s a sad tale a thousand years old. Still, the lesson that it teaches seemed to have been lost on the residents of Santa Maria. When pastor Josué Novelo and his team arrived early this year with the Jesus Film and its message of hope, few seemed interested although the need for hope in the community were all too visible. But then, one man whose wife had passed away reached out the the Pastor Josué’s team for help and comfort in his time of loss. After that, a woman who lost her husband to cancer approached the group, as well as an elderly couple feeling the same abandonment that their community is suffering, their’s the result of a family looking elsewhere for opportunities. Small beginnings to be sure, but is not that the New Testament pattern? (1 Cor 1:26-31) We had the chance to visit these families, to pray for them and to encourage them, letting them know that they had not been forgotten, helping them to understand that in Christ, although the signs of death may encircle us, there is eternal life.


Certainly, the road ahead is difficult for these new believers. Many of them do not read or write*, and skeptics still abound, like the husband of one believer whose short Maya phrases, though difficult to interpret, were easy to understand. Nevertheless, another look at the ruined structures at the town’s center reveals an interesting discovery: new life. Among the decaying structures, grass, vines, and even trees cover what were once smooth, stone surfaces.

There is life after death, but, for the town of Santa Maria, it doesn’t mean the rebuilding of structures. It means the rediscovery of the real life that comes from knowing God and being known by Him. This month, won’t you pray with us that the new life that has sprouted in this location and others throughout the Yucatán would take root and flourish?

*We’re working to deliver discipleship materials designed for the functionally illiterate with pictures instead of words. We’re also looking to furnish them with a way to listen to the Mayan language New Testament via MP3 so that they can explore the scriptures on their own, hearing it read aloud to them.

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Since we arrived for our second term here in the Yucatán in November of 2010, one of our emphases has been to see the gospel spread through the indigenous Maya culture. In the course of our work, we’ve taken several trips, met and worked with lots of individuals, and undertaken projects ranging from public events to church building. Through it all, we’ve realized it’s anything but “business as usual.” Here’s what we’ve learned so far:

1. We all have “boxes.”

Boxes are great tools, and as missionaries, we’ve come to have a special appreciation of them. They not only help us in our moves, but they retain their usefulness throughout our stay. Cultures, as well, are known to have their own “boxes”–ways of thinking and acting that are particular to a people or society, and, while there are certain conveniences that come from working out of these boxes, we rapidly see the liabilities of these beloved tools in a cross-cultural setting:

  • While they give us a place to store our “stuff,” they limit the amount of knowledge that we are open to receiving.
  • While they help us with categorization of our our experiences and perceptions, they also restrict us, causing problems when what we experience doesn’t fit with one of our preconceived categories.
  • While they aid us with the ability to recall past information in order to deal with a present situation, they also may lead us to stereotyping, especially when we have only a cursory knowledge of foreign customs or attitudes.

They scarier reality is that, although we have been trained to recognize the danger of utilizing our American-style boxes when engaging with Mexican culture, many Mexican nationals who desire to partner with us lack the training to realize that they too must recognize and overcome the temptation to operate exclusively from within their particular set of cultural norms.

While we had made certain assumptions in our partnership fellow ministers, we have found that the reality can often be quite different. For example, we had assumed that one’s proximity to the Maya culture would produce vision for ministry to that culture, However, we found that, at least with one worker who spoke the language and pastored among the people, this was not the case. His participation floundered soon after our first ministry trip. We had also thought that shared identity would equal experience, but found that even fellow “Yucatecos” can be at a loss when reaching out to the Maya culture of which they are descendants.

What we have experienced quite often are more in line with the idea that familiarity breeds contempt. In other words, that which is near at hand is seldom appreciated. Here in the Yucatán, many consider the Maya culture to be backward, outmoded. The language is not being passed on from one generation to the next as children have more interest in consuming what is produced in the global market than conserving their own heritage. With this in mind, there is an expectation for the indigenous to “move along” with the rest of society, limiting the number of those who would “reach back” in order to minister to these groups.

Also, we have found that the ministry that is being done often has a view to realize activities while it tends to sacrifice analysis. Many are quick to hold a campaign, but few succeed at the process of discipleship that is required before, during, and after the event. Events are planned out in minute detail, but rarely is the question asked, “Is this event appropriate for this community?”

