Resurgence of Hope in Vietnam
August 08, 2013
Many tribal groups in Vietnam’s highlands remain unreached with the gospel.
“Su” knows what it feels like to stare at the four walls of a darkened prison cell, sick and alone. His only visitors were the ones he preferred not to see—interrogators who came every day to press him for information about his “co-conspirators.” After a round of questions and a beating, they left him bloodied and bruised with the promise that they would return the next day with more of the same.
“Sometimes I asked God, why me? Why do I have to go through all of this?” said Su, a Vietnamese Christian who has been in and out of prison for several years for sharing his faith. “God was the only comfort for me during those times.”
This committed servant of the Lord loved his countrymen so much that he was willing to pay a heavy price to tell them the good news of his Savior.
One day Su received word that the police were going to kill ten inmates in his section of the prison—and he was in cell #7.
He heard the shots fired at the first prisoner. Then the second one. He prayed as the police proceeded down the row of cells.
Just before they reached his location, the shooting inexplicably ceased and the police left. God had spared his life.
His suffering continued, however, as Su spent long periods in solitary confinement. He contracted malaria but received no medical attention.
When he was released from prison after serving his last stint, a two-year sentence, Su weighed a mere 90 pounds. He was so weak he could not walk. He had to be carried out of the prison to freedom.
Many people would not fault Su if he had chosen to retreat for a while and hang up his evangelism shoes. But that was not his desire. Having deepened his relationship with God during the prison years, Su was eager to be about his Father’s work.
“Those experiences in prison gave me the determination to serve God no matter what,” he said. “I’ve already been through all of it. So I will keep sharing the gospel for the rest of my life.”
Reaching the unreached
Lepers and their families are receiving compassionate care through Christian Aid.
Su is not alone in his remarkable dedication. He knows of about 60 pastors who are currently serving time in Vietnamese prisons. Some Christian leaders have served a decade or more. Upon their release, they return to their churches or to the mission field among unreached tribal groups in the country’s highlands.
Christian Aid Mission donors assist some of these gospel workers. Despite the challenges, Su and his team of missionaries have planted hundreds of churches throughout rural Vietnam and trained tribal pastors to make an impact in their communities.
The need is great as Vietnam has one of the most diverse minority populations in Southeast Asia. Of 54 ethnic groups in Vietnam, Su said only 32 of them have Christians. A handful of the groups are believed to be completely unreached with the gospel.
Many of these ethnic groups live in remote mountain villages and still practice the animist traditions of their ancestors. However, indigenous missionaries like Su have found the highland tribes to be very receptive to the gospel, especially in the last ten years. Through their efforts, there are now thousands of believers in these areas.
Equipping tribal pastors is the primary focus of Su’s ministry. These leaders can in turn disciple others and plant new churches among their people. Thus far, more than 10,000 individuals have participated in the Christian education program, which receives support through Christian Aid. More are waiting to receive training as funds become available for course materials and other related expenses.
An outreach to lepers and their families is another important aspect of the ministry’s work. Today there are 27 colonies in Vietnam housing some 22,000 lepers that are treated as outcasts by the rest of society. Su’s organization provides assistance to some of the colonies through educational support for the children, family food parcels, and livestock that they can raise for income.
“The lepers are open to the gospel, and in one colony, 90 percent of the residents have received Christ,” said Su. He would like to expand this outreach to additional leper colonies.
‘Explosion of the gospel’ in Vietnam
House church in a rural village
Roman Catholic missionaries brought Christianity to Vietnam in the 16th century, and Protestantism gained a foothold a century ago through determined efforts by the Christian and Missionary Alliance. In fact, up until the country came under communist rule in 1975, Christianity had played a significant role in society. While the Vietnamese government claims freedom of religion for its citizens, relentless harassment, persecution, and imprisonment tell a different story.
Conditions have improved somewhat for the 1.5 million Protestants and 8.5 million Catholics who make up about ten percent of the population. The Evangelical Church of Vietnam is formally recognized by the authorities, as are several other denominations. Churches who do obtain state registration are closely monitored by officials and can lose their legal status at any time.
As a result, congregations face constant pressure to compromise and conform to government regulations. Any form of open evangelism must also receive a green light from authorities.
While there are registered churches operating in Hanoi and other cities, the government fiercely opposes efforts to establish churches among the country’s tribal peoples. Some of these tribes sided with the United States during the war and the Vietnamese government still regards them with suspicion.
Su said in one mountain tribe, 29 people became Christians and began meeting together for worship and Bible study. Local officials told them their activities were illegal because they were not registered.
However, when the pastors of 40 churches recently met with communist leaders to receive legal registration, their request was denied, said Su. Each of the churches has a congregation of over 500 members. A letter sent to top officials in Hanoi also met with no success.
Attempts to restrict the growth of Christianity have actually produced the opposite results. When a congregation is ordered to shut down their building, they often branch out into small fellowships. Those house churches then grow independently, and in a matter of a few years, they may have 200 members.
Su points to two major reasons behind the rapid emergence of Christianity in the past three decades. “People realize they are missing something spiritually. They need something to depend on. They are hungering for something more than their pagan god who cannot give them an answer to their problems.”
“Just as significant, the Vietnamese people are looking at Christians, at the relationships they have, the blessings they enjoy,” he said. “They can tell a difference between God’s children and unbelievers. This makes them curious to find out about God, and that has led to an explosion of the gospel in Vietnam.”
Operation World reports a ninefold increase in evangelicals since 1975, particularly among the ethnic groups in central and southern Vietnam. Likewise, the Hmong people, the largest minority group in the country, have experienced amazing growth. An unreached group until the late 1980s, they now have some 400,000 believers.