Ever thought about a really different weekend away? You just say to yourself, “I would just really do something different this weekend!” You want to breathe some life into who you are and what you stand for. If so, you should have been with me the first weekend in August. More than unique, it was a chance to witness history in the making, God’s history that is, lo, these 33 years after the official end of the Vietnam War. Turns out, God’s grace is, in fact, sufficient!
It was my honor and privilege to be present at a weekend gathering in old Saigon (now Ho Chi Minh City) where about 1,000 Baptists from the north and from the south gathered with the blessing of the government of Vietnam to give praise to God for the miracle that is unfolding there.
The government of Vietnam has, like China, been trying to launch itself into the 21st century. The economy is one of the strongest in Southeast Asia and there is a great desire to become a member of the World Trade Organization.
In order to get that, they took what they think is a “safe” tact that they could oversee and maintain. Any religious body that was actively working before the war began was given permission to apply for registration status. It is at this point that we have to say thanks to our Southern Baptist missionary colleagues who labored faithfully to bring Christ to Vietnam. The current union of 409 churches and about 18,000 members was pioneered by mission work that began in the late 1950s. There is currently a growing, yearning, and driven group of Baptist believers who have managed amazingly well for all these years but now stand on the verge of claiming a great milestone -- the chance to be legally registered and move ahead with the government’s blessing to spread the gospel to the 80 million people of the country.
Of the 1,000 gathered, 250 or so were government officials and diplomats from a number of countries (including from the US Embassy) to see this new reality opening up for Baptists there. I am not sure the ones pictured here were having the best time of their lives, but they were there and supportive, and that is what counted. The God-honoring, 4-day celebration was held in full expectation of moving from a tentative registration issued last October 2007 to the official granting of the full registration, which was received as of October 8, 2008, a month and a half ahead of schedule!
In a fledgling relationship that began in 2000, American Baptist International Ministries has had the privilege of coming along side this group of wonderfully opportunistic folk and provide minimal but needed support. Leadership development has been the most critical issue and it is now essential. The large majority of pastors possess a sixth grade education or less. They have never had the opportunity of learning anything that a seminary or Bible school student might. Even among the main leadership, a bachelor’s degree is the most education they have had a chance to get.
Our goal, should we decide to accept it, is to find scholarship funds to enable study to occur both inside and outside of Vietnam. For the moment, most of that will be “inside.” Many of the current leadership are people who have families and hold very responsible positions in the Baptist Churches in Vietnam (BCV). They are not in a position to leave Vietnam for extensive study. But here’s the thing -- except for a loose connection with a recently started Korean discipleship training center -- there is no opportunity to get the kind of training that both pastors and leadership needs.
There is another important issue. Most of the pastors and 85% of the leadership mentioned above have little or no English skills. So, we must come together to develop a strategic plan that focuses on making resources available to them where they are. We could provide scholarship funds for distance learning for the ones who can handle English to enable them to get a master of divinity or other religious education degree. Additionally, training sessions for the pastors for now with an eye to develop their own theological training center/Bible college/seminary is essential. International Ministries has been doing these sessions since we started with several including Dr. Stan Slade, Dr. Jeffery Sharp, and others have been greatly assisting in this effort.
But here’s the lovely irony. I just love to recognize God as work in these situations. The government is quite insistent that the BCV continue to grow and train their leaders so that it can be a flourishing religious entity. They want to point to the BCV and others to show the world that true religious freedom exists there. In other words, the door is wide-open…the sooner the better as far as the Vietnamese government is concerned!
Now the BCV cannot move fast enough! The bonds of partnership that we have developed over the past eight years make it possible for International Ministries to be poised to fill the very large gap that has opened up. It is an amazing challenge that I believe has been dropped in our laps by a God who is saying, “Let’s see what you can do with this!”
By the way, since receiving the official registration, the possibility of opening clinics, orphanages, development projects of all kinds, schools is all a part of the bargain. It won’t be real soon but as God enables and a need is mutually discovered, I believe that missionaries will have a new chance to be present there again.
Please submit this to prayer. It is going to take some fairly hefty resources. But is the exciting crowd that was able to be present this past weekend is any indication, God is more than ready to move forward in Vietnam and I do not think He is going to wait too long for us to get on board.