United Methodist Church Takes Hold in Southeast Asia
by Andrew J. Schleicher
This article is the first in a series on the current Mission Initiatives of the General Board of Global Ministries
June 25, 2008--Southeast Asia is opening up to Christian mission, and The United Methodist Church is there on the ground floor. "We are just starting to see what God is doing and how the Spirit is moving across the area," said Bishop Larry M. Goodpaster, the first presiding bishop of the Southeast Asia Mission.
The first formal annual meetings of the mission--incorporating Laos, Thailand, and Vietnam--took place early in 2008, but a United Methodist presence goes back to 1998. That year, a team from the United Methodist General Board of Global Ministries made a trip to meet with Vietnamese Christians. Goodpaster, also resident bishop of the Alabama-West Florida Conference and a director of the mission agency, went on a similar trip in 2001 with several other bishops.
A Start in Vietnam
United Methodist involvement in Vietnam began when Vietnamese-Americans took an interest in the spiritual future of their homeland. Today a clergy couple from Michigan serves as missionaries to the nation of their ancestors.
In 2007 Global Ministries designated Southeast Asia as a "mission" of the church under provisions of the 2004 Book of Discipline of The United Methodist Church (¶¶ 590-591.1), the denomination's governing rulebook. Shortly thereafter the United Methodist Council of Bishops assigned Goodpaster to oversee the mission. Southeast Asia is also one of more than a dozen "mission initiatives" of Global Ministries.
Goodpaster returned to Vietnam in January 2008, seven years after his initial visit. "I was astounded by how much it had changed," he said in an interview. "We were able to meet openly, to have gatherings of pastors, and to have our annual meeting in an open session." That openness had not been possible in 2001.
There are now about 60 local churches and fellowships, most of which are in the Ho Chi Minh City area, although there are five newer congregations in the Hanoi area. These congregations are house churches, people's homes with extra space in which Christians worship.
Much of the church's social ministry in Vietnam takes the form of providing job training to women and scholarships that enable children to attend elementary school. Social ministry is a part of all United Methodist "mission initiatives." The Vietnamese United Methodists are beginning to work with the second generation of Agent Orange victims. These are the children of people exposed to the chemical agent used by the United States during the Vietnam Conflict. Exposure to the defoliant left them severely deformed.
The 2008 mission annual meeting in Vietnam took only an afternoon and evening. The brevity enabled Goodpaster to spend the rest of his time in the country visiting pastors and other people. He met with government officials in both Vietnam and Laos, including Vietnam's vice president of religious affairs. Such contacts enable further conversation toward the goal of having the church officially recognized.
The highlight of his trip, Goodpaster said, was confirming pastors and sending them out to their mission placements. "The amazing part was seeing their faces and hearing their stories," the bishop recalled. "In Vietnam we had 47 pastors and in Laos we had 69. They have been going to school, [and now] they are in house churches. Most of the pastors have a church in the house where they live. All of our churches in Laos and Vietnam are house churches."
Laos: A Challenging Environment
Goodpaster sees the United Methodist situation in Laos as about where Vietnam was five years ago, and the church there is also growing.
He spent three days in Laos, where the annual meeting was held in two separate locations. The difficulty for some to travel around the country prevents everyone from gathering in one place. The bishop met with a leader of one provincial government, particularly to discuss establishing schools or orphanages where such services are lacking.
The United Methodist involvement in Laos began in 2004 with Hmong United Methodists in the United States. The following year, a Hmong couple was sent as missionaries. Now there are some 80 churches. Even with the challenges of operating in a communist country, The United Methodist Church is the largest Protestant denomination in Luang Probang Province. "We have pastors in Laos who have been arrested three or four times, and they just go back out preaching," Goodpaster said.
Much of the Laos work is in community development. There is a program to finance well-digging in order to help communities get clean water. The church also financially supports schoolchildren, for which it costs up to $11.50 per year per student. Further, a successful mushroom operation assists people in selling what they grow; ten percent of the proceeds are given to the church.
Newest Activity in Thailand
The United Methodist Church is quite new to Thailand, where the work began in 2006 and is led by a missionary couple, the Rev. Michael and the Rev. Sherri Morrissey from Kentucky. There are three United Methodist churches, two of them established in 2007, and one fellowship in the country. A fellowship is led by lay people and may or may not have regular worship.
Given the small number of congregations, the annual meeting in Thailand was primarily a service of worship and celebration of ministry, Goodpaster noted. While the focus in Thailand is necessarily on the development of more congregations, social ministry is also in the picture. Thai United Methodists are considering the possibility of setting up an orphanage south of Bangkok. The facility would target children of HIV victims. "This is one region where the population has been significantly affected by AIDS," according to the Rev. Jong Sung Kim, a staff member of Global Ministries' Evangelization & Church Growth program area.
"I think that one of our great opportunities is going to be to start a couple of orphanages or schools in each country," Goodpaster said. "The missionaries have pretty much confirmed that to me. They think that's a way to help the people of the country and the government to understand that we are there to help people. And we are there not for any other reason except that we care about people who are hurting and who are hungry."
Challenges: Poverty, Funding, Recognition, and Education
Poverty is a major challenge for most people within the territory of the Southeast Asia Mission, although Thailand is much more prosperous than Laos and Vietnam. "The poverty level in Laos is quite high," Goodpaster said. "The people who are coming to be a part of our church are coming from the villages, out in the rural areas.... Most of them are farmers. They grow what they can to survive and then, if they can, sell some of that to other villages."
Finances are a constant concern. "The pastors don't get paid a lot of money to do what they do," Goodpaster said. While the bishop believes it is possible to raise considerable funds from US churches, "we don't want to overwhelm them. We don't want to give the impression that there is this endless supply of money." Goodpaster also would not want hungry people to see United Methodists building a large church rather than one simpler in cost and style.
"The people in the United States are a very generous people," Goodpaster said. "They want to help, but sometimes our help outruns what we really need to be doing." The economic challenge for Christians, he stated, is twofold: to come up with funding and then "to balance it and make sure it is equally and fairly distributed and really helps the country."
Government recognition is another challenge in some areas. "It is going to take us a couple of years to really get our foot in the door and get organized, recognized, [and] registered as a denomination," Goodpaster said. Formal registration in religious groups is a requirement in many parts of the world, in contrast to the open system in the United States.
There is a different process of registration in the three countries of the Southeast Asia Mission. Goodpaster believes that these processes will move fastest in Vietnam, followed by Laos and then Thailand. "Thailand is just going to be a matter of getting more churches," he said.
The training of pastors is perhaps the greatest challenge, according to the bishop. Global Ministries is working with the General Board of Higher Education and Ministry in mapping out an approach to moving lay pastors toward ordination. It is also consulting with theological seminaries, particularly Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary in Evanston, Illinois, in the development of a unified curriculum for pastor training. This curriculum will provide one- or two-week programs for pastors to come together with instructors from the US. The use of the curriculum may get under way in the fall of 2008. Garrett-Evangelical is also working with the Northern Illinois Conference to plan a local church training event in Thailand.
Ordination requires not only education but the organization of a board of the ordained ministry for the mission. Such a board is expected to be in place before the end of 2008, according to Rev. Kim of Global Ministries.
All of the mission initiatives of Global Ministries involve global networks of mutual support and fellowship. These networks are comprised of individuals, congregations, districts, annual conferences, and church-related institutions.
Sustained mission partnerships often emerge. For example, the West Ohio Conference is partnering with the Southeast Asia Mission and has made a commitment to raise $300,000 for the purchase or construction of a mission center in Ho Chi Minh City. Bishop Bruce Ough of West Ohio, a director of Global Ministries, has assisted in the training of local pastors in Vietnam through a collaboration between the conference and United Theological Seminary in Trotwood, Ohio.
St. Mark United Methodist Church in Seneca, South Carolina, has engaged in the ministry in Laos from the outset. It provides a significant portion of pastoral salaries and supports training. Hmong congregations in Minnesota and Wisconsin provide support especially for the water irrigation, economic development, and community outreach work in Laos.
Santa Clara Korean United Methodist Church in San Jose, California, is partnering with Global Ministries in Thailand. It committed $100,000 over a three-year period beginning in 2006, and individual families in the congregations are assisting with the training of pastors or the education of children throughout Southeast Asia.
Congregations in the Kentucky Annual Conference provide significant support for the Morrisseys in Thailand.
Contributions to ministry in each of the countries of the Southeast Asia Mission can be made through The Advance for Christ and His Church, the designated mission giving channel of The United Methodist Church. For ways to give, visit secure.gbgm-umc.org/donations/advance. Always indicate the Advance number when making gifts by check or telephone.
The Advance numbers for the Southeast Asia Mission include: