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Watch 2022 online sermons » John Bradshaw » John Bradshaw - Conversation with Olan Thomas

John Bradshaw - Conversation with Olan Thomas

John Bradshaw - Conversation with Olan Thomas
TOPICS: Conversations

He has spent a lifetime in ministry as a pastor, working in literature work. He served overseas as a missionary. And now he's helping people make some of the biggest decisions of their lives. He's Olan Thomas. I'm John Bradshaw. And this is our Conversation.

John Bradshaw: Olan, thanks so much for joining me.

Olan Thomas: A privilege to be here, Pastor Bradshaw.

A lifetime of ministry. So, let's talk about your background be, before we get into the ministry part, let's talk about the lifetime part. Where you're from, what's your family background.

Well, I was born, literally, in a house, at home in the middle part of Michigan, up near Midland, Michigan. I was the eighth of 10 children. My next older brother unfortunately died in a farm accident soon after I was born. But, as you can see, I was among the younger children and so the older ones were starting to need Christian education. And my father really believed in the importance of Christian education.

This is a man with nine children.

With nine children.

Christian education isn't cheap. But he was committed to getting you kids into church school. So, I'm going to assume, and I think rightly so, that church school was a very significant part of your Christian experience, your character development, and directing you towards ministry. Your dad was committed. How in the world did he do it?

He was committed enough to actually pick up and make a physical move to be nearer a Christian educational institution that he felt could at least get us through college. And so that's really where I grew up, was near that educational institution, but we also had a 40-some acre farm. We of course, were nine children, two parents, so 11 mouths to feed. So there was lots of food needed. And he believed in good health principles and good eating and so he would buy rice and wheat and honey and apple juice and apples and all these things. And, my dad was an entrepreneur. And so he said, "Well, why not sell some of it"? And so we had a business selling what was called then health foods, a health food store as you'd call it today. But a lot of the natural products and fresh fruits and vegetables, and that's really where I grew up was in this business.

So how far back does your family go in the church?

I don't really know. But both of my parents were Seventh-Day Adventist Christians. Some of their siblings were also, some of them, of course, were not.

Your, your parents' parents, were your grandparents in the church? Were they Christians? Or church members? What were they?

They were Christians and church members, I believe.

Yeah? All right. So, you had this sort of in your genes, but what we know is that there's no such thing as a genetic Christian. Everybody must be born again. So, what was your school experience like and how did that start to form you in your relationship with God?

Before we go there, I'd like to share a story about my parents and our business. One of the things that we did was we had a peach orchard. This was in southwest Michigan, near the lake, where you have some moderation from the, that's why peaches and fruit grow well there. We had a peach orchard. Well, these were peaches of a type called Fairhaven. Wonderful peaches if they're picked ripe. And so, for a Sabbath keeper, that was a challenge, because sometimes they'd get ready on Thursday or Friday and you had several acres of peaches and how do you deal with the Sabbath? And so I remember growing up how we would be picking peaches Thursday, Friday, bring in all the help we could find, because we had a truck waiting, somebody that wanted to buy them. And when the certain time came leading up to the Sabbath, we would bring the equipment in, take down the ladders, tell the trucker goodbye.

And, and leave those peaches on the tree.

And leave those ripe peaches that needed to be picked.

So time sensitive. You're leaving them on the tree.

Hot weather. Ripening rapidly. And yet we'd go out on, after the Sabbath and it seemed like those peaches were maybe even less ripe than they were before the Sabbath.

Yeah. Fantastic.

And I tell that story because I think that impacted me. You know, us as kids, to see God at work. You know, it made a difference in how real God was to us. God is the Wonder Worker. God is a Miracle Worker.

That's right. I can...

For His people.

People are challenged all the time in their faith by one thing or another. And Sabbath keepers are going to have challenges like this, but when you meet those challenges and trust God, it's then that you see God do some great things. And, as you say, that makes an impression on children.


If the parents had said, "It's okay. Let's treat the Sabbath like any other day," you'd be willing to say that would have impacted your relationship with God and the way you relate to the Bible?

I really believe so.


Because I think some of the challenge for our young people even today is to see God as miraculous. See God as powerful. See Him as impactful in people's lives. And some of the things that I observed through the business and through the farm, and of course through Christian education, was that God is alive and well. God does have a care for His people. He does provide for them in multiple and different ways. So yes, I was able to go through Christian education. Lots of stories, of course, we could share there.

You know, it's clear your dad sacrificed. It's also clear that God got him through. I might say something that comes off as a little critical and I don't mean it to, but I will say this, I saw an article in the Review or some church magazine some time ago about a family, they came into the church, they gave their lives to Jesus, one of their first thoughts was, "We want to send our daughter to a church school," their second thought was, "We have hardly any money". Their third thought was, "We're going to find that money somehow," and it the article it spoke about them not having, I think it was living room furniture. They sat on the floor because they couldn't afford living room furniture because that money went to providing an education for their kids. And on the one hand, one might say, "What a massive sacrifice". On the other hand, one might say, "Well, that'll be the right thing to do, where are your priorities". You can get a sofa later. Someone will give you one. You can get one at the Samaritan Center, as it were. I think that's a great example and a good example. Sacrifice. Prioritize. A Christian education is important. You're training your kids for the kingdom. Then do that. Not everybody can, I recognize that.

