Church mission builds cultural connection

Church mission builds cultural connection

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While some families bask in the afterglow of Christmas night, for Paul and Lisa Cochlin of Onalaska, their son Brody, 18, and daughter Brianna, 22, things had just begun to heat up.

They crammed the last of their luggage into their truck and trailer and set off with the 38-person mission team from Bethany Free Church in La Crosse for five days of cross-cultural teaching at the Chinese Mission Convention in Baltimore.

Like some of the team, the Cochlins had to rearrange their holiday.

They postponed Christmas with their extended family. But the conference was something they couldn’t pass up. “I’ve done some mission work before,” said Lisa, who is an elementary assistant at Bethany, “but nothing like we did in Baltimore.”

The conference is a yearly event that attracts more than 3,000 Chinese Christians from hundreds of churches nationwide and overseas.

Organizers strive to motivate Chinese speakers to reach other Chinese nationals living around the world. And with that comes the need for programming for more than 200 children who accompany their parents to the convention. That was the job of the Bethany mission team.

So they created a toolbox—several in fact. Volunteers sandwiched sections of a 12-foot-high, 40-foot-long theater set into two trucks and two trailers, along with a mountain of high-tech sound and video gear.

Preparation for the event had begun in early May but concerns about the unknown lingered. Because of racial differences, Lisa Cochlin wondered whether they would be accepted.

Greg and Mary Chilcote from Onalaska, along with their 16-year-old daughter Maya, also shared concerns.

They were responsible for the coordination of the 4th and 5th grade classes — about 30 kids in each. Neither Greg nor Mary were trained educators. “That was new for us,” Greg said. “We wanted to make sure it was a good environment to learn.”

Mission organizer Norv Brown, Family and Children’s pastor at Bethany, was confident in their planning but knew there would be variables. “We do this on a weekly basis,” he said, flipping through an inch-thick pile of scripts on his desk. “But would this translate into a different culture? Would they connect with it? We had all these questions.”

While Brown marvels that Bethany was chosen for such a high-profile role, given its background in children’s ministry, the mission was no doubt providential. Every Sunday, Bethany Free Church, located on County B, produces what’s billed as a high-energy, high-tech program called “KidStuf,”

Played out on a set designed for kids, the production features live sketches, theatrical lighting and video production. It’s done that way for a reason.

“Kids are growing up in a visual age,” said the 71-year-old Brown, “but sometimes we teach them like we’re living in the ‘40s or ‘50s.” Now they would take the show to a different culture.

Let the games begin

After driving all night, the team unloaded at the downtown Hilton in Baltimore, grabbed some sleep, then constructed the set in grand ballroom — just in time for the children’s arrival that evening.

“This was a lot more of an undertaking than would appear,” said Brown, adding that the goal was for the kids to have an encounter with Jesus with a missions overview.

Opening worship seemed to indicate they were on course. The kids sang, danced and clapped to contemporary praise songs. “I was taken aback, standing there with all those kids,” Greg Chilcote said. “To hear all those young voices singing about brought me to tears.”

After the group divided into individual classes, any residual anxiety quickly dissolved. “The first session just clicked,” Chilcote said. “We all got comfortable with each other.” Maya also sensed they were off to a good start. “She really made a special connection,” Chilcote said, “She drew in her group like a magnet.”

Later on, the children were dazzled by a puppeteer, a friend of Brown’s who flew in from Hong Kong especially for the occasion. Kids worked on a wall-sized gospel puzzle and thrilled to a visit from a balloon man. According to team members, by night’s end, many kids wanted to stay.

A lasting impression

Trip de-briefs often show that the giver is affected as much as the recipient, and Bethany seemed to follow the trend.

“When we do projects like this as a family, it draws us closer together,” said Cochlin, noting that Brianna and Brody loved the experience. It gives the kids a world view that they really can help change things, she said.

Chilcote said that despite the cultural differences, a common faith struck a bond with the Chinese. “It was interesting to see another culture worship God in a way similar to us – to talk about the Bible and have a relationship with Jesus,” he said. “It reminded me we’re all God’s children.”

But for Cochlin the trip had a special significance – it was a confidence builder.

“I’ve never been a part of anything this big,” she said. “I work for an incredibly big God, but I also work for a man who dreams big,” she said, referring to Brown, who is her boss. “The confidence and faith he puts in us really spurred me on. Before this I don’t think I had the confidence in myself.”

While the experience pushed Cochlin to aim higher in serving, it apparently had other effects as well. More than a dozen Chinese children now want to be missionaries.

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