Discipling students in Cambodia

Since the early 1990s Cambodia has been rebuilding its society after the devastation of the Khmer Rouge years. Alongside the destruction of places, people and culture, universities were left devasted. Over the past 20 years, OMF has been helping to lay the foundations for and establish a student movement to share the good news of Jesus to students across Cambodia.

Sok* became a Christian when he went to Phnom Penh to study at university. Through SONOKO, Cambodia’s Christian student movement, he was able to join a Bible study group with Christian friends on campus, grow in his faith, and benefit from student leadership training at their national conference.

Growing leaders

Many students such as Sok are heading to university in Cambodia, one of Southeast Asia’s youngest nations. With three in five Cambodians under the age of 30, student ministry is especially significant here.1 ‘Students have a great potential to impact society as they will be the leaders,’ says SungEun Kim, who served in Korea Intervarsity Fellowship before joining OMF to support SONOKO. He explains: ‘That doesn’t mean that they need to go into high positions, but in their workplaces and churches, they will influence others. So, in student ministry we are aiming to equip the students to grow as Christian leaders to impact the Cambodian churches and wider society as well.’ Chenda* is one SONOKO graduate doing just that. She works at Fount of Wisdom publishing house, promoting their Christian books (see p.24–25). Chenda is excited about being part of a work that will help transform the Church and society of Cambodia with the gospel. Many graduates like Chenda have benefited from SONOKO’s vision of how God can use their professions to spread the good news of Jesus further and wider in Cambodia.

Rebuilding and restoration

However, it has taken many years of faithful work to reach this point. In the early 1990s, Cambodian society, especially its universities, needed rebuilding after the Khmer Rouge years. OMF workers Sho & Yoko Sugaya brought their experience as staff with KGK, the Christian student movement in Japan, to Cambodia to help start a movement there. In the early 2000s, the first student Bible studies and camps took place and OMF began partnership talks with the International Fellowship of Evangelical Students (IFES). ‘[We were] dreaming together of a student ministry in Cambodia that would be word-anchored, witness-oriented, and student-initiated,’ says IFES East Asia Regional Secretary, Annette Arulrajah. ‘At the end of the road our shared dream is to see a locally-led student movement.’

Students reaching students

Believing students are best placed to reach students, OMF and IFES worked hard to encourage student leaders, develop a local staff team, and expand the movement. In 2009, with support from OMF, SONOKO’s work expanded to Siem Reap, Cambodia’s ancient city and in 2012, SONOKO hired its first full-time Cambodian staff member to support the student leaders. More and more, OMF’s role is now supporting local Christians as they lead their own student movement. IFES continued journeying with SONOKO by providing pastoral care, training, and consultation on how to grow the student work. ‘We’ve had so many IFES movements, in Singapore, the USA and UK praying for SONOKO, so in many ways we feel like a family,’ says SungEun. The support has been practical too. Short-term teams from other IFES movements have supported SONOKO outreach events and encouraged students with the lessons they’ve learnt. In 2019, SONOKO was officially affiliated with IFES . This recognises SONOKO’s growth from a pioneering movement begun with OMF’s support to a maturing movement, with a local advisory board and mainly local staff. In November 2020 SONOKO’s first local General Secretary was appointed, a major step forward for the movement.

Dreaming big

As SONOKO moves forward, SungEun wants to remember those who went before. Ngoun Chamroeun was one of the first full-time local staff and expected to be the first local general secretary. Tragically, he died in an accident on an outing in 2017, yet his legacy lives on. Inspired by Chamroeun’s life, a number of non-Christian students joined SONOKO meetings and came to know Jesus, while many Christians devoted themselves to sacrificially serving the SONOKO movement. In 2018, Chamroeun’s father joined the SONOKO board, alongside two other Cambodian Christians and two OMF workers, to help advise to the movement his son served. Today around 50 students are part of SONOKO2. Despite being the smallest IFES movement in East Asia, they have big dreams. At their conference one student exclaimed: ‘If we want to reach all universities, why are SONOKO student groups only in Siem Reap and Phnom Penh? If we want to reach more students we need to go to other cities too!’3 Praise God for how the good work he started over 20 years ago continues to grow and flourish.

*Names changed

1. Cambodia Youth Data Sheet 2015 by United Nations Population Fund Cambodia: https://cambodia.unfpa.org/sites/default/files/pub-pdf/Flyer_Cambodia_Youth_Factsheet_final_draft_%28approved%29.pdf; https://www.populationpyramid.net/cambodia/2019/
2. IFES World, ‘East Asia’ https://ifesworld.org/en/region/eastasia/ (accessed 8/06/2020)
3. FES World, ‘Pray for the Student Leadership Conference’ https://ifesworld.org/en/prayerline/pray-for-the-student-leadership-conference-in-cambodia/ (accessed 8/06/2020).