That's right.

But I think more people can than realize they can.

But education does affect people's thinking. And their character, if you want to call it that, how we relate to life. And so, if Christian education is available it seems like to me, it really does provide a foundation. It's provides fiber to the person's experience as they grow and development later on.

Yeah, no question. So you went to a university, Andrews University?

We were in that community. I actually somewhere else for college and then came back much later and did a master-of-arts degree at Andrews.

Okay. So you went through Andrews on round two. Somehow you were angling towards ministry, a life of ministry. Let me ask you about your family. There are other ministers, church workers in your immediate family?

Yes, I have an uncle that was particular enjoyment really to us. He had a son my age nearly and that was part of it, of course. But they spent their almost entire life of ministry overseas as missionaries. They were in Korea, leaned the Korean language. They were in Beirut, Lebanon, with some of the excitement there. And Africa, and other places. So, every time they would come home, of course, to the States, and, of course, back in those days they sent the old reel-to-reel messages, and we used to listen to those over and over. Mission stories of what God was doing through their ministry and so on. I have another uncle who for many years was a literature evangelist and leader. and and then some others, lesser directly involved in ministry, but still. And then I had an older brother who became a pastor and literature evangelist as well. So, literature evangelist leader as well.

Yeah, yeah. So, how did you sense or know or come to accept that God was calling you to ministry?

Well, as a child, we were nine children, we had lots of books and we read lots of mission stories. And as we read those mission stories, it just became more and more clear that God has a purpose for life that's more than just making money. More than just having a career for the sake of a career. And so, I always, in my mind, as a young person coming along, I just always knew I was destined to work for God. Not necessarily to be a pastor, but that God would have a mission for me, a ministry for me, whatever that would mean. And I always wanted, I really wanted to find that ministry, whatever path specifically He would lead me in.

So you made a decision, "I'm going to go and study to become a pastor," is that how that went?

Actually not. I came through what we know as the literature evangelism...

So you began in literature work?

I started in literature ministry at 17 years of age.

Okay, well, let's talk about that. Now, not everybody understands literature evangelism. That's a Gospel minister who shares and sells Christian books message-filled books, books of hope, books about Christ, Bible-oriented books. That's a way of sharing Jesus. It's a very powerful ministry. God bless our literature evangelists, they do fantastic work. So, how did you wind up in the LE work?

Well, my older brother was a literature evangelist leader, and so my junior year in the academy he came around and said, "Hey, why don't you come and work with me and a team of young people that I'm developing"? And so, I did, went and did that. actually my sister came as well, who was three years younger than me. And another more distant family member, and then, of course, some other young people. So we had a whole carload and at that time, well, the literature we were doing was, health education, and just small, little, almost like magazines. They were literally a dollar a piece, and if we could sell 40 of those or distribute 40 of those and get a buck a piece, we were pretty happy. And yet, we would give out other literature, more Bible-oriented specifically, and, of course, we'd sign people up even for Bible studies if they should be interested in that. So it was a great summer. Lot of outdoors. We were in Kansas, so it was hot weather. At that time we were able to do some of this work on parking lots. So we would just catch people going in or coming out of the store and just offer them the little magazine for just a dollar. And God blessed richly.

That's fantastic. So you, you caught the bug. Is LE work for everyone? You can choose how to answer this question. Is it for everyone? Or is it a work that anyone can do? Or how would you describe that literature evangelism? A lot of students do it today while they in high school and college. So how would you describe that LE work if you were promoting it or suggesting it as a ministry option?

Well, literature ministry, especially for young people, it's really, again, formative for the character. But also, people are so kind to young people. People, especially today, people are just amazed to see a young person, let's suppose going down the street from door to door for no purpose other than to bless people. I mean, people will be very kind, very generous, very supportive of young people like that. So, yes, I think it's a great ministry, not just for young people, but for anyone. And then, of course, there's literature evangelism that's not even selling. You can just distribute literature. Give it anywhere you go, any time. And It Is Written has some wonderful little giveaway cards, you know, that, it's hard to find somebody that will refuse that card.

Yeah, that's right. I remember reading where somebody with a great amount of wisdom wrote that there's no better training for any line of ministerial work than the literature work. So it's wonderful training.

So my first summer I did those little magazines. Second summer the same thing, but in a different location in Michigan, my home state, again with a group of young people. And I would ride in a car with others and they'd put us one or two on the street and pick us up at the end. And, of course, I learned some things, you know. If I could walk faster than the guy across the street, I might get one or two of his houses, and so I'm likely to maybe get a sale or two that he didn't get.

