Evangelical Covenant Churches in Greater Grand Rapids Michigan Adopt the Issaan People

In 1995, the mission journals and newsletters contained many challenges to local U.S. churches suggesting the adoption of a people group within the 10/40 Window. Prompted by these reminders of Biblical commands and challenges a group of laymen and pastors from the Mission Committees of Evangelical Covenant Churches in Greater Grand Rapids Michigan established a theme for their annual Joint Mission Emphasis Week. They chose Light the Window! as the title of their 1995 mission conference which is held each year in early November. Along with mission speakers there was a concerted attempt to acquaint the congregations of these churches with the 10/40 Window and the significance of the unreached people groups within that geographic location.

During that week in 1995 and after much prayer, a personal response was requested from the hundreds of people who had attended the conference meetings and events. Following a presentation by James Gustafson, veteran Covenant missionary from Thailand, in which he depicted the present ministry and future challenges facing the missionaries working with the Covenant Church of Thailand, a question was posed to those in attendance. “Would you be interested in joining a group of covenanters from our Grand Rapids churches in forming an exploratory Task Force focused on researching ways and means by which our churches might assist in reaching the unreached in Thailand?” This Task Force, which would later form, would consider various options by which a collaborative partnership between the churches of the Evangelical Covenant Church Denomination in Western Michigan could unite in response to the needs of unreached people in Thailand. It was anticipated that this Task Force, under the direction of the Holy Spirit, would give leadership and assist our three congregations in a common vision and a focused goal. That vision and goal was then and is now to assist our sister church in Thailand, the Thailand Covenant Church reach the people of Northeast Thailand with the claims of Christ. (These people are the lssaan or alternatively spelled Isan and in other places called the Northeast Thai) people group, who from their Buddhist background need to be given the chance to say, “yes” or “no” to the claims of Jesus Christ.

Parenthetically, the Covenant Church of Thailand is the outgrowth of missionary work begun by the World Mission efforts of Covenant missionaries Jim and Joan Gustafson in 1972. This work has been augmented by the sacrificial ministry of a cadre of career and short-term missionaries in the intervening years. Today, roughly 350 worship groups, involving approximately 3,500 lssaan Christians are through holistic and contectualized ministry seeking to reach the 20,000,000+ lssaan people. These faithful missionaries and the growing church they have been used of the Lord to found, seek diligently… through-evangelism-church planting-community development… to reach these people with the good news of the gospel. In addition, with God’s blessing, this group of first generation believers is seeking maturity in their faith. The place where… in God’s way and time… missionary zeal on the part of the believers will not be satiated until this young church becomes a mission sending church to it’s own people. This process of maturity has already taken place in many lssaan worship groups but needs encouragement and support.

Because of the November1995 response of our Michigan people to the offer to form such a Task Force the lssaan Task Force was formed in early 1996. Composed of approximately 20 individuals they began to meet regularly to pray and consider next steps. During these meetings it became increasingly clear that the Task Force needed an on sight facilitator in Thailand to represent their unique and focused interests. A person who shared the vision while at the same time was knowledgeable of the resources of our local churches. A man or woman who could work with the leadership of the Thailand church and the Covenant career missionary staff of ten persons. And while fulfilling an existing field job opening be at the same time on the lookout for opportunities for the Michigan churches directed involvement in partnership. God moved in wonderful ways to prompt a member of the Task Force to resign his management position and offer his services as a professional manager to the career mission force and church leadership in Thailand. The participating churches commissioned and gladly with full support approved the appointment of Walt Wolf as its Thailand laison representative. In early 1997, Mr. Wolf took residence in Udon Thani, Thailand where he continues in specialized ministry today.

Working with the leadership of the Thailand church and the Covenant missionary staff Mr. Wolf soon discovered a need for improved printing facilities for the Thailand Church. In response during the year of 1998, the Grand Rapids Covenant Churches raised and sent the financial assistanceneeded to make this new printing facility a reality. Today, in 1999, an additional area of cooperation is now in early stages. At the request of the career missionary staff and with the enthusiastic support of the Thailand Church leaders, an Educational Trust Fund has been established. This fund will used exclusively for the educational expenses of carefully screened potential leaders of the Thailand Church. Nationals both men and women whose commitment and existing leadership skills could be substantially enhanced if given the opportunity of additional schooling and/or skill enhancing educational training. The first two lssaan leaders are now attending the Bangkok Bible Seminary under the provisions of a grant from Grand Rapids. It is anticipated that the churches in Western Michigan will continue to add funds to this farsighted program of national leadership development. Thus important ministry enhancement is happening and encouragement to the outreach programs in Thailand is a growing reality. At the same time, the saints in Grand Rapids have a new appreciation of practical and specific ways and means by which evangelism and church growth can be met by partners half a world away. The thrill and challenge of being an integral part of the advance of Christ’s Kingdom, through partnership, is a powerful and compelling encouragement to the promotion of world mission. People in Greater Grand Rapids are being asked to dare to believe that they can reach the unreached as they are willing to step out and …with the blessing attendant from our Lord.. .do something! “A few people up with light in their eyes.. multiplies!”

Altogether, both in Thailand and in Michigan, this partnership of adoption has been a thoroughly rewarding and Kingdom advancing experience. It is our hope to continue this cooperative effort until the lssaan people are significantly reached with the gospel or the Lord Jesus returns to gather his waiting church to live with Him… forever!

Paul Van OssChairman, Cross Cultural Mission Committee

Thornapple Evangelical Covenant Church

Grand Rapids, Michigan

The lssaan People Group by the congregations of Thornapple Evangelical Covenant Church, First Evangelical Covenant Church and Redeemer Evangelical Covenant Church of Greater Grand Rapids, Michigan.