Resilience Marks Two Centuries of Christianity in Burma
July 11, 2013
When American missionary Adoniram Judson stepped onto the shores of Burma on July 13, 1813, there were no known Christians, no churches, and no Bibles available in the Burmese language. His first six years of ministry produced one convert.
Less committed evangelists may have packed up and shipped out for home, but Judson stayed the course during his 38 years in Burma. He endured many travails—the death of two wives and children, depression, war, even imprisonment—but nothing could bend the steely determination of this New England preacher.
It was a herculean task, but during his lifetime Judson translated both the Old and New Testaments into Burmese. His goal to establish at least one church of 100 members was far surpassed by the planting of over 100 fellowships. After his death, government records listed some 210,000 Christians in the country. His efforts did not fall on parched soil.
This week marks the 200th anniversary of Judson´s arrival in Burma, the Southeast Asian country also known as Myanmar. Despite staunch resistance from the country´s Buddhist majority and repressive government policies, Christians continue to stand strong in a deeply fractured society.
The gospel goes forth
In 1966, foreign Christian workers were expelled from the country. Facing harassment and persecution, Burmese believers responded by multiplying their own indigenous missions efforts.
One of these modern-day church planters is Sya (name changed for security reasons), a Christian Aid-sponsored missionary who works among his own people in the Chin region as well as other tribal communities under-reached with the gospel.
Sya is a third-generation believer whose grandfather became the first Christian convert in their tribe. That´s a spiritual heritage he takes very seriously.
“I was born and brought up in a Christian family. My grandfather became a Christian many years ago amid much hostility from the Chin tribe. And my father is also a missionary in Burma,” said Sya, who received Jesus as his Savior at the age of 18. “By 1988, I made a commitment to serve the Lord in whatever capacity He prepared for me.”
After completing seminary training abroad, Sya traveled extensively throughout Burma holding evangelistic events, Bible seminars, discipleship training, and summer camps. Everywhere he went, he saw young people respond to the gospel with a desire to teach God´s Word to others.
Sya established Myanmar Rural Mission to arm young missionaries with practical knowledge and field experience. In 2007 he started a four-year Bible institute to provide a place for discipleship, church planting training, and evangelistic preaching. The school accommodates about 30 students from diverse ethnic backgrounds and languages.
Currently the ministry has 22 full-time missionaries who receive support through Christian Aid. Known for its ethnic diversity, Burma is home to eight major national races and 135 sub-groups and tribes. Myanmar Rural Mission focuses on people groups living in remote areas, including the Koki, Lahu, Akha, Tedim, Shan, and Meitei.
Animism still maintains a foothold in many rural villages. In Chin State, Sya visited a village several times and shared the gospel, but the local animist priest refused to meet with him. The 83-year-old man, named Puthang, was highly influential in the village. If Puthang accepted Christ, Sya knew the rest of the villagers would too.
After his seventh attempt, Sya finally received a skeptical welcome from the elder. He continued to visit the isolated community two or three times a year.
The two men talked about their beliefs. Puthang explained his duty to protect the village from evil spirits and the importance of making sacrifices to appease them.
“With Jesus, you don´t have to worry because He will take care of your people,” Sya replied. “He has power over the evil spirits. He has already made the greatest sacrifice so you and your people can be saved.”
Puthang had many questions. As Sya read to him from the Burmese Bible, the elderly man´s heart was opened and he asked the Christian God to be his God too. He told other villagers about Jesus the Savior, and more people became believers.
Of the 120 inhabitants, over half are now followers of Christ. Although they have no official church building, the local believers gather in homes for worship and Bible study. The village pastor, a native Chin, received training at a Christian evangelism center in Burma.
New era, old challenges
Although indigenous missionaries are making an impact, they face an onslaught of pressures that have lessened only slightly following the Burmese government´s enactment of human rights reforms during the past three years.
Buddhism remains firmly entrenched and fervently protected by political and military leaders. As a result, Sya said missionaries who lead Buddhists to Christ may face imprisonment or even death.
“If we evangelize and convert a Buddhist, the local authorities will threaten us,” he explained. “After warning and harassing us, the next time we may be killed. Sometimes we leave a place for a while and the villagers who have become believers continue to spread the gospel.”
Independence movements among the Kachin, Karin, and other ethnic groups have further complicated the societal landscape of the country. Clashes with the government have intensified in recent years, leaving Christians caught in the crossfire.
Adding to the misery was the catastrophic cyclone Nargis in 2008. Some 138,000 people were killed by the storm and the disease and suffering that followed. Among the survivors in the delta area were impoverished Christians whose lands were no longer suitable for farming.
The banning of foreign agencies paved the way for local ministries like Myanmar Rural Mission to bring help to devastated families. Christian Aid supplied funds for the distribution of rice and other necessities.
After two centuries, no natural disaster, political upheaval, or persecution has sidelined the missionary vision initiated by Adoniram Judson. Today there are an estimated 4.5 million believers in Burma, comprising nine percent of the population, according to Operation World. Yet millions more Burmese have never heard the good news of Jesus Christ.
“We try our best to follow in Judson´s steps,” said one Burmese missionary. “His sacrificial life, endurance, and loving of lost souls are an example for our missions.”
- For Christians in Burma to enjoy true religious freedom so they can share the gospel and assemble for worship without fear of arrest or persecution.
- For the Burmese government and separatist insurgent groups to work out peace agreements and end the bloodshed.
- For the evangelistic work of Myanmar Rural Mission and other Burmese ministries assisted by Christian Aid.