Every Tribe, Every Tongue
Bringing John out of a life of religious hypocrisy and giving Abigail an unsolicited opportunity to hear and accept the gospel, God gave young missionary couple John and Abigail Harrell a burden for the lost souls in Thailand. Then, through Abigail’s health problems that seemed to make international travel impossible for the young couple, God showed the Harrells that His strength is perfected in their weakness and that He provides in ways we often do not expect.
How did both of you come to faith and into full-time ministry?
I grew up in Columbia, South Carolina. Living in the ‘Bible belt’, I would go to church on and off, but never fully grasped the concept of the gospel until later. When I was a senior in high school, I visited a church with a friend and not only began to hear the gospel in a way I could understand, but also began to see people truly living out their faith. This compelled me to go back. After a period of months, God showed me the hypocrite I was and that He was the only one who could change that. I then dedicated my life to serving God in whatever capacity He desired.
God showed me the hypocrite I was and that He was the only one who could change that
Abigail grew up regularly hearing Bible teaching in her home and at church in Greenville, SC. From a young age, she was concerned about what her sin meant for her future and her relationship with God, but was too shy and proud to ask someone to explain to her how to be saved. God, in His kindness, didn’t wait for her to ask, but instead, at the age of seven, gave her the opportunity to hear the gospel clearly from Romans 10:9 and understand it. She believed in her heart, and in the following years, grew in her openness about her testimony and assurance of salvation.
We met while studying at Columbia International University, which we had both chosen to attend for its emphasis on Christian service overseas. We were married the summer after we graduated in August 2015. Following our first year of marriage, we felt led to begin seeking the Lord’s direction about where He was calling us to serve. Now, since arriving in Thailand last year, our family has grown! Baby Harrell #1 will be joining us this fall.
You mentioned you were compelled to go back to church because you saw people living out their faith. What did that look like?
I saw people living out the fruit of the Spirit. They found joy in serving others. They spoke kindly and gently both inside and outside of the church building. Instead of a tendency to change Christianity to fit their preferences, I saw people giving up their preferences to follow Christ.
How did the Lord call you both to serve overseas?
After committing to a life of following Christ, I read the Gospels for the first time and felt a strong burden to obey when I reached the Great Commission in Matthew 28. Additionally, reading David Platt’s book Radical gave me an understanding of the vast need in the least reached parts of the world.
God first began stirring in Abigail’s heart when her first grade teacher did a special project studying Japan and learning about Japanese Buddhism. As she grew older, Abigail continued to pray that God would make it clear if He wanted to use her overseas. Shortly after leaving for college, some health problems made it seem that international travel wouldn’t be possible. Though the health problems improved with a medical diet, she wasn’t sure how she could ever connect meaningfully with another culture without being able to even eat the food. During our first year of marriage, a friend who had grown up in Japan shared this word of encouragement with Abigail: “It’s not your ability to fit in that will turn hearts to Christ. Only the Holy Spirit can do that.” The Lord used it to give Abigail a conviction to trust Him to make His strength perfect in her weakness.
Where are you currently serving?
We are serving in Thailand. We moved here a year ago. The Lord had put a burden on our heart to live in a place where the vast majority of people have yet to trust Christ. Thailand fit that burden very clearly: only 1% of the nation follows Jesus, and the percentage can be as low as one-tenth of a per cent in certain regions of the country.
Only 1% of Thailand follows Jesus, and the percentage can be as low as one-tenth of a per cent in certain regions of the country
Does it get lonely not having other Christians around? How does the Lord encourage you through those lonely moments?
We regularly find our hearts get weary from being continually surrounded by spirit houses, temples, and buddhist sermons on the neighbourhood loudspeakers each afternoon. The Lord encourages us through the Christian fellowship that does already exist (both foreigners and Thais), through praying together, and through Christian songs.
Tell us about the people you minister to.
The Thai people are generous, friendly, and funny. Thailand has rightly been dubbed “The Land of Smiles”. Beneath the smiles, though, are hearts weighed down with fear. The vast majority of the country follows Buddhism, which doesn’t offer certainty of a hopeful future after death. Additionally, animism/spiritism is widely practised, and fear of evil spirits or displeased ancestor spirits is also prevalent.
Can you give an example of a challenging situation you recently faced and what the Lord taught you from the experience?
We recently faced some major uncertainty regarding our visas in the wake of border closures from Covid-19. We were anxious, we prayed, and we researched quite a bit. In the end though, the Lord provided in a way we could never have expected. We got to learn in an experiential way that “The king’s heart is a stream of water in the hand of the LORD; He turns it wherever He will” (Proverbs 21:1).
How about spiritual challenges — what is the Lord teaching you through those?
We find it’s really easy to grow weary and discouraged here. It takes a long time to see fruit from your labour, if for no other reason than that the language is difficult and takes a number of years to really master. Add to that some culture shock, and perhaps most of all that the enemy of our souls likes to target those who come to serve here. Without God’s help, it’s a recipe for disaster. We’re learning to look to the example of Jesus’ endurance, and hanging on to the promise of Galatians 6:9: “And let us not grow weary of doing good, for in due season we will reap, if we do not give up.”
In what ways have you had to adapt to the new culture of Thailand?
The culture values community as well as hierarchy. We didn’t realise how strongly our American culture values independence and equality until we’d spent some time here. Adapting to a new culture is a process that takes longer than a year, but something we’re learning is to notice and emphasise the aspects of Thai culture that are closer to how the Bible encourages us to live than perhaps our own is. For example, the strong value of doing many things together can fit nicely with the encouragement to “bear one another’s burdens”. The hierarchy can fit well with the exhortation to honour the elderly and those in authority. “Honour to whom honour is due…”
How can we pray for you?
Please pray that God would give us hearts of endurance as we continue to study the Thai language and culture. We’d also appreciate prayers for the Lord to provide clear opportunities to share about Him with the friends we already have here. Please also pray for the safe arrival of our first child this autumn.
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