So how do we do ministry among the indigenous, while encouraging our national brethren to join with us in the effort? That question leads us the the second lesson learned:

2. Our focus must be on understanding before we seek results.

The obstacles that we face are large. At times we aren’t understood, either by our ministry partners or the people to whom we are trying to minister. Conflicts come with partners over ministry approach, style, and content, while language barriers and culture disconnects often thwart our attempts to reach out to the indigenous in relevant, meaningful ways.

Nevertheless, we must believe that we can overcome these obstacles and work hard to do so. Among our partners, this must be done through vision-casting and mission-building. We must help them to see the big picture and get on board. Our goal is not that they become like us, but that they receive Christ into their own culture that He might transform them from the inside out.

In Romans 3:29, Paul asks the question, “Or is God the God of Jews only? Is he not the God of Gentiles too? Yes, of Gentiles too,” Our goal is that the Maya understand that God is their God as well, not just the God of the Spanish-speaker. Once this vision is accepted, we must make take steps to plan how this can be achieved, intentionally working together to bring about the desired result. Only with this plan in hand can we overcome our own cultural barriers and work together to extend the Kingdom of God among the indigenous.

Among the Maya, we must seek to gain entry into the culture, finding access through language-learning and key individuals who can serve to interpret the signals that so often come through our filters as just so much noise. We must also be willing to take a step back from our rush to stereotype behaviors and our hasty conclusions. We must understand that we need to learn to ask the right questions before we can ever be able obtain the answers that we’re so eager to receive.

Box photo used under Creative Commons by z287marc.

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Pass it on…

Here's a shot of the entire group!

There are things that we like to keep to ourselves. Passwords and credit card numbers, secrets between best friends, and perhaps our opinion of certain individuals may come to mind as a few examples. But, when it comes to training churches to multiply themselves, you’d have to agree that’s something better shared with others. This past Saturday, that’s exactly what we did.

In Yaxcabá, the seat of a municipality of a decidedly indigenous population, 4 groups from churches in surrounding towns gathered to hear how they can reach into that indigenous community with the help of the Jesus Film. Pastor Josué Novelo hosted the Jesus Film Team, Pedro Pablo Balam, and Angelino Ek, as they taught the church planting course that they had attended just a month before and put into practice in Cocoyol. Now, they were taking the theories and methods that they had proven, and were passing them on.

From left to right, Angelino Ek and Pedro Pablo Balam, members of the Jesus Film Team.

I had the privilege of preaching to this group as the seminar began, but the true blessing was to see these men, who had applied the vision, share it now with others. They did the teaching. They answered the questions, and they made themselves available to help these groups put the concepts that they were teaching into practice, and they were taking them up on their offer. On December 10th, the church in Yaxcabá will travel to Santa Maria for the next scheduled projection of the Jesus Film in Maya.

True, some things are better kept to ourselves, but, when it comes to church planting, the best advice is to pass it on!

To take a look at more of what went on, and to see the actual Action Groups, check out our photo album of the event here.

In this entry, cross-posted from her blog, Every Day is New, Kelly shares about her first visit to Cocoyol, the site of the first projection of the Jesus Film in Maya.

Cocoyol (coco – joel’). It isn’t on google maps, but it certainly exists. It took us over 3 hours to get there, which included a few wrong turns. It was raining during about half of our trip and raining when we arrived. Why did we go? To be part of a new work going on in Yucatan to start or “plant” new churches in the Mayan language. We are what you might call the “link” – hooking up those who have a vision to see the message of Jesus brought to people in their own language with a group of believers who have a desire and commitment to start a church, oh, and that speak both Maya and Spanish (that part is important!).

The Maya have been in math & history books, in several tourist guides and even in Hollywood, but I don’t think the current culture or people get that much publicity. In Cocoyol, we saw a snapshot of life for this indigenous people group.

It was a bit like entering any other small town at first glance. After we found the correct road, we traveled under a canopy of trees, that would have provided shade had it not been raining, and arrived at the “center of town” where the Catholic church and the local school were situated on two joining sides of a basketball court. The team had arrived before us, visiting the 100 families that make up this Maya community and letting them know about the event. Upon returning, they got to work setting up a portable screen and projector to show the Jesus film, not in Spanish but in Maya. “Wait!” you’re saying, “aren’t you living in Mexico?” Yes, yes we are. Although Spanish is the national language of Mexico, there are, according to Wikepedia, over 6 million indigenous Maya in 4 countries! And one of those is Mexico.

While the setup was taking place, I watched, snapped some photos, and spoke with the kids who were gathering. Fortunately, I didn’t need a personal translator since some of the kids were able to communicate in Spanish. I even got a few questions/words in English since some of the kids’ family members most likely have work in tourist areas. One particular boy acted as a sort of spokesman for the group; he even confiscated my camera and snapped a shot of Rebekah and me.