Yeah, that's right.

And and so there are lots of things you learn. then the third summer, as a student, I did what we call the big books. I sold the Uncle Arthur's Bible Stories.

Fantastic, yeah.

But the neat thing with that is you don't just sell those normally, you try to sell some other more like commentary books. "The Conflict of the Ages" series, which are powerful books.

No better series outside the Bible that you'll ever find.

And so sometimes we could sell that whole set and it wasn't about the money, but we'd go away so excited to know that people are getting, not just something to teach their children, I mean, that's very important, but something that would literally feed their soul. And so that's really how I got started in literature ministry. And then at a future time, they were needing a leader and actually I'd only been working part time at that point. And the thumb got pointed at me, and my wife and I at that point, my wife, we were married, that's another story maybe, we prayed about it a lot because it was a call to New York City. And remember we said we were, myself, my wife also, we're country kid, born in a farmhouse in Michigan. And yet we're called to go and work in New York City, a place that we had visited one time and we literally between us, as we drove away, we said we'd been there, we'd done that, we never need to go again, to New York. And yet God it seemed was putting a call on us to come and do literature evangelism ministry in New York City.

So what was that experience like? Tell me a little bit about the life and times of a literature evangelist in the Big Apple.

Well, of course, my job was not just to distribute Christian literature and try and influence people for God that way, but to find people who'd be willing to do that. And so, at that time there was quite a bit of work in the Spanish language, but I was responsible for all the non-Spanish. So, Korean and other languages. English of course. And all the way to the end of Long Island. And, at first of course, we lived north of New York City just north half an hour, hour, or whatever. And so we were always going back and forth over those bridges to get to people and work with them. It was exciting work. It was difficult at times. Sometimes you'd get to the bridge and you didn't have the money and they didn't take credit cards and those kind of things in those days. But God was with us and I'd love to tell a little story.

I'd love to hear it.

One young gentleman and I, we were knocking doors in an apartment and sometimes you can get thrown out. But we met this nice lady. And she said to us, "You know, you'll have to come back, talk to my husband". Well, but she invited us back to talk to her husband. You know, most of them would just say, "Well my husband would say no," and that's that. But she invited us back to talk to her husband. And so we came back, and they bought that set I talked about a moment ago, "Bible Stores," because they had some little children, but they bought that nice "Conflict of the Ages" series, that wonderful series. About two months, three months later, I get a call asking me to come to this certain church, that they were going to be having a baptism. And so we went and here was this couple being baptized. And I said, "No, wait a minute. Three months"? Three months. These people were there, now they're here? And I learned that that gentleman, he worked at night as a security guard. And so he would take one of those adult books and he would read that all night long. He had nothing else to do. He had to stay awake. Watch the camera once in a while. And he read those books. He read the whole series through twice in those few months.

Wow, that's wonderful.

And I've kept up with that couple. They are still faithful Christians. They moved away from New York, but they're still serving God in another location. That's the excitement.

Yeah, it is.

Of literature evangelism and ministry.

Literature evangelists have the best stories, they just do. And you see miracles there. Well, you're gonna tell us a little bit more about miracles. Olan moved on from New York City, wound up in a foreign land serving as a missionary. Let's talk about those adventures next. Thanks so much for being here with us. We'll be right back.

John Bradshaw: Welcome back to Conversations. I'm John Bradshaw. With me is Olan Thomas, a lifelong minister, a pastor, and a literature evangelist. Olan, I just want to ask you, but before we go on a mission journey, let me ask you this, LE work, it's a fun work, it's a challenging work, you're working with people, which means it can be challenging, but always a blessing. In LE work, you tend to learn a lot about people and gain insights into the human mind and experience, don't you? Like no other work.

Olan Thomas: Absolutely. Because people will tell you things they hardly tell anyone. And of course, you meet people in the most dire situations. And of course, you meet some that are very, very happy, very, very joyful Christians. And it's fun to fellowship with them. And one of those young people I worked with in New York, she used to tell me, "You know where I really get my strength as a Christian"? I said, "Where is that"? She said, "I get that from my customers. People who buy books from me". She said, "They tell me that they are praying for me". Isn't that lovely?

Yeah, that is.

That people will pray for someone who's willing to venture. Venture for God.

You tend to remember some of those great stories, too, don't you? What you got a quick story maybe from New York City?

In New York City, of course, you have lots of, and we're talking 30 years ago or more, actually more, a lot of locks even then. So it's very difficult to get to people. And so any time we could find access into a building, rich or poor type building, we didn't just visit one family, we would always try to visit the neighbors. And one way to do that, of course, is to ask for referrals, or a little information about other people. And I remember one lady, we'd had a nice visit with, and I was trying to get some help and I said to her, "The people next door," I said, "are they Christian folk"? And she said, after thinking a little bit, she said, "I don't know". She said, "They've never invited me to church".

Isn't that telling?

I didn't know that inviting your neighbor to church was how you determined whether someone's a Christian or not, but...

But isn't it interesting, she figured if her neighbor was a Christian, surely she would invite her church. Oh, that's a rebuke to some of us, isn't it?

Isn't it?

You ended up leaving the United States and taking your young family on a great adventure. Tell me how that came about, like how did you get that call to go overseas?

Well, I, as I said, growing up, my wife was a similar situation growing up reading stories of missionaries, what God had done through people who sacrificed to leave their homeland and go to a foreign place, some cases work in a foreign language even and to serve God. And so, I kept asking, of course, different times when the occasion would present itself if that would ever be possible for us. And we had moved to Michigan after New York in the literature ministry, and at some point we had moved in Michigan from one area to another because they asked us to. We hadn't been there too long, we'd done some major remodeling on a house, we were just getting settled. And we get this invitation to go serve overseas. Actually, first the invitation was for Kenya.

Fabulous country.

We thought it would be Kenya and we had a five-six-year-old son and we talked all about going to Kenya and how nice that, we'd never been there, of course, but how nice that would be. And then we waited, and we waited, and it never came through.

Just didn't work out?

Never worked out.


And finally they came back and said, "Well look, we have other options. You can go to Pakistan. You could go to Madagascar".

The food in Pakistan would have been fantastic. I'd have been all over that.

So our six-year-old son you know, we thought, "Well, Madagascar, it's not Africa, but it's kind of like Africa". So it would be easier maybe for our son to understand it, and it just seemed that God opened the doors for us to go to Madagascar.

So let me ask you. They say Kenya. You go, "I understand Kenya. Pakistan, all right, I'm familiar with that. Madagascar, did you get it immediately or did you need to grab a, you couldn't have gone online, so you'd have to grab an encyclopedia and just look at what you're up against there?

Find a map. We knew nothing about Madagascar. The other thing, of course, we learned early on was to go to Madagascar in the literature ministry as they were asking us to do, we would be coordinating work in multiple islands, like Mauritius Island, Reunion Island, the islands of Comoros.


The Islamic Republic of the Comoros. And we discovered the common language was not English.


It was French. And we didn't speak French.

What do you do? Called to a country, you don't speak the language.

And then, of course, in Madagascar, it's not just French. You have 18 local dialects that you really should be able to speak as well.

Do they speak much English in Madagascar? Or did they at the time?

Very little. At that time, it was more common for a young person to seek a sponsorship in Russia and, therefore, they would like to learn that language more, much more so than in an English-speaking country.

So you learned French?

So they sent us for French language school. Fortunately they sent us to a school that was being taught by a missionary, a returned missionary. And so, a lot of our school was mission stories. How God works with people who trust and in the mission field.

So where was the language school? Was it here in the States?

Wouldn't that have been nice.

Well maybe they sent you to France or somewhere to learn French. Where did you go?

They did send us to France.

Well, I think that would have been nice.

They sent us to Cologne.

Oh, fantastic.

Right there below the mountains.

Yeah, right next to Switzerland, near Geneva.

So, well, we had two children at this point and a little girl who we adopted just before leaving the States. Soon as we could get her passport we were on our way to France. And after being there about seven months, I said, "I've had about all I can do of this". And so we went on to Madagascar.

What, what was waiting for you? What did you find when you arrived in Madagascar? Your first thought was, "This is not Michigan". But what was waiting there to greet you?

Actually we were more surprised by what we found in France, as far as culture, if you want to say, or standard of living or ways of living, I should say, not really standard of living. Well, for example, the kitchen stove. We had LP gas for cooking. But the gas tank sat right beside the stove. Now, that was not allowed in this country. The gas tank had to be somewhere outside and certain, you know...

Yeah. For good reason.

Yes, for good reasons. But that was very common, and...

That's in France you're talking about, Cologne.

In France, yes.

Really, even just 30 or so years ago.

So we asked some people from Madagascar in France, we said, "We will need a vehicle in Madagascar". So we were encouraged to buy one and then have it shipped down from Europe rather than buying it locally because of the cost. So we asked the locals if we bought a car, would that be sufficient? And they said, "Well, the roads are bad in Madagascar" at that time, "but, yeah, that'd be fine". When we got to Madagascar we found that you really, really had to have a four-wheel drive vehicle to be able to move around much, which was required, in my view, for my work. Because how do I encourage people or help people unless I'm on site with them. And so later on we were able to get a four-wheel drive. Fortunately, there was a house waiting for us when we arrived in Madagascar. There was actually a station, a group of missionaries there. An interesting thing about our mission service there was that we were among the early non-European missionaries. There was another gentleman that had come from the United States there, who arrived just months or a year maybe before us. And then there was a humanitarian leader that was there, who was also from the United States. But we were the first American missionaries to serve with the church group we were with in Madagascar. So that was an interesting thing, and, and our philosophy, our way of empowering people was kind of different sometimes than what some of the other cultures had brought.

What was the mood, the environment like as in terms of church growth and evangelism? What did you walk into? Was the church active, were people joining the church? Were people coming to Christ? And if they were, what were they coming from?

First, we have to say that the climate in Madagascar at that time it was still a socialist government and extreme poverty. They said that from the best information I could get it was among the 10 poorest countries of the world. I don't know how you rate poverty, comparing very little or almost nothing to almost nothing. so that's where we start. But, yes, the Gospel was going like rapidly. You could have a meeting and people would come and listen and learn and grow. And the churches, however, could be the most simple, the most simple. Some of them would have what we would call here maybe a carport. Some little lean-to next to their house. Just a simple tin roof. And that would become a sanctuary. And it was wonderful because they had a place! A place where they could meet. And then they could take the children maybe in the living room or some other place and have some Sabbath school time, some Bible study time, and sing some songs and do some activities. And the adults had a little place where they could meet and they would have meetings and many of them would be preached by local people of course. And literature evangelists would go out and talk to people and show them Christian literature. People would come and the church was really in a growth period at that time.

Being as it was a socialist country, what were the leading or the religions there? Was it mainly Christianity or did you have traditional religions? What were, what were you up against there as a Gospel minister?

That's a very good question. The traditional religion was very traditional and very ingrained. We're talking about magic. We're talking about what we would call from this side of the world, witchcraft. Ancestor worship, very real and very difficult for the local people to get away from. At the same time, I don't know what the percentages would be, perhaps a half or more of the people were probably still in that type of religious worship. But the Catholic Church was very well established. The Pentecostal community was growing quite rapidly at that time. And the Adventist Church was fairly strong in the country at that time. We had about 20,000 members in Madagascar when we went there in early '90s.

And something must have happened in Mauritius. I'm imagining the church was or became very strong because you meet Adventists from Mauritius everywhere. So somehow they must have done something down there to draw people to Christ because Mauritians have made a very strong contribution to church work around the world.

And I don't really know the answer to that, but it's true. Mauritius had a little higher standard of living. Mauritius Island was colonized by the English rather than the French, so there was a whole different mindset. Mauritius Island was not under the socialist umbrella, which, of course, is negative. Mauritius we loved to visit because the standard of living was very medium, very satisfactory. You felt very safe anywhere and time. And, of course, you can get along with English, which was a nice bonus. Where in Madagascar we really did live in the French language.

So if you were writing a mission book like those mission books that formed you when you were a child, about your time in Madagascar, what's one mission story, one amazing mission story, that you'd be sure to include in that book?

Well, lots of them. I'll tell you a quick story about travel. I traveled a lot, of course, like I said, to be with the people. So I'm traveling out through the country, driving my own car. I always travel with a local person for understood reasons. And we come on a, on a police stop out in nowhere, right out in the bush. We don't know if it's legitimate or not. And so I have to rely on my advisor. And he said I needed to stop. Well, when I got stopped, I was little advanced of where I should have been. I mean, feet, three feet, four feet, six feet. And the gentleman came, the officer came and he said, "Back up". So I backed up. Well, I backed up 18 inches too far. So he said, "Pull ahead". So I pulled ahead. Now we're ready. Papers. So I give him my papers. Well, there the vehicle registration had your address. And so when he looked at the address of where the vehicle was registered, where it was from, in the country, it referenced the Christian organization we were with. And his whole demeanor changed. "Mr. Thomas, have a wonderful rest of your day". We drove away and I said to my friend, "Well, what happened"? "Oh," he said, "I know that man". They didn't talk, but he said, "I know that man has bought our books. He's no doubt reading our books. He knows who we are," because of literature evangelism. It made a difference that day.

It made a difference that day, that's for sure.

How did your children, how did it work for your kids being raised in Madagascar? Like I said before, it ain't Michigan. It's very different. A very different culture. And I don't mean that in a negative way. It's a fabulous country with so many opportunities and things you could do there. A lifestyle you couldn't get anywhere in the United States, but it's very different. And it's an awful long way from grandma and grandpa. So, what was that like raising children as a missionary in a foreign country that had some challenges?

It was challenging. Of course, everybody wants to help you. They're happy to do that. But, as you said, it's far from people who have the same background. Even the church we attended locally was a French-speaking church. Which is fine. We did well with it. But even for our kids, and then my little daughter, as she came along she was playing with another missionary child and we thought she was just jabbering and the other missionary's wife says to my wife, she's speaking this other language. So she's hearing four or five, six languages all at the same time, and so in that sense our kids grew up kind of children of the world, if I could say it that way. And our oldest son, later on, people heard him speaking, like at the airport or whatever, and different times they would come up and say to him, "You're French. What about your parents"? Because if they heard us speak, even though we spoke French, it was not with the same accent. You know, he had mastered the accent. Spoke like a Frenchman. In fact, when we came back, he really preferred, after six years in the country, he really preferred speaking in French to speaking English. And I'd gotten not very far from that myself.

So the decision to come home, easy, challenging? I expect when your time is up, and it's relatively straightforward.

No, it was really challenging. We could have stayed longer. It really was our decision in this case. And we had done a lot. We knew when we went that we would probably be the last missionary in that position. And so we knew we had to train local people to replace us. And that was really my objective, the whole time I was there, was to train local people so they could carry on the work with even more success than when we were there. We had about 300 people we were supervising in literature evangelism ministry.

That's a great team.

In, in those island groups. Mostly in Madagascar, but some in the others, too. So the decision to come home was a difficult one. But it seemed like the right one, especially for our children, because our oldest now was getting into those teen years and it was time to start learning English and learning in the right way and learning at the depth, we had challenges with the school situation, of course. We'd homeschooled some, small mission school some. And so a lot of issues with education.

I want to ask you this one question before we go to the break. And that's this. So you come home, you bring your kids back. They've been in Madagascar, which, you know, it's not like going from the United States to Canada or New Zealand or Great Britain, it's very different. You come back, and now the United States is very different to what they're used to. Where there challenges settling back into the American way of life for the kids? Or did they just, or I don't mean for the family, or did it work just like that?

No, that was probably, if you want to talk about mission work, that's probably the harder adjustment, harder than the other way. When you go out, you're excited, you know you've got to adapt. You know you've got to learn. You know you've got to change, you've got to think in different ways. But you think coming home you're just coming home. But, like you said, you get home and you find it's not home anymore. It's six, seven, eight years difference. In our case it was seven years. We'd been home several times in that, but you're just visitors. You're just tourists at home for each time you come, you have no place to live, you just visit family and travel from place to place, preaching. You know, share what, what God is doing and try to raise money to help grow missions that way, which was something we always had to do, to take equipment, bicycles, or motorbikes, so people could get around quicker and do their work more efficiently. And so the adjustment back is a serious adjustment. But God blessed, everyone did well.

Yeah, well, thank God. You're now involved in a very exciting work and in a very meaningful work. We'll talk more with Pastor Olan Thomas as our Conversation continues in just a moment.

John Bradshaw: Welcome back to Conversations. My guest is Pastor Olan Thomas. And speaking of the pastor part, Olan, you had been in Madagascar working in literature work seven years with your wife and your children. You relocate back to the United States, which is a culture shock. And then you land in pastoral work. Tell me about that.

Olan Thomas: Yes, when we returned, the literature evangelism ministry had changed somewhat and, of course, now I had actually three children by the time we returned from Madagascar. We had a blessing of a third child while we were there during that period of time. And, on return they asked me to take up pastoral duties. And so, we did that. And served God in that way. It was a real adjustment. I'll tell you one little story about adjustment. So, I was assigned to this church and we did the Thanksgiving food basket program, which is a wonderful thing. So we collected the food, got the young people involved. It was a great thing for the church, of course. And then the lady in charge separated the food out for each family group, you know. This one gets more because they have more children, this one gets less because of a smaller family. And then she said to me, and this is, of course, about 2000, a little before, she says to me, "Now, I will go and call them and they will come and get their..". And I'm thinking in Madagascar terms. Number one, you wouldn't call them, they would have no phone. Number two, they'd have no vehicle, no way to come and get that. And she almost had to pick me up off the floor 'cause I'm serving poor people, right? And yet we're going to call them and they will come and get it.

A very different context, isn't it?

Very different context.

Yeah, and, and poverty is is relative to where you are in the world.

Very different.

Yeah, yeah, very...

I'm sure the people needed it as badly as anyone.

Of course.

But it was a different context. So we really enjoyed our pastoral ministry. We always visited people a lot in their homes because that's the way literature evangelist do, is visit people wherever they can find them. And so the churches really enjoyed having us there.

Visitation is a bit of a lost art now. And I don't want to get on anybody, but it, and pastors must pastor in their own armor, but it seems that there's less visiting going on now. You'll hear pastors say, "Oh, the people don't like to be visited," and so on. I don't believe that. And I do know of a lady I met one day and she, no, a pastor, he was in a hospital and noticed a lady in the hospital. Somehow he began to visit a certain lady. Turns out she was a church member, but went to another church. When she got out of the hospital she transferred to his church. She said, "My own pastor never called, never visited, and you just stopped by to be nice and say hi". I'll tell you this, so he's pastoring in a certain church right. There was a man who used to come to our church for our early service, then go to his church for Sabbath School.


Right. So he'd come to early service where he was not a member, that was our church. And he'd go to his church for Bible study. The man had brain surgery. Brain surgery, which he did well, but brain surgery is brain surgery.

It's serious.

I thought, "We've got to visit this guy".

Yeah. For sure.

And then I said, "No, no, he's not a member of our church. And I would not like the other church to feel like we're encroaching". You know what I mean? And then I thought, "Now hold on a minute. He's been attending our church for some time. This is where he comes to worship. I'm going to go and see the man". He just lived up the road. It was very interesting. He said to me, and this a man who had worked in the wider church organization most of his working life. He said "I'm been in the church 36 years. No one has ever visited me". He said, "Oh, well, I take that back. I did have a couple of elders come by once, but they were raising money, so I don't count that". He said, "No one's visited me". I said, "Brother, you had brain surgery. Someone from where your membership is has visited you, didn't they"?

So the second district I was assigned to, I just took the list that they gave me, people that were involved at that church, and I started visiting them. I didn't know, people would ask me why I came and I said, "I'm your pastor, that's why I came". Because they thought they'd done something wrong or something or...

That's right, yeah, people would say... But sometimes I've called, "Hey, I want to stop by and visit you," or I'll see them in the church as they left and they'll, "I haven't done anything wrong, have I"?

This one gentleman...

Not yet.

I attempted and attempted and finally I found him. He lived, this is up in northern Michigan. He lived in a little cabin out by the lake. Lovely spot. And we sat down and chatted. In that little chat he finally said to me, sort of like your friend, this guy wasn't that old fortunately he said, "You know, I haven't been to church in however long" and he said, and really, this is a family church, a lot of these people in the church are his relatives. But he said, "No one," he said, "No one has ever stepped out of their way to talk to me and ask me or invite me specifically or find out why I wasn't coming or whatever". Wasn't very long after that and we moved on to the planned giving ministry and he started getting involved again. He met a Bible worker. And they got married and the last I knew a few months ago, they have one child and are doing well.


A visit makes a difference. A lot of difference.

Doesn't cost you anything.

Doesn't cost...

Takes no special skill. It's not the least bit challenging. You just visit. Makes a difference. If we're really a family, if the church is really a family, really. I think many churches aren't nearly as family as they might like to think. You mentioned you moved on to planned-giving work. Now, explain to me what planned giving is, and I must, I must disclose Olan Thomas is the director of planned giving at It Is Written. But, but let's talk about planned giving and the philosophy behind it, what is it?

Well, all of us know that we will not live forever. We hate to admit that.

Yeah. That's true.

But we all know that.

That's true.

So we all have to dispose of our assets one way or another.

Why do we have to?

Now young people, of course, they are accumulating them. But as we get older we start thinking about how to get rid of them.

But why do we have to dispose of them? Just keep them until you die.

It's a good question. When you die, if you haven't disposed of them, if you haven't made a decision, a plan as to how you'll dispose of them, the state has a plan, but that does not include any charity or any charitable cause. So if you wanted anything to go to anyone but your direct family, whatever the law calls direct family, you have to make that plan.

Yeah, it just makes sense that you decide what happens to what you've earned and not the state.


The, the chances of the state doing just what you want are zero.

And most of us as Christians, we believe that God should have part of that. You know, He, it all belongs to Him.

All of it.

Every bit belongs to Him. And so, at our passing, often our children are grown, well established, often, in their careers, assuming we're older of course. For the younger people, they can still make a plan that, through their estate, that will reserve the money, put the money in a special trust fund so that their kids can be taken care of, should that terrible catastrophe ever happen. So that's what, those are some of the things that planned giving does.

Really, it's about stewardship, isn't it?

All about...

Yeah, and the Bible speaks a lot about stewardship. And why I believe this is so important. I think it's a deeply spiritual work. And, and I mentioned earlier, right now you're involved and your team is involved with helping people make some of the most significant decisions of their lives. So, I'm going to die one day and I'm going to leave a thousand dollars. What am I going to do with that thousand dollars? It could, it could really do something for God. But most people, when they're facing end of life, they're not leaving a thousand, it's more like a hundred thousand, maybe they own a house. So that's anywhere between where do you live? A $150,000 to a million-and-a-half.

A million-and-a-half.

So, typically we're talking three, four, five hundred thousand dollars, and then you've got retirement funds, 401Ks, and trusts, and when you're looking at leaving the world, you've typically got a pile of resources. It's either a little pile or it could be a very big pile. What you do with that, that's significant.

And Jesus seems to, in some of the parables and so on, He seems to be very clear that we should have things in order so that if something should happen to us, we can, even while we're living, we can know that if that eventuality, that catastrophe, ever happened, things will go as they should and our family will be provided for if they should need that, especially some of us have special-needs children or grandchildren. And maybe we want to do something special for that special-needs child or grandchild. And so there are ways that can be set up formally and legally so that we can know, even while we're enjoying our, our life, we can know that those individuals will be taken care of. The other one is education. We talked about that a moment ago. Education's very expensive. Grandparents can do something to help grandkids or parents can help kids with Christian education through these types of funds and reserves. And then, of course, people can give immediately and still get income from it the rest of their life.

Right, right, with annuities and so on.

Annuities and charitable remainder trusts. There are ways they can get tremendous tax benefits while they live.


And yet have income from it should they need that.

I just read about one country where there is only one kind of bank account out of the many kind of bank accounts there are that keeps ahead of inflation. Because currently, banks are paying you nothing.

That's right.

Fixed deposit, what do you call those things?


CDs. They're paying nothing anymore.

That's right.

You can speak with somebody like you or do something charitable to support the work and receive an income much higher than your bank is able to give you. Just makes sense.

And someone like you quoted earlier who seems to have a lot of wisdom, says that we should be able to do that even if our funds aren't a lot, we don't have a huge reserve, we should be able to set that up so that we have the joy of knowing that at our passing it will go to charity, if that's what we want, and yet we should be able to have income from it should we need it.

I'll share this with you. I'm just of the conviction that it's my duty when I die and my assets are being disposed of, to make sure I'm very supportive of God's work. Then where else am I going to give that money. No offense intended, but there are other very good charities. Let someone else help them, because my burden is for evangelism, mission, the church, God's work.


I want to bounce this off of you. I feel strongly about this. You may, you may not. We'll see what others think. You get people who die and they leave a million dollars to their son, a million to their daughter, a million to whatever. $400,000 to each of their five children. If your kids are 50 years old, they don't need $400,000. If your kid is lost, be the worst thing in the world to give that kid a million dollars. Or even, you know, I shouldn't anything at all, but how do people wrestle with this, we all feel differently, how do people wrestle with this and how do you make a spiritual decision, "What should I leave to my kids"?

Very, very good question. Number one, we encourage people to really pray over those decisions. Because, in James, you know, it says we lack wisdom, that God will give us wisdom. And so, we try to encourage people to take time and really put this in prayer. Number one, of course, we, of course, we're talking often about older people. But they should put their assets on the altar. And say to God, "If you need these assets now, why should I keep them"? As long as I have food enough to eat and enough to pay the rent or the mortgage, whatever it is, so there's that. One of our trainees, just recently, the gentleman said something like this, he said, "Never give your child so much that you deny them the pleasure of bringing home a paycheck".

Oh, absolutely right. Yeah.

I thought that is profound. And like you've said, if a child is now 50 or 60, and the parent is making their plan, if the child doesn't have some assets by then, what will giving them another infusion, whatever that may be, what will that really do for them? If they haven't learned to manage and take care of themselves by 50 or 60, when will they? And that is the reason though some people prefer the charitable trust concept where they can give them a little bit every year, rather than giving them the money all at once.

And everybody's situation varies. There may be some children who need support and may have fallen on hard times, been through a bad marriage, had some bad luck. I get that.


it's right to love your kids and want to do something nice for them, but there comes a point, doesn't it, where you say, "This is God's money and I've got to do something to grow the church and win souls and be faithful to God after everything God has done for me". Anyway, you and your team, you help people with those decisions, right?

We do. And so, like you said, we go into the home and we sit down with them and we discuss their situation, every situation is different. It's one of the things I enjoy about this work is it, no two cases are alike. You can't say, "Well, this person did this, so you should do that". It's not that way, because their circumstances are different. There are tax advantages to a lot of the things that people can do. We encourage people to do your giving while you're living, so you can be knowing where it's going. You know, you get the joy of knowing where it's going, instead of, well, maybe, and then, of course, if you do it while you're well capable and able to give outright, or to give no one can challenge that. Where we all know that when you die, you've made a plan of what you would like to happen, but you have to trust somebody. When you're no longer here, somebody's going to make those decisions that may actually honor your wishes and it may not. Of course, usually it does. But somebody else is actually in control. Now, if you think your kids will be more generous to Christian work than you are, go right ahead, give it to them. But that's not usually the case. Usually God has given us stewardship and He asks us to be responsible, first to Him, then, of course, to our family as well.

I found there are a lot of people who just love to give to God.


They love to give to God. I'm going to say this and I want you to correct me or moderate what I'm going to say. I find it with older people, there's just this deeply ingrained, "It's God's, we give". I don't know about younger people and I don't think we need to be worried about that, because younger people don't have the disposable income, they haven't had the accumulation. So, how do we instill in our young people a love for giving? I think it's very important we do. How do we do that?

I don't know the answer, other than, model it. We show them. And again, we can go back to my own father, eventually he sold that business and over the years before he passed at 81 years of age, he basically gave it away to the work of God. And it was the right thing to do. It was wonderful. He modeled well what he believed. He put it all back into God's work. It wasn't huge, I'm sure, but it was significant.

Yeah. Significant is right. Olan, I feel like we're just scratching the surface. Maybe we need to talk again sometime. Thanks so much for...

It's been a pleasure.

Taking this time. I've really enjoyed it, thank you.

Thank you.

And thank you for joining us. What a blessing. I hope you've been encouraged and inspired. Olan has given me and I hope you, a lot to think about. He's Olan Thomas. I'm John Bradshaw. This has been our Conversation.
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