With 100,000 members, the Mennonite church in Vietnam is going strong, reports Nhien Pham.
The retired pastor, who came to Canada from Vietnam in 1976, returned to his home country for a month with a group from Mennonite Church Canada earlier this year.
Pham is president of the North American Evangelical Vietnamese Fellowship and advisor for Evangelical Church Vietnam.
Previously he served as pastor of Vietnamese Mennonite Church in Vancouver.
Joining Pham were Garry Janzen and Kevin Barkowsky, both of Mennonite Church BC, and Jeanette Hanson of Mennonite Church Canada. The group went on a learning tour and attended the Evangelical Mennonite Vietnamese Conference, where they met various leaders of Vietnam’s Mennonite congregations.
Pham (NP) recently talked about his trip and the state of the church in Vietnam with Canadian Mennonite’s BC correspondent, Amy Rinner Waddell (ARW).
ARW: What changes have you seen over the years in Vietnam?
NP: The country has been developed a lot; it’s like Europe, clean and modern. They have high-rise condos, shopping malls with stores like Starbucks. You would think you’re in Vancouver. People wear clothes that look a lot nicer than before, the streets are cleaner than before. The country is really developed and the condition of the people has really improved; people seemed to enjoy life there.
ARW: What is the history of the church in Vietnam?
NP: The church closed at the end of the war in 1975. It was closed for over 20 years. In 1997, another Vietnamese pastor and I went to see if we could help restore the church. We started a Mennonite church in Saigon (renamed Ho Chi Minh City in 1975) – not that we resurrected it, we started a new church.
Until 2002, there were 100 Mennonite churches with 10,000 believers. In 2002, we encouraged them to form a conference of Mennonite churches together with Eastern Mennonite Missions (in the United States). When we were persecuted, the church became stronger.
ARW: How does the church operate in Vietnam?
NP: The government tries to control every organization. There are churches officially recognized by the authorities and they only do whatever the government allows or supports. Some churches or leaders are very submissive to the authorities; other groups not officially recognized can still operate.
If you don’t criticize the authorities, they will not arrest you. In general, the church has freedom to do ministry. They can meet together, celebrate ordinations and that sort of thing.
In churches in certain areas, Christianity is very much opposed. If you compare it to China, Vietnam is a lot better. Recently, there was a crusade in Ho Chi Minh City, where Franklin Graham spoke, a two-day event.
ARW: Tell me more about the March 4 – 5 crusade by the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association.
NP: It was really amazing; 20,000 people came! It was organized by a coalition of local churches. The government supported it and sent police to protect it. Vietnam tries to be a nation of freedom of religion.
People in the local area came by car, motorcycle, bus and organized a number of people to come to Ho Chi Minh City. People after the altar call invited Christ into their lives.
In the program, there were worship songs led by Vietnamese singers and bands, and there were songs led by a worship team. [Christian gospel singer] Michael W. Smith was there, and I was amazed that young people sang along with him in English.
ARW: How many churches were you able to visit, and what were the services like?
NP: We visited six churches in a three-day trip. In one church that we attended they sang traditional hymns with some praise choruses and 300 people all sat on the floor. The way they sing songs is really dynamic.
After Kevin [Barkowsky] preached, I translated, and one of our team members asked people to respond. They called for repentance and a right heart, healing of body and emotional healing. When the people pray, they stand up or kneel down.
ARW: What is your hope for the church in Vietnam?
NP: I would like to see the church more self-sufficient. They don’t have funds to operate because they don’t have a way to raise money in Vietnam. We are encouraging a culture of tithe to support the church and the local conference. We are praying for the churches. