New Beginnings in Vietnam
Phuong is interested in Jesus. Her fascination grows the more she learns about him, but she is hesitant to become a Christian. What will her university classmates think if she starts following this strange new religion? Only one of them had even heard of Jesus before their teacher started talking about him. What will her family think? She knows how important following the ancestor worship rituals is to them and how angry they will be if she stops. What will the ancestral spirits do? Will they make bad things happen to her and her family? What should she do?
With over 90 million, Vietnam is bursting with people. When you talk about Vietnam in the West, often people’s first thought is the Vietnam War. But for Vietnamese, it was a brief blip in a history of several thousand years. 70 per cent of Vietnamese people are under 40 – they weren’t even alive when the war ended. For most, America is a long forgotten enemy and they are more concerned with the growing power of their northern neighbour, China, with whom there is a two thousand year long history of conflict that continues today.
Or they may be more concerned about the latest smartphone. 21st century Vietnam is a country where the old jostles with the new, where luxury vehicles pass beside people selling flowers from their bicycles. You can see it on the streets, where modern malls with KFC and Burger King compete with street vendors selling Pho and Bun Cha. You can see it in the temples where ladies in high heels briefly put away their iPhones to offer incense before resuming their Facebook chat. You can see it in politics where open-market economic policies clash with the remnants of Marxist-Leninist ideology and the much older ideals of Confucianism. Everywhere you look, you can see the old and the new. Christianity faces the opportunity and challenge that it is usually seen as a new religion for the Vietnamese – a Western one, not a Vietnamese one.
Catholic missionaries first came to Vietnam about 400 years ago. They received a stormy reception. Alexandre de Rhodes, the most famous, was expelled twice, once on penalty of death. Today, Catholicism has embraced some of the traditional beliefs of the Vietnamese and most Catholics would continue to practise ancestor worship; growth has been slow. Only about 8 per cent of the population, mostly in the South, count themselves as Catholics.
Protestant Christianity is much newer, arriving just over a hundred years ago. Certain minorities in the Central Highlands responded warmly to the gospel; today a few of these ethnic groups are as much as 30–50 per cent Christian. However, the vast majority of the Vietnamese peoples have been hard to reach. Only 1.8 per cent are Christian and of those, three quarters are among a few of the minorities. Of the nearly 80 million ethnic Vietnamese, just 0.5 per cent know the good news of Jesus, and even then much less in the North than in the South.
Danh is from the North, from the capital city, Hanoi. He became a Christian while studying in Germany. Sometime later, he had the chance to go back to Hanoi for a few weeks. He searched and searched for an evangelical church, but returned to Germany saying ‘there are no churches in my city.’ Fortunately, he was wrong and we have since been able to help him find one. However, churches in this city of 7 million people are few, and hard to find.
Few, but growing! In the few years since we arrived, we are aware of several new churches as well as existing churches that have added extra service times to accommodate their growing congregations. Vietnamese are interested in Jesus, if only they get a chance to hear. These days there is a lot of freedom in the big cities to share your faith. Not with a loudspeaker on the street corner but face-to-face in coffee shops and homes. We can make disciples and train Vietnamese to make disciples, contributing to the small but growing church.
There is still the challenge of the countryside. There are minorities like the Nung and Tay with just a handful of known believers. People are more conservative and officials are often suspicious of change and of outsiders. Some in the countryside have a fading memory of the creator God, but their daily life is concerned with pleasing the spirits. It is a joy to share with them that the creator God has not forgotten them, he speaks their language, and they don’t have to live in fear of spirits. Key to that is finding those whom God has prepared to be the doorways into communities. Often telling Bible stories is the best way to spread the good news. One team member tries to spend a day a week on the phone, just chatting with people and teaching them Bible stories.
The opportunities for sharing Jesus with the millions of Vietnamese are constantly growing. Will you pray for many more to find him? Will you come and share him with them?