However, the kids spoke to each other in Maya, all the time. It was like being in another country for me. I knew that there were several families, even in the city where we live, who continued to speak Maya inside the home or between family members. There are older ladies in our church who help us with basic phrases to learn something new in their native tongue. But, hearing their everyday conversation being spoken in something other than Spanish was a bit surprising.

This was not the first time that the message of Jesus’ love had come to the small town. One boy told me of another group that had come on a few occasions (with a bigger screen!). The difference, we hope, is that the team’s goal is to come, to stay, and to speak their language. The Maya language. The team is not from America or Korea, but from a larger town in Mexico, about 30 minutes or so away. And they don’t plan on being a passing memory.

I played a small part, not being on the team and not speaking the language. Sure, I spoke Spanish and a few answered me in Spanish. I mainly talked and played with the kids. My kids and I taught them Simon Says and they taught us “veneno” (poison) which, fortunately, was a harmless game where they spun in different directions holding hands 😉 They practiced some English phrases and I practiced some Maya ones. They were amazed at the height of our daughter, who is 12 going on 13. I marveled at their ages being 12 and 17 and still being in the 3rd and 6th grades, respectively, of their elementary school.

It is clear we are very different, but we are loved by the same God. I am glad my God doesn’t speak to me in Mandarin or French or Turkish. Can you even imagine? . . . That is the idea behind this team and others that will follow in their footsteps and in the footsteps of Jesus – speaking the language of the people, sharing His beautiful words of life.

Kelly’s added a few of her photos from the trip to our photo album. You can view them all here.

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Abel prays for the Action Group members. The songs spoke of fulfilling the Great Commission. The sermon was from Romans chapter 10. Believers were called forward for special prayer to be sent out to do ministry. It sounds like any other missions service that you’ve witnessed in your local church, right? Except this service didn’t take place in the U.S. It was held in Chemax, Yucatán, where, this past Saturday, a group of believers were sent out to plant the first evangelical church in Cocoyol, Yucatán. (View more pictures of the event here.)

Kelly the kids and I traveled the 2 1/2 hours to be there for this special event, which marks the first outreach based on the Jesus Film Project that we have been promoting throughout the district. The church was filled for this Saturday service where a group of 7 church members committed themselves to the 8 week project of evangelism and discipleship guided by the Jesus Film material. Abel Can, the District Missions Director, and Miriam Pech, the District Coordinator of Ministry to Ethnic Groups were on hand to encourage and witness the event. Also present was the Jesus Film Team comprised of Pedro Pablo Balam and Angelino Ek, who will be guiding these believers through the church plant process.

I also had the opportunity to greet the congregation. I thanked them for their vision to break down the barriers to the gospel that many Maya speakers face. In many parts of the Yucatán, those who would want to learn more about Jesus have to learn Spanish to do so. As this Action Group moves to plant this church, they are announcing to the community of Cocoyol that God has come near, that He speaks their language, that He desires to dwell in their context. I commended them for catching the vision of Revelation 7:9 where those of every nation, tribe, people, and tongue, even the Maya, gather around the throne to worship Jesus, the Lamb of God.

It’s our prayer that this event is the first of many as the vision of reaching the Maya people is extended throughout Yucatán.

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Cruzadas Estudiantiles representatives David Gamboa and Oscar Gonzalez pray for Pedro Pablo Balam and his wife Noemi Uitzil during our visit to Cocoyol. You’ll have to excuse me for my tardiness in getting this post up, I’m a bit breathless from all of the activity of the past week. In four jam-packed days, we visited two church plant locations, covered the Jesus Film church planting strategy, stepped through an 7-week discipleship course for new believers, and outfitted our Jesus Film Team with all of the tools that they need to put the plan in action. The seminar ended on Thursday. The Yucatecan pastors, and the representatives from Power to Change, Canada and Cruzadas Estudiantiles, Mexico, have all returned to their homes. The the event is over, but there is the feeling that a movement is just beginning.

As I had mentioned in this previous post, our goal is to plant churches among the Maya of the Yucatan. The seminar was a first step, but the vision needs to be defined. The dream needs to be made concrete. What has been studied on paper will need to be put into practice in the real world, and that is exactly what we plan to do.

On October 22nd, Kelly, the kids and I will travel, along with Abel Can our District Missions Director to Chemax, Yucatan, to commission the first Action Team who will be charged with planting a church in the comisaria of Cocoyol, where there is currently no evangelical presence. Our desire is to recognize the step of faith that these believers are taking as they are being sent out from among their own to make disciples.

