Young Population Represents Potential for Methodist Church in Cambodia
by Andrew J. Schleicher
A youthful population represents a strong potential for the Methodist Church of Cambodia, which is emerging from the joint efforts of five mission organizations.
"The population is very young; more than half of the current church membership is in their twenties and thirties," says the Rev. Jong Sung Kim, an executive with the United Methodist General Board of Global Ministries. "They respond to the gospel enthusiastically."
With more than 180 congregations, most started over the last decade, the Methodist Church of Cambodia is a Mission Initiative of Global Ministries, the mission agency of the denomination. Health ministries and work with children, including orphans, are high on the list of Methodist priorities in the Southeast Asian country.
"A major challenge is to cultivate the local leadership," Rev. Kim said, "and we are making significant progress. There are now five indigenous Cambodian district superintendents. The church has a goal of electing a Cambodian bishop by 2016."
Six years ago Global Ministries joined four other groups to form one Methodist denomination in Cambodia. The others are:
The collaboration continues as the Methodist Church of Cambodia takes shape.
Of the five, the Korean Methodists have been in Cambodia for the longest time and are responsible for starting some 100 of the 180 congregations. The United Methodist Church is the driving force for 80 congregations, while the Chinese developed several local churches. The church in Singapore has emphasized education and ministry to women and orphans while starting 15 congregations.
Conversations began in 1998 regarding building one Methodist denomination for the country, but the official engagement did not happen until a few years later. Within a year of the first meeting of the one church, it ordained its first pastors, all graduates of the jointly sponsored Bible school that opened in 2000.
The mission is currently overseen by a coordinating board with representatives from each of the sponsoring denominations' mission agencies, including the missionaries who are on the ground in Cambodia. The United Methodist Church now has 11 missionaries in Cambodia. Bishop Robert Solomon of Singapore is the bishop in charge.
Nation with a Stormy Recent History
A Khmer (Cambodian) nation-state can be traced back at least 1,200 years, with the borders shifting with political and demographic changes in the region. Buddhism is the traditional religion. Cambodia is today bordered by Thailand, Laos, Vietnam, and the Gulf of Thailand. The history has several rough spots.
One of the roughest occurred in the 1970s, Cambodia was controlled by Pol Pot and a group called the Khmer Rouge. Under this regime, 1.7 million people died or were executed, about 25 percent of Cambodia's population. What is known today as "the Killing Fields" is part of that legacy. The young people in Cambodia today--the ones joining the Methodist Church--are those who were born in the baby boom after the mass killings.
The Khmer Rouge banned all religion. While Rev. Kim says there is still much influence in the country from Buddhism, the young people are looking elsewhere for religious foundations. Up until a few years ago, 350 years of Christian mission work has had little effect on the people, but Rev. Kim is optimistic. "We have opportunity to evangelize the young people and to reshape the nation as a whole," he says.
"As a young church with limited trained leadership and with limited sources of income there is a challenge to grow without becoming more dependent on outside income than it is now," according to the Rev. James Gulley, a former missionary to Cambodia who is also the Global Ministries coordinator of the 2009 Cambodia Consultation (see below) and an UMCOR advisor on Community Health and Agricultural Development. "Right now [the church] is highly dependent."
Early support for the United Methodist mission work came from the Swiss-French United Methodist Annual Conference. Today, congregations in Alabama, Louisiana, North Carolina, Virginia, and West Ohio are significant among the partners in the Cambodia initiative. Korean American United Methodist churches have provided significant support for the Bible school and in building churches.
Community Health and Agricultural Development
As the church rejoices in the spiritual growth of the people, it also addresses the people's physical needs. Cambodia is one of the world's poorest countries, with more than a third of the nation living on less than $1 per day. The Khmer Rouge decimated the nation's infrastructure and eliminated the educational system and all currency. Those systems are now being rebuilt.
In the fall of 2004, Rev. Gulley began 14 months as an agricultural missionary in Cambodia. He had previously made contacts in the country while serving on staff at Global Ministries.
At that time there were 58 United Methodist churches. Rev. Gulley recalls visiting some of them and asking whether there was any interest in working on agricultural issues. Rev. Gulley initially staffed a program put together by the Finnish United Methodist Church with support from the Finnish government.
Since Rev. Gulley's return to the United States, the agricultural program has been combined with a community health initiative to form the Community Health and Agricultural Development (CHAD) project. Missionaries continue the efforts to identify and train indigenous leaders and participants in these ministries.
CHAD has been successful with an idea borrowed from Heifer International. Families are given a cow, with the understanding that the cows' first and third calves are then be given to others who continue this process. Participation in the program is open to all churches, not just United Methodists. The same "passing-on-the-gift" principle is also applied to other projects groups, such as looms for weaving and water pumps for irrigating crops.
Work with Children
The Methodist Church in Cambodia also is active among children and youth. "The Singapore Methodist School is a success," Rev. Gulley says. "There is a school that is highly respected among all religious backgrounds."
Even so, the diversity of religion in Cambodia presents a challenge. "How do we live together in a world full of diversity?" he asks. "How did [the Methodist Church] come to be seen as a religion that is an outside religion?" It is important to show the church as growing out of the culture.
Paying attention to local norms is essential in successful mission. "If you offer something that looks like you are bribing them to accept your religion, they highly resent that," Rev. Gulley points out. Approaches that raise suspicions must be avoided both by missionaries and Cambodian Methodists sharing their witness.
Teams of mission volunteers from the US have done valuable work, especially in construction work in Cambodia, but Rev. Gulley and others see the future in the hands of Cambodians, as the Methodist Church seeks to become self-sustaining. Scholarships for leadership development may be the most important tools for tomorrow.
For more information on the Methodist Church in Cambodia and how you may provide support, go to Cambodia Mission Initiative. Give to Cambodia Mission Initiative, Advance #00230A, supporting new churches, pastors' salaries, leadership development, and outreach ministries.
Cambodia Mission Consultation
A Cambodia Mission Consultation involving partners in the Cambodia Initiative is set for September 17-19 in Metairie, Louisiana. For details, see the article Cambodia Mission Consultation Set for September in Louisiana and the Information Brochure.
Andrew J. Schleicher is a probationary deacon, freelance journalist, and director of evangelism and communications for West End United Methodist Church in Nashville.
Date posted: Aug 05, 2009