Andrew and Maija Thomas are field workers with ACCI Missions and Relief, planting a church in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. Here Andrew describes how they came to be there and what they have seen over the past eight years.
Our six-year-old daughter Aija proudly tells people she is Thai, and her two-year-old brother Noah is Cambodian. This is often met with confused looks from our local friends. But it makes perfect sense in her six-year-old mind. She was born in Bangkok and Noah in Phnom Penh (during Covid lockdowns – a story for another time). Therefore, that is where they are from. But Aija will also tell you that they are Australian, which makes a lot more sense to people! This is our life! “Where are you from?” is a question answered in a long conversation, not one word.
How we got here
To understand our story, we have to start from the very beginning! Maija and I were born a week apart at the same hospital in Brisbane. The same registrar even signed our birth certificates. We went to the same church as babies. Our parents are friends. We even attended the same connect group as toddlers! But we wouldn’t ‘meet’ until 2012 – 26 years later.
Maija’s family left Australia for the mission field when she was small, spending time in Singapore, Thailand, India and Laos (and a few others I’m sure I’m forgetting). Maija grew up in Asia, not returning to Australia until university.
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I was so impressed with this Aussie girl who could preach in Khmer.
My family moved first to Nanango in rural Queensland and then to Wollongong in NSW to plant a church. I remember thinking as a kid that I never wanted to plant a church or be a missionary. Too much stacking chairs and packing down sound systems! So, it wasn’t until 2012 when I went on a short-term mission trip to Cambodia, where Maija was living, that the story picked up again.
I came to preach at some youth camps that Maija’s parents were organising in Laos and Cambodia. When I first saw Maija, I was so impressed with this Aussie girl who could preach in Khmer (the Cambodian language)! We spent two weeks working together at these camps, and the rest, as they say, is history.
We had our first date in a café on the riverfront of Phnom Penh. Then, we dated long-distance for a while. When we got married in 2013, we’d only spent one month in the same country! After getting married, we lived in Wollongong for two years, working at my parents’ church, but the call back to Cambodia was always strong.
In 2015, we relocated to Phnom Penh, Cambodia’s capital, with the goal of planting a young, bilingual church in the city. Our vision was (and still is) that all may know God and find belonging in his family.
Where we are now
Eight years, two kids, two years of Covid lockdowns, and lots of ups and downs later, we’re still in Cambodia!
Cambodia, and particularly the capital city Phnom Penh, is changing really fast. We’ve lived here for eight years now and the city is almost unrecognisable from when we arrived. There is so much development and change. Emerging from this is a new demographic of people in Cambodia. They are young, educated, globally aware and looking for something different from their parents’ generation. So, our focus is on urban young people – including university students, young professionals and young families. These groups, especially the emerging middle class, are not connecting with traditional churches or missionary efforts in Cambodia. We see this demographic as one of the least reached groups of people in a country that already has so few Christians to begin with.
We call our church The Together Co. So hipster, I know … But the name sums up what we see as our unique part to play in what God is doing in this country. A place to be ‘together’, with each other and with God, and a place that is open for others to join. A family, but one that always has room for someone new at the table. We currently meet on Sunday afternoons in a room above a café in town. Our gatherings are fun, not too long, and everything is done bilingually – in Khmer and English. This might be one of our favourite things: breaking down the language barrier and making it possible for everyone to join.
We call our church The Together Co. So hipster, I know …
I was speaking to a young guy at our church a few weeks ago and I asked him if he would call himself a Christian now. We’ve known each other for several years. He started coming to our Language Exchange (an outreach event we do each week for students to practise their English with native speakers) and, from there, he got involved with church. He said, “I wouldn’t call myself a Christian yet, but I’m on a journey.” (His English is great now too!) He continued: “You [Westerners] are so close to God already, but Cambodians are so far away, we have a long way to travel.” He is much closer to God than he thinks!
This is why we are here – so that young people who are far from God would discover his love and grace, and learn to follow him. That we would see change in Cambodia, not just physically or socially, but spiritually. A new generation of people who love God, and out of that, love their country and their people.
Some days, it feels like we’re seeing this happen, seeing God at work. Other days it feels like we’ve barely scratched the surface, and we wonder what on earth we’re doing here. But in a lot of ways, that’s what it’s like to follow Jesus. We don’t reach a nation through clever strategy or good marketing (or hipster church names). In fact, we don’t reach a nation at all. We simply obey God, do what he has called us to do, where he has called us to do it and trust him for the outcomes. We’re still learning how to live this out. But I’m thankful for a God who allows us to learn while doing and chooses to use us for his purpose and his glory.