Missionary Ken Priebe from Power to Change inspects the Jesus Film equipment. Following the commission service, The Jesus Film Team, made up by Pedro Pablo Balam, and Angelino Ek, will organize the first projection, which will take place on Sunday, October 30th at that site. But more than simply showing a film, these gentlemen are committed to evangelism and follow-up in the area until 15 adults are registered to receive discipleship studies. The Action Team that the church has raised up will provide the support and oversight to solidify this new work in the weeks that follow.

But the founding of the new work in Cocoyol is not the end of the project; it is only the beginning. Eleven other pastors and congregations are waiting their turn to put the Jesus Film strategy into action in their area. The month of November has been designated to help those pastors form their Action Teams and receive the training that they need in order to replicate these church planting efforts throughout the Maya speaking regions of Yucatan and beyond.

Tomás Vera speaks before the commissioning of the Jesus Film Team and equipment. Our District Superintendent, Tomás Vera, has stated his vision for the next two years: one hundred new churches planted and one hundred new ministers for the state of Yucatan. That kind of vision requires much more that the efforts of a chosen few. It’s a vision that requires a concerted effort on the part of pastors and congregations alike. There is the feeling that the Jesus Film Project might just be the right tool at the right time to fulfill that vision.

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As I’ve mentioned in a prior post, to date, no coordinated effort has been made by the Assemblies of God of Yucatán to plant churches directed at reaching the Maya-speaking population of the Yucatan peninsula, but soon that’s all about to change.

Next Tuesday, October 11th, we kick off our church planting seminar in coordination with Cruzadas Estudiantiles of Mexico, Power to Change of Canada and the Assemblies of God District of Yucatán. We’ll be working together with 12 pastors and a team of two church planters to direct our efforts toward planting Maya-speaking works in the states of Yucatan and Quintana Roo. Our goal is that at the end of a year’s time, 12 new missions will be running, doing their part in God’s plan to redeem the Maya people.

We’re excited and confident that the road-tested program and the months of planning will pay off, but at the same we’re keenly aware of our need for God’s presence to guide and direct us. For that reason, we’re appealing to you. Please take a few moments and pray:

  1. For the safe arrival of all of the participants before the seminar and safe travel throughout as we tour various church planting sites.
  2. For the tangible presence of God and a keen awareness of His voice throughout our meetings.
  3. For an openness among the pastors and church planters to new ideas and new ways of doing ministry.
  4. For an honest evaluation of the program and a meaningful, culturally relevant application of its principle ideas.
  5. For communication of the information being passed on, that clear understanding would lead to decisive action.

Thanks for your support, and be looking to hear from us next week during the event!

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Road Trip!

View Trip through Yucatán in a larger map

I’m testimony to the fact that we live in the age of text messages and tweets. In fact, my last short term missions team was almost completely planned through Twitter, but, here in the Yucatan, there is still something special about that face to face meeting.

Yesterday was a case in point. Teaming up with Abel Can and Miriam Pech, our District Missions Director and Coordinator of Ministry to Ethnic Groups respectively, along with the support and training of Power to Change, we’re committed to planting churches among the Maya of the Yucatan. To make this vision a reality, we need the cooperation of several local pastors. These pastors are doing more than simply taking a course or receiving materials, they’re committing their congregations to the task of planting new, Maya speaking works, specifically 12 in the next year. This kind of request can’t be made via cell phone. It required a road trip.

As you can see from the map above, we started the trip at 7:30 AM in Merida. We made our way to 5 towns, speaking with pastors at each spot. Each meeting was face to face, explaining the plan and clarifying questions. The personal visit broke down barriers immediately. The time in each location enabled us form working relationships with each minister. Fifteen hours and 455 miles later, we were able to confirm the participation of seven additional pastors in this church planting movement.

But the time on the roads was much more than the task at hand. It was a chance to spend time with fellow laborers and hear their heart as well. At the pastor’s meeting in Tahdizbichen, I sat back and listened as Abel encouraged the pastors to expand their vision, to look beyond the four walls of the church and to seek to fulfill the Great Commission. The time spent on the roads was more than worth it to hear his message.

Sure, I’m still committed to tweeting with the best of them, but I’m also a firm believer that technology will never replace the value of the personal visit.

How about you? Do you agree, or do you think that technology will make personal meeting obsolete? Let’s hash out the pros and cons in the comments section.

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