PLAINVIEW—Wayland Baptist University senior Ryan Bleyenberg knew he was in for a long trip overseas for summer missions. What he didn’t know at the end of the spring semester was that his location would change at nearly the last minute.
While that would have unnerved some student missionaries, the social studies major from Lovington, N.M., took it all in stride, seeing the new plan unfold easily.
“For me, there wasn’t a struggle to make the switch,” Bleyenberg said. “We were doing much of the same thing we’d be doing in the other country, with very similar cultures.
“Before we left, I remember praying, ‘Let me go where I’m supposed to go.’ I had mentally been praying and preparing for those people, but I know for all those things to happen to work out for us to go where we went, I knew that was where I was supposed to be. Things just don’t randomly work out that way.”
Three weeks before Bleyenberg was to head to a Pacific Rim country that cannot be named for security reasons, he was told the trip was canceled. The mission trip organizers at Go Now Missions, part of the student ministries arm of the Baptist General Convention of Texas, found another trip immediately that lasted the same time period. Remarkably, the new location allowed the students to use the airline tickets they already had, stopping in Bangkok, Thailand, instead of going on for another leg.
Ryan and a fellow Texas student, Alicia Campbell of Angelo State University, spent seven weeks in Thailand, ministering primarily to their peers at Sri Patum University in Bangkok.
In a city of 13 million people and 60 universities, Bleyenberg was voted team leader for a five-person team of summer missionaries sent to Sri Patum. Their typical day consisted of morning prayer time as a team, then heading to the university where they gathered in a free classroom and offered Thai engineering students the opportunity to practice their English with American students. They didn’t have to ask twice.
“Thai people are very eager to learn English, and that’s why it was a great opportunity for us,” said Bleyenberg. “English is becoming a global language, and the students know that if they want to succeed, or get jobs outside Thailand, they need to know English. They also just love foreigners. For someone to be friends with an American is very cool there.”
The conversations provided a fertile soil for the students to build relationships with their Thai counterparts and give them a chance to plant the seeds of the gospel.
Then in the evenings, the missionaries would hang out with the Thai students on a more social basis, going bowling or to the movies or to the ever-popular karaoke lounges. Once weekly, the group hosted cell-group meetings on the roof of the hotel, where they would sing Christian songs, share their testimonies and read the Bible.
Over the seven weeks, the group also visited a number of schools and villages to teach English and work with younger children on their language skills. All provided a chance to show God’s love and compassion and connect the locals to Thai Christians, Bleyenberg said.
The challenge, however, was finding those Christians. In a country that is primarily Buddhist, with a growing Muslim presence, Christianity is not prohibited, but it demands quite a sacrifice.
“There are very few Christians there. It takes a very long time for people to hear about the gospel and actually accept it, because to be Thai is to be Buddhist. That’s just their culture. It’s a very conservative culture, very respectful of their elders.”
The Thai people “are very loyal to their king and their parents, their religion then themselves. To become a Christian means to completely forsake your parents, your king and your country. So when they do accept Christ, they are fully committed. They are fully aware of the magnitude of the decision they’ve made.”
Bleyenberg added that typical Christian churches are very small and secluded, hard to find for the average tourist walking the streets. Unlike American cities where churches of every denomination dot nearly every corner, Christian churches in Thailand are not normally advertised.
The key to evangelism there was becoming personal with the students, then introducing them to other Thai Christians that could get them involved in a local church, he said.
One student, Jack, accepted Christ during the summer, after hearing the gospel for only a month.
“We know God had been working on him for a while,” he added. “When he started sharing with other students, we were a little surprised, but then we knew he really got it. I think we knew he had become a Christian but was sort of afraid to say it publicly.”
As Bleyenberg’s first longtime missions experience and first overseas venture, the trip confirmed for him a call to missions full-time. Since the summer involved lots of flexibility—he preached, did youth ministry, discipleship, evangelism and even led worship once—he enjoyed just being able to do what needed to be done to meet the needs of those he was serving.
“I gained so much more than I ever could have given this summer. For one, the experience of traveling internationally and experiencing the culture was great,” he said. “To go into such a dark place with temples, shrines and idols everywhere, it’s easy to lose hope. When you are challenged like that, you draw near to God, and my prayer to him now is so much more intimate. And because of that, my faith has been strengthened. God showed us the answer to prayer so many times, sometimes right after we prayed.”