Thanksgiving celebrations provide a natural path to the gospel

Everyone crowded excitedly around the Thanksgiving feast. The tables were crowded with sweet potato casseroles, cranberry sauce, green bean casseroles, pumpkin and pecan pies. The turkey has been roasted to a perfect, delicious golden hue. Juice ran down the sides of the meat bowl as someone carved.

It was perfect. Cell phones immediately popped out of pockets to document this not-so-traditional celebration in Lisbon, Portugal. For most, it was the first time they’d experienced an American Thanksgiving outside of a movie. For some, it was also the first time they heard what the hosts of the festival were most grateful for—the saving grace of Jesus.

A volunteer missionary team from Travis Avenue Baptist Church in Fort Worth, Texas, prepared 13 Thanksgiving meals in one week to help IMF missionaries Jonathan and Bethany Sharp and local Portuguese believers access the gospel in their community. Cans of pumpkin and cranberry sauce stuffed in Texans’ luggage became opportunities to share the good news of Jesus Christ and to be invited back.

‘Cultural Exchange’

“People in Portugal are very interested in anything culturally ‘American’,” Jonathan said. “Such an event becomes a cultural exchange. We share food and praise music, and they share back.”

The Sharps held their first Thanksgiving in Portugal nine years ago while they were still in language school. They used it to meet their neighbors and practice Portuguese. With each passing year, the event grew in size, and teams from churches across the United States came to help. It became a way to share the gospel in a non-threatening manner and to minister to local believers.

This year, the team made it possible for Travis Avenue to host the celebrations outside of their home and church, Igreja Baptista Vida Nova. They worked with small groups and four church plants to host cultural exchanges in different locations.

With less than 1% Evangelical Christians, Europe is considered the least reached continent in the world. Together, a praying church in Fort Worth, their short-term mission team, IMF missionaries and local believers have addressed a very real problem in Portugal – forsakenness.

“In one week we can connect with more people who are open to conversations about the gospel than we could go out every day alone in a year,” said Bethany. The team fed nearly 370 people, more than half of whom were non-churchgoers invited by their friends. “This is an opportunity to be and be hospitable [Christ’s] Hands. Talking about culture and food is a great way to socialize.”

Simple bridge

Randy Roberts used a historical presentation about the American holiday to convey culture and entertain. The Travis Avenue volunteer said his family often share what they are “most grateful” for when they gather for Thanksgiving meals. Roberts shared that he was thankful for Jesus and explained why by sharing his testimony.

The participants loved the stories. Bethany said one reason there was an easy bridge to the gospel was because the Portuguese instinctively understood that Texans would spend long hours preparing food just to experience an American-style Thanksgiving. The team would start cooking early each day, sometimes preparing two feasts to send in different directions.

“The reactions to something as simple as Thanksgiving dinner have been so exciting,” said volunteer Melody Freeman during a brief break from cooking.

Texans received hugs, handshakes, and lots of “thank yous,” but their favorite response was when they found someone who was open to hearing the gospel. Bill Falkner was able to share one-on-one with many people without “being aggressive at first glance,” he explained. But most of all he looked forward to working with the local believers throughout the week.

“We were able to give a shot of encouragement to our fellow believers and local pastors,” Falkner said of his Travis Avenue team.

“God awakens them. We just came to help.”

Every Portuguese church has plans to follow up with guests after the festivals. Working with the Texans gave them a confidence boost. They saw that they could have a spiritual impact on their community.

“That’s what these Thanksgiving dinners do. It allows us to meet people we’ve never met, share the gospel, and have a connection to invite them to Bible discovery groups,” Bethany said. “Everyone has heard the gospel.”

EDITOR’S NOTE – This story was written by Sue Sprenkle and originally published by the International Mission Board.