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Lionel Bendobal – Live Deeply

In Germany, preschool is mandatory. Parents must send their children. You cannot choose not to- otherwise they can fire you from your job and you could lose everything.  Every city or community has to provide a preschool for every single child aged 3 to 6. The problem is that they don’t have enough space to make room for all the children. The Frankfurt region is very international with a very high birth rate. The population is growing more than the facilities. In one suburb, hundreds of families were waiting for spots for their kids. They were entitled to sue the city if it didn’t do anything. The missional group I lead saw this as an opportunity to serve the community and share the Gospel. We realize the people in our context won’t just come to church simply because we invite them. In a multicultural area like this, people already have their religions. So we have to reach out to find them where they are, asking: Where do they spend their time? Where is the need? Starting a preschool wasn’t a strategy- we just realized that was the need in a particular neighborhood. We educated ourselves on what it would take to open one. Then I engaged the city, told them we had a plan, and began negotiating. (Basically, the city couldn’t say no. If they were to turn down an opportunity to provide preschool space, they would’ve found themselves in a complicated legal situation.) We worked out a 10-year contract in which the city granted us all the funding we needed to run the preschool. The building we use is in the center of town, just in front of the city hall. The preschool has been a success, reaching 40 families. The best part is that we can also use the building to house our church. We just pay for the number of hours we’re there holding our service. It’s only about $50 per Sunday, which makes church planting sustainable.

There are 19 Muslim families at the preschool, even though we’ve been very clear on the focal points: Christianity, sports, and multiculturalism. The Muslims feel it’s better for their children to be in a place where there is a belief in a God rather than in a state preschool where everything is completely secular. You can argue about God with a Christian, they reason, but you cannot argue with a secularist. Every child here gets a Bible, and over their three years we go through the Bible with them.  Then they can take that Bible back home and have a Christian influence in their family. But there are other ways we’re having Gospel witness as well. When we started to worship here, we sent a letter to all the parents, and some just started showing up to our church services with their children. In fact, we recently had the joy of welcoming our first new members -a family- who originally met us through the preschool. Because of the respect the preschool has earned, we are also very connected with the city now. Big doors are opening. Everybody knows us. Everybody wants to work with us. We are not viewed as an evangelical sect anymore. When there are tough issues facing the city, the mayor will sometimes call to ask my advice. We’re happy to be partners where we can, and we always make it plain that one of the reasons we partner is to enlarge our network. We want to step out freely as a church with our beliefs, and this is fine to those we’re reaching. Why? Because of the preschool- they see that we are serving the community.

I’ve not seen official conversions to Christ yet through the preschool, but I see a lot of people on their way, starting with the teachers. We want a critical mass of our teachers to be Christians, but not all. It’s important for some to be non-Christians; that way, the workplace keeps its missional context for the majority of our staff, who, again, are believers. For example, one of the teachers is my wife. She’s befriended another teacher who comes from a very difficult family with a lot of abuse. For my wife’s most recent birthday, this other teacher was at our home. My wife spoke a lot about the Gospel with her; what Christ can do. She asked a lot of questions. My wife also chose her to help plan the whole Easter program for the children. ‘I guess I have more questions than the children,’ she said. She started to ask my wife- What is it with this resurrection? What is it with Jesus and what’s happening there? My wife has been helping her answer these questions- sending her to the Bible, which she’s now started to read. So she’s coming along. I also think of the husband of our school director. He’s not a professing Christian. But last year, he started to read his Bible for the very first time and he’s even started to pray in church. Now he even comes to the Lord’s Supper. I’ve asked him, ‘Are you still a non-believer? You read your Bible, you go to a men’s group, and you are part of a discipleship group in the church. What is making you a non-Christian?’ He responded that he just doesn’t feel it emotionally. But the way he lives, in my eyes, he’s a disciple already; even if he doesn’t feel it- I don’t know if you always feel that. These are the stories going on here. We’re helping and discipling people, and we believe that after a while many will realize, ‘Okay, what I’ve been doing is Christianity.’ 

This is all a new model for us, something we’re just experiencing for the first time. We realize there’s a lot of potential to tap into more missional opportunities; not just preschools. Because Germany has so many laws, there are a lot of rules cities needs to follow. Where else might we be able to help? We need a lot of courage and wisdom to figure that out, so please pray for both.  

This work is going well, but it’s not always easy. When we were starting the preschool, some neo-Nazis sent death threats to me and my family. They posted something to the effect of: ‘Look at this person our city is giving half a million dollars yearly to brainwash our children.’ They didn’t like the fact that I’m originally from Africa, so they tried to enrage the whole city. I was under a lot of pressure. Doing missions this way can sometimes bring us right into the middle of simmering political tensions, so we need protection and boldness to continue the work. Please pray for that.  

For the year ahead, we are also planning for our preschool to become a family center, where we’re running activities for more than just children. This means the city has to invest in that. We invite your prayers for God to bring that about and enable this growth.  

Finally, pray for workers, workers, workers. We always need more. What is happening with the preschool is just a glimpse of the opportunity we have. This is really what excites me most- I want to see this church really flourish in my city.

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