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The Cambodian Church

CambodiaThe church in Cambodia is growing again. Praise God. The work of hundreds of years of Christian mission – from the 16th century when Catholic missionaries and refugees came from Portugal, Japan and Vietnam to the last 90 years of Protestant activities – was decimated during the Khmer Rouge’s genocidal regime in the 1970s.

The ultra-communist Khmer Rouge was anti-religion; even in the majority Buddhist community monks were killed and temples were turned into barracks. Many Christian pastors were killed; Christians and Muslims (a minority group called the Cham) were targeted as enemies of the state. Of the many thousands of Christians in the early 1970s only a few hundred, including three pastors, still survived on ‘liberation day’ in January 1979.

After a decade of communist rule, and an ongoing civil war with the remnant of the Khmer Rouge in the border areas during the 1980s, it was commonly thought that there were only about 30 small churches across the country by the early 1990s. 

Today, in 2012, the most recent statistics suggest the church here is made up of between 5,000 and 7,500 congregations. The large variation in estimates indicates how hard it is to count churches, and a range of definitions of ‘church’ also confuses things. The common estimate of Christians in Cambodia is 2-3% of the population of 14 million.

Whatever the actual figures are, some things are clear:

• The Cambodian church has grown hugely in the last 15 years since the 1997 coup released the control and oppression the church experienced under communist rule and during the early days of ‘democracy’.
• Most believers and leaders are young in both faith and age (the average age of leaders is 38 and they are often new believers).
• Only 12% of leaders are in full-time ministry while most are rice farmers (60%) or students (10%).
• Many church leaders are living on or below the poverty line.
• Only 5% of church leaders have graduated from high school, and 71% have only some primary school education or none at all.

The majority of all churches are initiated and led by Cambodians who have come to faith through the ministry of other Cambodians. The most effective evangelists are local villagers who come to know Jesus through someone else’s witness or directly through an encounter with Jesus in a dream. They then share with their family and neighbours and, before long, a small group of believers becomes a ‘church’.

Whilst there is little overt anti-Christian sentiment today, there is still a general suspicion of Christianity in some places. The biggest challenge comes within families and the local community as new believers struggle to find ways to explain their new faith and to make clear why they can’t continue with some of the old religious traditions. This is an issue particularly at festivals and weddings when veneration of the ancestors and spirits is a part of religious practice. These young believers need to find new ways to show that they still love and respect their parents, the community elders and the ‘ancestors’ and that Christianity does not teach disrespect to parents and elders.

Jesus is truly good news to Cambodians, many of whom have a huge issue with fear. Because of the traumatic past and an ongoing fear of spirits and ghosts, many Cambodians spend their meager incomes on amulets and belts to ward off evil. Many also regularly seek help from local spirit doctors, mediums and fortune-tellers. But the Holy Spirit is active across this country, moving people from powerlessness at the hands of evil spirits to the freedom of life in the Spirit.

After decades of war and trauma, Jesus’ message of peace and love is challenging Cambodians to consider other ways of living in community. One Christian ministry here focuses on ‘peacemaking’, helping local Christian leaders understand the importance of being ‘people of peace’ in their family and community, and giving them skills to be conciliators in disputes and misunderstandings.

So what is the role we, as a group of international mission workers, can play alongside the Cambodian Church? Do we even have a role?

I believe our role is to support, mentor and encourage the leaders of these small Christian communities (each with, on average, about 16 active members), to enable them to ‘keep going’ after the initial passion wanes.  By encouraging knowledge of the Bible and healthy Christian lifestyles, we can help them to build solid Christian churches that are an effective witness in their communities.

Connecting with the church is a new focus area for Interserve Cambodia and we are taking our time to find the best way for our workers to minister with the local church. Supporting leaders seems a good place to start. For example, we have some Partners working alongside a small Christian community in a ‘garment-factory area’ where young people from the provinces, mostly women, work long hours in the factories. The ministry was started five years ago by four young Cambodian Christians, who established English and computer classes for the community. Today they also have a small church, a kids’ club and a pre-school. Our Interserve workers share life with this community, encouraging the leaders, helping to disciple new believers and generally ‘adding value’ to what is happening there.

I recently asked a key Khmer church leader to tell me the kind of international mission workers he would like to see join with the Cambodian church. He identified the following criteria: they must be people who are willing to go deep in language and culture, to commit time (measured in multiple years, not months), and to come as ‘servants’ with humble hearts and a passion for pastoral work.

Our main challenge as mission workers is to take time to really hear from God about the needs of the Cambodian church and wider society. This is crucial, as is allowing the Holy Spirit to guide the creation of materials and ministry practice that enable deep connections between people and their God.

As international mission workers and the local church walk together in partnership, and together seek God’s leading in ministry and mission activities, God’s kingdom will grow in Cambodia. What an amazing opportunity we have here to be a part of a first-generation church that is finding its way into maturity.  ♦

Scott and his family have lived in SE Asia for much of the last 20 years. Scott is currently serving in a leadership role with the Interserve team in Cambodia.

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