Archive for the ‘A Personal History of Let’s Start Talking’ Category

Tonight September 25, 2010, is the 30th Anniversary Let’s Start Talking Celebration Dinner—and this is the last in this series of blog posts on the history of LST.  It’s been fun remembering all the days, but I’ve been reminded of a few things from writing down our history as well:

  • The horse is made ready for battle, but the victory belongs to the Lord.” Proverbs 21:31 We have made many, many plans for how to start things, how to improve things, what to do next, where to go, who to work with, how to fund things, but rarely do things go as we planned. You are either frustrated because you can’t make things happen—or better, you are thankful that God is in control!  The verse above does not say, don’t prepare; rather, we are reminded that God’s Way is the best way, so hurray that God took the steering wheel out of our hands!!
  • A friend loves at all times” Proverbs 17:17We are still friends with some of those very first students—who at the time were just 10-12 years younger than we were. We don’t see Amy or Pete or Lisa that much anymore—but I would do anything for them, and they would do the same.   Many of the adults who began to go with us in the 90s are those we visit and sit with at lectureships—even travel with occasionally—because we love each other.  The average age of the people on staff has always been about 30 –and we are dear friends and love to do things and have fun together.  People come and go in your life, but those you serve the Lord with are your brothers and sisters forever!
  • Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and lean not on your own understanding.” Proverbs 3:5 Our work for 30 years now has been with that which is unfamiliar. We’ve worked in countries we didn’t understand, with cultures we didn’t understand, with people who thought differently from us. We have always tried to be wise and use good judgment—but I know that it is not our wisdom or intelligence or experience that has created a good work or kept it on course. God alone has provided  all that is good. Sherrylee and I have been the recipients of His mercy, and have, in the process, learned to trust Him even more!
  • The harvest is plentiful.” Luke 10:2 I’m pretty well convinced that people are receptive all over the world and that we are very foolish to try to decide on our own who is and who isn’t receptive. It’s like being a day trader and trying to pick the stock that is going to make us money today. I’ve never been in any country where there weren’t  more people to talk to about Jesus than you could accomplish in a lifetime! I’m OK with having places where certain people can work better because of the way God wired them up, but I believe God is loving and seeking in all places, and we should be sowing and seeking –and sometimes harvesting in the same places where God is!

Well, I’m committed to getting back to shorter posts, so I’m going to stop and make breakfast . There is really just one story that counts, only one story that gets us up every morning of our lives:

“For God so loved the world that He gave His only Son so that whoever believes in Him will not perish, but have eternal life!”

Read Full Post »

Did you know every fourth person you meet could be from China?  Yes, every fourth person in the world is Chinese—and God loves every one of them so much that He sent Jesus to live and die for them! That’s why Let’s Start Talking goes to China.

The first recorded attempt to introduce Christianity in China was in the 7th century, with other mission efforts following in the Middle Ages. Some believe that these efforts failed to take root because they went first to the leading and royal families and never won the hearts of the common people. Whether this is true or not, the current spread of Christianity in China is certainly a grassroots event. This is why LST has been so effective in China.

Mark, Sherrylee, and Steve McLean on first site visit to China

In 2002, we were approached by a Korean American minister whose Korean parents and brother’s families had decided to adopt the city of Qing Dao as their mission site.  The elderly parents and the brother’s family had already moved there. Together they had spent two years getting permission to open a private language school, which they called Dr. Paul’s – after the Apostle Paul.

They had been offering Korean, but they wanted to offer English as well, so they approached us about bringing teams over. They could not—or did not want to use the Bible in their public classes, which might have attracted the attention of the officials, so we decided to offer the one-on-one conversation classes with visiting Americans as a voluntary supplemental opportunity. We hoped to accomplish several things, including making their school more attractive while at the same time planting the seeds of faith into the hearts of those we read with.

Sherrylee and I, along with Steve McLean, made what is called a site visit in LST jargon in February 2003. Steve and his wife Val had become some of our best friends and best LST leaders. When we had tough spots and needed the very best, we would send Steve and Val!

On that trip, all we saw was opportunity. I had expected to find something similar to Russia after the fall of Communism—rather drab and dismal and with everyone highly suspicious of each other. Instead we found bustling, wealthy cities—and the Chinese people we met were friendly, outgoing, and unafraid. They did not act like nor did they feel like an “oppressed” people—something which made them much more open, I believe.

We went to the famous Chinese circus one night in Beijing. Foreigners must buy VIP tickets, so we paid something like $15 dollars for them, but what surprised me was that there were only about ten foreigners in the large  center section of the large auditorium and probably 3-400 Chinese people over on the side in the non-foreigner section, making us feel pretty strange.

