The Himalayas separate Myanmar from India, China and Thailand. But the country once known as Burma has endured an imposed isolation for the past five decades. Socialist military rule controlled the country and cut off relations with the rest of the world. But hopeful changes have come to the former “rice bowl of Asia.”
Over 130,000 Burmese died from a catastrophic cyclone in 2008. Many of those deaths could have been averted if Myanmar’s government had not resisted international relief for conditions in the aftermath of the disaster. When aid was finally allowed, the army confiscated much of it. The scope of the disaster exposed the dangers of isolationism and served to usher in positive changes.
Censorship laws have relaxed since Myanmar’s military allowed the election of a new president in 2011. Political and economic reforms have brought improved relations with Western countries. President Obama even visited the country in November 2012.
Freedom’s slow migration
Yangon is Myanmar’s largest city and former capital—long known as Rangoon—with over 4 million people. Its citizens now enjoy free speech, even expressing themselves in street demonstrations. The atmosphere encourages those who work to strengthen the body of Christ. But the influx of freedom hasn’t reached the entire country.
James M. (not his real name) is a Burmese native working with a Christian literature ministry in the heart of Yangon. He says many leaders in Myanmar are the same old military in new civil uniforms. He sees reformations in some areas but many areas untouched.
Political freedoms don’t change the statistical barriers in Myanmar. Nearly 87% of its people are Tibetan-Himalayan Buddhists. Christians are a distant second religious group at about 7%. Eight major races and more than 100 ethnic groups keep many areas off limits due to violence. On the positive side, the country is quite literate—around 78%. Burmese is written and spoken everywhere.
Operation World (2010) reports that theological education is of vital importance in Myanmar since many training institutes are “very small, with scant resources or materials and poorly trained instructors.”
James and his coworkers want to reach all of Myanmar with the Gospel. This goal led him to connect with staff at International Outreach (IO) several years ago in hopes of publishing a good resource in Burmese.
International Outreach successfully raised funds to cover the cost of producing a Burmese-language edition of John Piper’s Fifty Reasons Why Jesus Came to Die. The funds enabled James to print 5,000 copies of the book in his country.
The Christian literature group in Yangon kept 1000 copies of the book to sell—to help sustain their ministry. They’ve stored the other 4,000 books to distribute to church leaders freely at IO’s request. But in a short time, James asked to distribute the books at several events.
Going like hotcakes
With IO’s permission, James and his team members took copies of the Piper book to a Women’s Leadership Seminar in the city of Tamu in the fall of 2012. They expected 60 leaders to participate in the event, but actual attendance was at 200. James says, “We not only taught for three days but also distributed 100 copies of Fifty Reasons . . . I count it as a great privilege, because we had [the recipients] in one place. We would not have had a chance to visit every village or town.”
A second opportunity came just weeks later when pastors, leaders, Bible college instructors and students attended a ministry fundraising concert. The event for a fellowship of Baptist churches brought 1000 attendees; many left with their own copy of the new Gospel resource in their own language.
A pastor in Homalinn expressed appreciation for the book he received, saying, “The Lord has answered my prayer as I am in need of such good books. My salary from the church is very low, and I hardly manage for my family’s survival.”
Another pastor, from Kywetalinn, explained why Fifty Reasons Why Jesus Came to Die is an excellent resource. “Many people of other religions in my area do not believe that Jesus died and rose again. Now I have a solid message regarding the death of Jesus for all people.”
James plans to distribute the book at a third event in the city of Kalay Myo, where 170 church leaders are expected to gather for a pastors’ conference.
“The books have been such great instruments,” James says. “The church in Myanmar needs to have Biblical teaching because the liberal influence is great. Some [churches] are theologically sound, yet dying because they do not practice what they preach.”
International Outreach volunteer Terry Maveus says that God is working through connections with partners like James, who serve as links in the chain of theological famine relief. “These resources are not for the masses,” he says, “but for church leaders—those who feed the masses. Students too, are intended recipients. They’re being trained.”
James says that God is using The Gospel Coalition-International Outreach to increase a hunger for God’s Word in his region. “The Lord has prepared everything we need to do His work, supplying us in a very wonderful way. We are so amazed to see what He has been doing in and through us.”