A Missionary in Cambodia:
Unity, Creativity and the Mango Tree Church
By Mary Beth Coudal
“How do I not take the credit and let God take the credit?” Missionary Lenita Tiong wonders, referring to Methodist Church growth in Cambodia.
Rev. Tiong, dean of the Cambodia Methodist Bible School, recently visited the Global Ministries office and also spoke to the directors of the agency at their semi-annual meeting in Stamford, CT on April 3-6.
She strives to communicate the powerful message of the Gospel—of God’s way--in words and images for Cambodian students.
Tiong described Cambodia as a country sharply divided by history, region, culture, and even Christian denominations. However, she noted, the Methodist family is trying to set an example by its unity. The new autonomous Methodist Church in Cambodia is a union of formerly separate missions with roots in Korea, Singapore, Europe, the United States, and a Chinese-speaking mission society.
The diversity of Cambodian Methodist origins helps in the struggle to keep from Westernizing those who study and practice Christianity. “We try very hard not to give the church a Western face,” said Tiong, acknowledging that things Western, including Christianity, appeal to young Cambodian people.
Some Bible School students, she said, resist using traditional Cambodian musical instruments in worship because they associate them with Buddhism. Yet the Lord’s Prayer set to a Cambodian folk tune is a powerful example of the blending of prayer and worship in a cultural context, Tiong pointed out.
According to the missionary, who is of Chinese descent, “We challenge the students to think contextually. They are taught to think for themselves. They have been taught to be very creative in sharing their faith.” One example she gave is the second day of the traditional Cambodian New Year, when children bathe themselves and bring gifts for their parents. “We encourage the gift-giving,” Tiong said. “To honor parents is one of the Ten Commandments. We respect and honor our ancestors; we worship God.”
Tiong said her own Chinese heritage helps her understand the difficulties of practicing Christianity when one is squarely in the minority. Less than one percent of the largely Buddhist country of Cambodia is Christian.
The missionary recalled that last year the Rev. Thomas Tate of Rose City Park United Methodist Church, Portland, Oregon, a volunteer in mission, taught 40 Cambodian students at the school about John Wesley, the founder of Methodism. Conveying the importance of Wesley’s emphases on Scripture, tradition, reason, and experience was quite a challenge, Rev. Tate reported, but the students greeted the challenge with creativity.
Interfaith respect, cultural sensitivity, Christian creativity, and Methodist unity are all goals at the Cambodia Methodist Bible School.
The result is church growth. “We have a new church called the Mango Tree Church,” Tiong said. “It is literally under the mango tree,” she laughed.
In 1989 three Methodist congregations existed in Cambodia. Today there are more than 150; some, like the Mango Tree Church, are open air churches. The Methodist Church in Cambodia is served by an increasing number of indigenous clergy and lay leaders.
All the credit, Tiong says, belongs to God.
Date posted: Apr 13, 2006