Sherrylee decided to help break down the Great Wall, so at intermission, she walked over to the aisle that ran up the Chinese side of the auditorium where some children were sitting. She commented to the parents how cute the children were—but they spoke no English, so–typical Sherrylee—she opens her purse and pulls out our grandkids pictures to show the children.

Of course all 300 of the Chinese had been watching her the entire time, but when she pulled out the pictures, it was just too much, so it seemed like all of them jumped out of their seats and came down to where she was so they could see the pictures and meet this friendly, foreign lady! They were smiling and laughing and just loving that they had this unexpected opportunity to interact with us!

Chinese Students interested in English

All of our teams that have gone to China since the first team in 2003 have found this to be true. I got to be a part of the first team LST team to China, but about the third day into the project, I got food poisoning and spent three or four days pretty sick. I had my first visit to a doctor that did acupuncture on me. I guess it helped; I did survive, but I don’t go to Chinese buffets here at home quite as much as I used to! (As far as I know, no one else from LST has ever had food poisoning in China!)

Over the next three years, LST was approached about working in several other Chinese cities: Guangzhou, Beijing, Shanghai, Xian, and most recently, Xiamen—a beautiful city most Americans have not heard of. Since 2007, LST has sent several hundred people to serve in China.

Since there are no “hosting churches” in China, we tend to work with either Americans living there or with established house churches—or family churches as they prefer to say.  We have rented apartments in most of the cities, since our only other choice would be to stay in hotels, which is a much more expensive option.  But having the apartments also lets LST send teams year round to these sites, which provides much more continuity—a kind of follow-up built into our work there.

Usually our teams make contact with Chinese people at what are called English corners, which are just gathering places and times for Chinese people who want to meet foreigners who speak English.   In this very public setting, they ask questions about everything from geography to politics—and often about Christianity. This opens a door quite naturally so that you can invite them to contact you and answer their questions while helping them with their English.  After that, it works like every other LST project in the world.

Alva von Heimburg and Julie Squire with Chinese Readers

In several of the cities, LST now works with American Christians who are working there full-time—several of whom first went to China on LST!  I’m being a bit cautious with names because some places in China have more government intrusion than others. Most places we work are working quite publicly.  In fact, one of the great American families living there now told us to quit giving the LST workers we sent so many precautionary instructions about security in China—because the Americans were making the Chinese Christians afraid and hindering their witness.  I think they were right!

To go into all the world does mean to go to China. But the Chinese Christians are going into all the world also—so it may only be a season that we Americans even have a role in China. We are blessed and improved by having the opportunity to serve there.

NEXT:  The Next LST Chapter

Read Full Post »

Sherrylee and I have always wanted to take LST into the Muslim world—but we didn’t know how. We needed a Russian church to show us the way!

Tim Brinley and Sherrylee on our first visit to Antalya, Turkey

Nobody has more adventurous ideas nor is any bolder than Tim Brinley, whom we first met in Moscow.  As I mentioned in a previous post, he and his mission team had really become the first long-term missionaries from churches of Christ in Moscow just a few years after it opened to Westerners.

He had done mission work, however, in Turkey back in the 1970s and still had a real heart for the people of that country.  Partly to teach the church in Moscow to be missional and partly because of his passion for the people of Turkey, he proposed to LST that we allow him to take a group of Russian Christians to Turkey where they would do a version of LST, not with English, but in the Russian language.

Sherrylee, who hangs right in there in boldness with Tim, said absolutely not—UNLESS he agreed to let us bring a group of American Christians to do a joint LST project in Turkey with the Russian Christians—which he gladly did.  So the plans were made for the summer of 2002.

Turkey is a totally Muslim country—but is secular by law, which means that they have a strong separation of church and state.  One of the phrases we heard most often that first year was, “Tell Americans to come. We are not Iran!”  The combined Russian/American LST team had nothing to fear, even though our presence and our work made some of the Turkish people around us a little nervous.

Tim chose to work in a beautiful tourist city on the Mediterranean coast called Antalya—or Atalia for those familiar with the missionary journeys of St. Paul. We advertised with flyers in windows and at the university. We also put a big ad in the local newspaper for an information meeting at a well-known hotel.  Many people came. All were told that while we helped them with their English, we were going to use texts from the Bible—stories of Isa, the Quran’s name for Jesus.

Overlooking the Antalya Harbor

For two weeks, we had regular LST reading sessions all over the little pension where we were staying—even on the roof. Daily the call to prayer would interrupt us from the many minarets in our section of the city.  We were careful, but not fearful at all. In fact, we loved the people we met—and they loved us.  Love really does cast out fear!

The third week was a little trickier. An article came out in the local paper with a picture of our group warning the people of Antalya that we were trying to lead their children astray!  Even our Turkish Readers were shocked at the inaccuracies. After that, local policemen walked by almost every day just to look in—just to check.

One of our Readers, a local shopkeeper, began to be mildly harassed by the other merchants on his street: “Are you going to become a Christian?” they would ask him.  He hasn’t yet, but we are still in touch with him. Pray for him.

We followed this same pattern of reading and advertising openly in Turkey for the first two years and read with over 200 people, but after the invasion of Iraq in 2003, the attitude toward Americans abroad was so bad that we had to work more quietly.

Instead of open reading programs which we could no longer advertise for, we began sending internships to Antalya, i.e., young people with long-term desires to do kingdom work abroad together with a teacher/sponsor. They would study the Turkish language and culture, visit mosques, interview local Christians and Muslims—and read Luke with anybody that they met personally.

One of the first four interns is in Laos now, but two of the first LST interns currently live in Turkey and are spreading the Good News  full-time. Pray for them all.

For the last two years, LST has partnered with Oklahoma Christian to send hybrid groups to Antalya, part study abroad and part LST groups.  Just because it is not easy to know the best form for work in difficult countries, this does not relieve us of the responsibility to be there.

Bob and Donna Carpenter interview Turkish man in Antalya.

I believe Turkey to be a very important country, that it serves as the front porch for going into the rest of  the Muslim world. It was not easy in Turkey during Paul’s day and it is no easier now; occasionally now there are roadblocks, but we have not yet been stoned or beaten or shipwrecked like Paul, so I’m thrilled that we have been able to continue working there, trying to be ready for every door as God opens it to us.

NEXT:   China!

Read Full Post »

In addition to all the excitement about Let’s Start Talking abroad, a new development in the U.S. also changed and challenged us.

FriendSpeak for US Churches

In the early 90s, probably 1991-92, Danny Corbitt called us with a very interesting idea. He was the campus minister at the University of Texas at Arlington, and he was looking for an evangelistic strategy that he and his Christian students could use to reach out to the huge number of international students on their campus.

After talking for a little bit, we both realized that what LST was doing abroad could easily be replicated here in the states, so he invited Sherrylee and me down to Arlington to train a group of his students to do LST on their campus. We did a Friday night and Saturday workshop with them, basically covering LST’s core philosophy of letting the Word be the teacher while the Worker is the illustration.

They launched this program with great success. When Danny left campus ministry a few years later, the work was picked up by the Park Row Church of Christ which is just off the campus of UT Arlington and  still very active. This was the genesis of what today we call FriendSpeak.

FriendSpeak is the domestic version of Let’s Start Talking. For many years, we would train churches or campus ministries whenever called, but it was not something we really offered or talked about very much.  By the end of the 90s, however, it was becoming clear that this was a great opportunity, so we began structuring our offering more. 

Today, Ben Woodward, directs just the FriendSpeak branch of LST. “The World is at our doorstep, and we are ready!” is the message. He trains 30-40 churches each year to reach out to their non-English speaking neighbors and on their campuses., something our churches are realizing more and more is a great need in our diversifying communities.  Many churches, like the Prestoncrest Church of Christ in Dallas, have 50-75 international people coming each week to read the story of Jesus in English with one of their members who is trained to do FriendSpeak.

Another new effort in the later 90s was what we called FriendsCamp. We actually got this idea from the churches in Antwerp and Eindhoven who conducted a weekend retreat together at the end of their LST projects, thinking that it would be a good time to build relationships with the new Readers that the LST team had worked with.  As God would have it, one of the Dutch Readers was a wonderful young man, truly searching for God, and at this weekend , he said things like, “I’ve never thought Christians could be happy people, but I see that that is not true!” or “I have been brought up in a Christian country, I thought, but I did not know Jesus was like this!”

Ruud was baptized shortly after this retreat. He then went to the Corby Bible School in England and has been a youth minister and a servant of God from that day forward. His experience showed us the value of these retreat environments, so we created a project-type that we could offer to mission sites, where LST provided a camp team to come in and do an English camp, including small group reading sessions from the Word.  FriendsCamps also offered a one-week option for US Christians who could not get more vacation time, so it was good for LST as well.

The End of One Phase and the Beginning of the Next

LST 1982 -- Everybody!

The statistic that keeps astonishing me is that in 1989, LST sent 58 workers; by 1999, it was 325 workers. You can imagine what that kind of growth did to our budget, to our staffing needs, and to the time demands—especially on Sherrylee and me. This growth also brought serious challenges with it!

By 1999, LST had a small staff of about 10 employees, a mixture of full-time and part-time.  Our budget had grown to over five hundred thousand dollars/year. Oklahoma Christian continued to provide us office space and many other amenities, although we now had to pay for our telephone and internet service.  Nancy Moran, who had been LST’s primary travel agent for many years, had to give us up because we were too big for her.

In fact, being too big was a problem for the Dayspring Church leaders as well. Still a church of 150 or so, they were nervous about the responsibilities of overseeing a ministry of over 300 people, a budget that was three or four times larger than the church budget, and all the liability that went with all of the above.

Dayspring first asked us to form an Advisory Board, which would help the elders oversee this ministry. This first advisory board helped formulate the mission statement that is still our guideline. It helped us evaluate new options as they arose and they began to help us set fiscal policy. Among the first members of the Advisory Board were Bill Adrian, former Provost at Pepperdine, and Pam Money, wife of Royce Money who then was president of Abilene Christian University. Sherrylee and I were very thankful for the advisory board and their help with the leadership of the ministry.

By 1998/99 though, the Dayspring elders asked us to find a new sponsoring church. We approached the two large churches in our part of Oklahoma City, but neither of them felt like they were in a position to take LST on either. So we contacted Roger Dean and Mike Bell, two elders of the Richland Hills Church of Christ in Fort Worth, Texas, who had just gone together to Moscow with an LST group from that church the summer of 1998.

2001 LST Staff who moved to Fort Worth at Staff Retreat

Within two weeks of making the proposal to RHCC, the elders basically said YES, if we can make it work. They sent Dale Brooks, then the minister of finance, to do due diligence. Then a group of elders and ministers came to Oklahoma to visit with Sherrylee and me personally.  We talked through all of the issues surrounding the transfer of LST to RHCC, and I think we both came away from that visit feeling like God was creating a wonderful new marriage.

In October, 1999, we were introduced to the church in their Sunday assembly as a new ministry of that church.  By the fall of 2000, we committed to move the ministry and ourselves to Fort Worth, which we did in the summer of 2001.

Leaving our friends in Oklahoma and our work at Oklahoma Christian after twenty-two years there was not easy, but it was the right time! God was ready to do more with Let’s Start Talking and we needed a new place—closer to a bigger airport!

Read Full Post »

LST Team in Moscow

In the euphoria and surprise of the collapse of Soviet domination, Scott Lambert and some Pepperdine students approached us in the fall of 1990 about sending a team to Russia. We said Yes, let’s try, so I made inquiries and found a brother in Alabama that was arranging visas into Russia.

I visited Moscow in early 1991 to see if LST could be a part of the new story being written there. The stores still had nothing in them—including GUM, the large shopping center on Red Square. Lenin’s body was still in the mausoleum. We carried pencils, pens, and cheap calculators to tip people with for their services. People were thrilled to eat bananas, they took two scoops of ice cream on their cones because they could, and they still only had their version of Tang in their vending machines.  Not much had changed in the few weeks since their doors had opened wider, but the people were open and eager to hear what Christians—and everyone else—were saying to them.

Just a humorous aside:  our Alabama brother got bent out of shape by the visa picture of one young man on the Pepperdine team, who had longer hair and what appeared to be an ear ring—a clash of Alabama and California church cultures.  Fortunately, we determined that the supposed earring was really just large ear lobes and the student agreed to cut his hair, so we were able to keep him on the team and get him a visa.

That first year 1991, LST sent seven Pepperdine students, accompanied by the campus minister Scott and Kim Lambert, along with four Oklahoma Christian students—and Philip Woodward, our 16-year-old son, who had done LST virtually every year of his life with us and was eager to be out on his own. What a way to start!

We made an agreement with a local school to work after classes each day. In exchange we brought them basketballs and playground equipment.  Because there were no grocery stores recognizable to us, hardly any local restaurants, the team ate most of their meals at the old soviet-style hotel where we stayed—where we had the same dinner every day for the entire six weeks.  Well, not quite the same! The first few days, they served  us caviar with each meal, but very few of the workers liked it, so they quit eventually.

We had lots of readers—and they were very open to the Word! Many had never read the Bible and had only the information about Christianity that the Communist Party had fed them . Most had never met Americans and were very curious about the west—for better or for worse.

Because of the lack of variety in our hotel meals, the team did often go to the one McDonalds that was opened in Moscow. You could get a Big Mac, fries and a milkshake for about 19 cents,  so it was a pretty good deal! We had to be careful, however, because our Russian readers could not afford to go there with us!

Although there were people who had been baptized, there was no regular meeting of churches of Christ in Moscow prior to our team’s arrival. We made arrangements with the school to use their auditorium on Sundays and began meeting regularly as a church in the city. I remember preaching through a translator on the first Sunday, but what really stands out is the request of the Russian Christians to video the service, so they could remember what to do when we were gone.

That church continued to meet until it was subsumed into the thriving work which still continues in Moscow,  started by Tim Brinley and Gary Jackson a few years later.

The Japanese Miracle

Oklahoma Christian University had had a long relationship with churches of Christ in Japan. Through that connection two former LST workers John and Kelly Osborne took jobs teaching English in public schools there for a couple of years. During that time, they talked with the church in Mito, Japan, about hosting an LST team.

The Japanese leaders were very cautious though and were not easily convinced that Americans could really help their aging and struggling churches.  Finally, in 1992, the church in Mito, Japan, issued an invitation to LST to send just one team—only four people and only for four weeks—that’s all.

Although excited about the prospects, it did present us with a dilemma:  do we continue to start with the story of Jesus in Luke in a country that is totally non-Christian?? After a lot of struggle, prayer, and conversation, the conclusion was that God had blessed this approach for 12 years, so let’s not change it now. We still believed the power was in the living Word!

Joe and Glenda Watson agreed to take two Pepperdine students and do this pilot project, knowing that no one had ever done anything like this in Japan before.

God did His work: 75 Japanese people signed up to practice English and read the Bible with our team. Fifty of them continued after the team left, reading with the Osbornes and other American Christians in the area.  In the first year, 12 of these Readers were baptized—the most baptisms that the Japanese Christians had seen in many years.  This is why the Mito preacher, brother Suzuki described the first LST project as a “Japanese miracle!”

Japan has continued to be a place where LST has sent many workers. We have worked with seventeen different Japanese churches, encouraging the work in a place where most people do not know Jesus at all!

Next: The 90s – Eastern Europe, South America, Asia, and Africa!

Read Full Post »

Oklahoma Christian University - First Home of LST

Just before the end of the 1980s, several things came together that allowed Let’s Start Talking to grow from 58 workers in 1989 to 325 workers in 1999.

First you have to understand our organization for the first decade—none! It was just Mark and Sherrylee and the kids! We were members at the Dayspring Church of Christ in Edmond, Oklahoma, and the ministry we did fell naturally then under their oversight. The church contributed to the work, but it was just 150 members, so mostly they prayed for us and watched our back legally.

I was teaching English full-time, coaching kid’s soccer, working on my doctorate, and leading at church. Sherrylee was being a mom, eventually going to work at a dental office, then working as an assistant librarian in an Edmond high school.

In 1989, we asked the Dayspring elders if Sherrylee could become an employee of the ministry, which they approved. Then we asked Oklahoma Christian if we could clean out a small storage room on the second floor of the library and use it for an office—which they also graciously allowed! They even allowed us to be a part of the telephone and the emerging computer network—all of which were great advantages to us—and all at no cost initially.

About the same time, Oklahoma Christian added an Engineering program and brought in either semi-retired or retired engineers from industry as the first professors. Among these were Lynn and Martha Nored, Jerald and Verna Lee Parker, and Joe and Glenda Watson, great men and women of God as well as outstanding leaders. Both of these families immediately sought us out and desired to serve with LST.  These families provided a level of maturity, leadership, and vision that added immensely to the ministry’s potential.  (I’m so glad to say that they are both still involved with LST today!)

With a little more structure and with additional leadership, I believe God was preparing the ministry for opportunities undreamed of in the previous ten years.

The world saw the fall of the Berlin wall in late 1989. The collapse of the Soviet Union began in 1990 and so did the work of LST in the countries now open to us.  As American churches began to fathom the opportunities in Eastern Europe, they also realized that almost no one was prepared in the languages of these countries. Working through interpreters who had no knowledge of Christianity—sometimes even biases against—was not really an adequate solution either.

LST Team in Moscow

LST had been working in non-English speaking countries for a decade, so our telephone began to ring with invitations to go very early into Yugoslavia, Russia, Romania, Czechoslovakia, Belarus, Ukraine, Latvia, Estonia, Poland, and the German Democratic Republic (East Germany).

Other ministries bought our materials, imitated our strategy (or some version of it) and so a great deal of the early work done in this whole region was using the desire to learn English as the point of contact with people who had been cut off by and indoctrinated with godless Communism for almost half a century.

Each of these eastern bloc countries has its own extraordinarily interesting story, but I’ll save that for the full history some day!  I will give you, however, the story of our work in Mother Russia!

Next:  To Russia and Japan and the ends of the Earth!

Read Full Post »

Oklahoma Christian team 1982

The first three summers of Let’s Start Talking (1981-83) were the years when God continued to teach us how to do what we have done now for thirty years.  For instance, the second summer we wanted to give the OC students who went with us T-shirts to help advertise and attract Readers while they were in Germany. The LST sweatshirts/T-shirts now have an iconic place in our history with a few people who have whole closets full.

Well, the first shirts were a mustard yellow (YUK!) and said on the front, “Ask me, if I speak English!” Sherrylee and I blame each other, but it was probably my idea.  After a week or two in Germany, dutifully wearing their T-shirts whenever possible, some of the girls came to us and said that they didn’t want to wear the shirts any longer. I couldn’t understand why until they explained that the “ask me, if I speak English” sentence was written right across the front chest area, so it made all the men and boys stare at their chests!!  That was the end of our first marketing fiasco.

As I mentioned in the last post, we carried actual Bibles the first year, the New Easy-To-Read version published by World Bible Translation Center. It was a version originally prepared for deaf people, but perfect for what we were wanting to do because the syntax and vocabulary were approximately fourth grade level.  These were the Bibles that during the second summer, we literally cut passages out of Luke, pasted them onto sheets of paper, then photocopied the newly created pages in order to make the first “workbooks.” I don’t really think we had any questions or vocabulary with the texts those first summers, but I’m not sure.

We chose to use Luke as our text from the very beginning for some fairly obvious reasons, We were committed to starting with the story of Jesus , so first of all, Luke was more narrative—more of a complete story, from Jesus’ birth to his death.  Also,

  • Matthew alludes to the Old Testament too often, and we didn’t want to have to continually drop back into Jewish history with our Readers.
  • Mark was just too brief and left out some of the chronological story—like Jesus’ birth.
  • And John was too abstract, too theological for people who had no faith.
  • Luke had an obvious sequel (Acts), so we could already see the path for continuity.

For three summers (1981-83), we took 11-13 students from Oklahoma Christian. Divided into two, later three teams, they spent the summer in the northern German (then West German) cities of Braunschweig, Bremen, Hannover, and Cologne, working with the mission churches there that Sherrylee and I had been most familiar with.  Our family would usually stay in Hannover as our base, but visit each of the teams once each week to check on them and encourage them.

We were pretty content with this pattern and had no further grand design or vision, but God had more in mind.  In the fall of 1983, one of the OC students Amy Keesee (Gordon) who had gone with us each year, began graduate work at Oklahoma State University, fifty miles away from us.  She called one evening in the fall and asked if she could continue to go with us, and we agreed, of course. Then she asked if she could recruit a team from the great campus ministry program that the Stillwater church had had at OSU for many years. After a little conversation, we agreed—and the first embryonic division had occurred! In the summer of 1984, instead of 12 workers, we had 28. Instead of two sites, we had five! Instead of approximately 100 readers, we had 280.

Oklahoma State University team

With this one additional school sending workers, the potential for sharing the Story had more than doubled!  We began to get a sense of what could be . . . . In reality, God was just beginning to stretch our rubber bands.

Factoid: The first printed workbooks (white covers with the LST logo on the front) were designed and illustrated by OC professor Michael O’Keefe. He is personally responsible for the two little characters with spiky hair that are still LST icons—and still unnamed. (It has always been a fear of mine that someone would call them Mark and Sherrylee and it would stick forever!!)

In 1986, two former workers Kurt and Marilyn Siebold were living in California and wanted to go with us again, so we built our first church team around them with members of the Culver Palms Church of Christ.

Another first in 1986 was the first LST team outside of Germany. Kyle and Susan Bratcher had some history in Austria and wanted to go there, so we contacted our friends in Graz, Austria, and worked out the arrangements for the Bratcher’s team to work with the Graz church for the summer.

In the fall of 1986, Sherry and I were teaching a class on our new way of working in Germany at the World Mission Workshop at Columbia Christian in Portland, Oregon.  Two Pepperdine students walked through our classroom, looking for a session on Italy, but heard something about Germany, so they stopped, listened, and were hooked.  Ian Morgan and his future wife Lisa went back to Pepperdine and recruited the first team from Pepperdine—which has continued to be a great partnership.

With Pepperdine now fully on board, the fledgling LST program jumped from approximately 20 workers each summer to over 40 by the summer of 1988. Amy Keesee had moved from OSU to San Luis Obispo, CA, so now we had teams from there as well. Pete and Janine Brazle began to share responsibilities with Sherrylee and me for overseeing the summer teams. They took the southern four teams and we took the northern four—the birth of LST regional representatives.

First Church team from Culver Palms Church of Christ

By the summers of 1988 and 1989, LST was working in Italy and the Netherlands as well.  A Dutch family (Hans and Ans van Erp) had invited us to help them start a new church in Eindhoven, a church which is still growing and flourishing! And approximately 60 workers were going each summer.

People were beginning to ask us if we were trying to do too much. Sherrylee and I always responded that we were just trying to manage what God put in front of us. In fact, in 1986, we almost left OC to return to the European mission field with European Christian College. I had finished my doctorate and was invited to become the dean of that school—which we agreed to do if they could afford to bring on a family of five!  That door shut very firmly about the time all of these new doors were opening with LST, so we began to see God’s plan a little better—or so we thought!

We never dreamed what God would do in the next 24 months in the Soviet Union. No one suspected that the Iron Curtain was about to be torn down and what opportunities that would present for Let’s Start Talking.

Read Full Post »

Project Germany team in Woodward home for training (Fall 1979)

I’ve heard Sherrylee tell the story many times of how I was sitting in the bathtub and had the ideas that became the core of the LST philosophy, but I think that is creative memory—mainly because I am a shower person, not a bath person! Here’s my version of the genesis of LST’s core philosophy.

Sometime before we left Germany in April 1979, I read a short article from Glen Jones, missionary in Kiel, Germany, about the power of the Word itself based on John 20:31:

But these things are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.”

I asked myself if I really believed this to be true! And I didn’t know the answer because my experience was all about teaching people what the Word meant, explaining, clarifying, and supplying the missing historical, linguistic, or logical information that they needed to really come to faith.

Even if we believed that the Word was powerful, how were we ever going to get German skeptics to read the Word? With the exception of a few true Seekers, we knew that the masses were not open at all to reading the Word!

This was then the moment that God put all the pieces together! What could we offer the Germans that they really wanted? We could not count the times while living in Germany that people had sought us out to practice their English or to help them translate something important to them from English to German. So what if we offer to help them with their English language skills??

The question that every service ministry faces, however, is how to move from loving service to the Gospel story that produces faith! (This is such a difficult question for many ministries that they simply avoid answering it, sometimes even rationalizing the need for that bridge to faith-sharing as unnecessary. I think that is rowing with only one oar—but that’s a topic for another time!)

Sherrylee and I talked a lot and decided in the fall of 1980 to try something completely new—at least we knew of no one else doing anything similar at all. We decided to recruit a team of college students to go to Germany with us for eight weeks. Instead of moving from city to city in short campaigns, they would stay in one place to enable them to develop stronger relationships with the people they would be talking with.  They would be a small group (4-6 people) rather than a large group, so that they could function more as a “family” rather than as a tour group and so they would not be such a burden on the small German churches that they would be working with.

Members of LST First Team: Valerie Kinnell and Chip Kooi

But the riskiest part of this experiment was that we were going to ask the German church to advertise free English conversation classes and see if anyone would respond. It was very important to us not to trick people into using the Bible, so we had people respond to the advertising by calling a member of the local church who was instructed to always tell them that this group would be using the Bible as the textbook for these conversations.  That’s where we had no idea how Germans would respond!!

In the fall of 1980, Sherrylee and I recruited ten students from Oklahoma Christian, several of whom had been a part of the Project Germany group that we had led under Ralph Burcham the previous summer. We meet with these ten students weekly throughout the school year, sharing our experiences and knowledge about the German culture and training them to open the Word and release its power in a relational and non-confrontational way.

One team worked in Braunschweig with the Gemeinde Christi and the other worked in Bremen, Germany, both German churches that Sherrylee and I knew well. The teams lived independently, cooked for themselves, rode public transportation, and made their own schedules—all of which was pretty new strategy for campaign groups at this time.

The first signs that God was doing something new and wonderful were that there was an amazing response to the advertising and many, many people called, seeking help with their English.  The next amazing discovery was that most of them expressed surprise that they were going to be using the Bible as the conversation guide, in fact, they always asked why; nevertheless, most of the people agreed to register for the program in spite of their skepticism!

At first our workers tried to just open their Bibles to Luke’s Gospel as the conversation guide, but this really put many of their early Readers (our new term for the people who participated with us!) off, so we decided to cut sections out of Luke and make a little worksheet  with a few little exercises for them each time they came—and this made all the difference! They had no problem reading the same biblical texts if they were part of a workbook of some kind.

But would this be an effective strategy? The most common opening statement by every person who came that first year was, “Thank you for offering to help me with my English, but I want you to know that I do not believe that anything in the Bible is true! Is that OK?” That’s when we learned how important it was to serve them unconditionally by helping them with their English, forcing us to believe even stronger that the Word was powerful enough to break through this unbelief!

LST First Team Members Galen and Larale Rawlins (1981)

At the end of this first summer, we came back to the States and told our friends who had sent us that we had seen a miracle! We had seen skeptical Germans read the Bible every day for weeks with our students. The numbers had grown as the summer progressed, not diminished—which we did not expect—because the Germans loved their experience.  They even asked who would continue the program after the Americans left, so we were able to introduce them quite naturally to the local American missionaries.

But the real miracle was that some of those same people whose opening sentences were so defensive and skeptical had been touched by the living Word. Now at the close of the first year, in answer to our prayers, the most common summary of their experience that we heard was “I came only wanting to know English, but I got so much more. Now I also know Jesus!” And a few added, “And I believe!”

They had been changed, and we were changed—and Let’s Start Talking was birthed—although we didn’t know it.

Next:  The 1980s — Genesis Expanded!

Read Full Post »

This is Let’s Start Talking’s 30th Anniversary, which we are celebrating September 25th at our Harvest Call Dinner in Fort Worth. I thought it might be fun to write a brief history of the ministry to this point. Look for a new installment each day until the 25th.

Mark Woodward with other German missionaries ca. 1976

I’m pretty sure someone has used the teaching of English in order to tell the Gospel story since St. Patrick returned to Ireland as a missionary in the second half of the fifth century. The first time I encountered this ancient idea, however,  was during the summer of 1966, when I was doing evangelistic work in New Jersey with Campaigns Northeast.  I remember distinctly talking to an older woman with Eastern European heritage who told us that she had converted to the Jehovah Witness faith after they taught her English using their version of the New Testament.

After graduating from Harding University in 1969 and already committed to leave for Germany with a mission team two years later, I accepted an interim employment offer from the Oxford Church of Christ to be what was called then a campus evangelist. They could not pay a full-time salary, so they offered to pay tuition for graduate school at Ole Miss. I started a program in Psychology, thinking that counseling skills would serve me best in our mission plans. After one semester, however, I realized that this program was all about rats and not people, so I switched to one of my college minors—English. My thinking at the time was that with this degree I would be able to teach English in a foreign country if I ever wanted to do vocational missions, so I finished my Masters degree in English there shortly after Sherrylee and I married in 1971. It’s amazing the way God moves us through life, isn’t it!

In 1971, Sherrylee and I left with a mission team to work in Germany as missionaries. We were always searching for some way to open new doors to faith for a people who had been inoculated so long with an impersonal form of Christianity that they were pretty immune to personal faith. I heard about a group of Christians in New York City who were offering to help foreign businessmen improve their English and were using biblical texts as conversation pieces.  I actually sent off for a sample of their material, but we never used it.  The time was not ripe—yet!

In our eighth year in Germany, we initiated an exciting project to start a Christian international school in Stuttgart. Almost a year had been spent in the scouting, planning, and searching for a facility. In February 1979, I even made a quick trip to the states to recruit teachers to begin in the fall. But in March, all of the start-up funding—including our salary—disappeared with one phone call.  Suddenly, we found ourselves in Germany with three children, no income at all—and no clear path as to what to do next.

We literally had to sell most all of our missionary family belongings to purchase plane tickets back to the states, where we moved in with relatives and sought God’s will. In pretty severe shock at having been torn from our home in Germany–a place and a work that we loved dearly–we looked for any kind of ministry position anywhere in the country. Slowly opportunities started appearing, but something just wasn’t right—but one day God blessed us with nothing short of an epiphany.

I don’t have a vision of the seventh heaven to tell you about, but what I do know is that on a very specific day, both of us came to the firm conclusion that we had been called to be missionaries—and that nothing had changed about the call—so we were only going to look for jobs that would allow us to continue being missionaries—and to Germany, if possible. Well, that vision shortened the list of potential employers considerably, which actually made all of our decisions much easier.

As Providence would direct, Oklahoma Christian University had a one-year, temporary job opening for an English instructor. We knew that teachers have summer’s free to do missions; we knew that Ralph Burcham, an OC professor had been bringing students to Germany for several years on campaigns, and we knew that the 12th and Drexel  Church of Christ had supported the work in Germany heavily over the years, so we jumped at the opportunity, interviewed for the job, and was hired for the one-year position—one year that turned into twenty-four!

Honestly, I can hardly describe the emotions we had during that first year in Oklahoma. We were so happy for the job, but we could not imagine why God had put us in Oklahoma! We were missionaries. The churches were large and did not need us; the friends we made were wonderful, but did not understand us. And we did not understand what we were supposed to do.

But we knew we were missionaries, so we volunteered during the first semester there as sponsors to go with Project Germany the summer of 1980. These groups did traditional campaigns, passing out invitations to preaching services and some street singing. We did, however, try out one new idea:  we offered to help people practice their English, if they would come to the church building one hour before the preaching started.  Our idea was to get them in the building, hoping they would stay and hear the preaching in German.

But the response to even this very limited and ill-prepared offer of English was surprisingly strong, so strong that I came home that summer thinking that God is working here somehow. I promised myself to pray and search for a better understanding of what He was trying to show us.

Tomorrow:  1980/81 – The First Team and the Discovery of LST

Read Full Post »

%d bloggers like this: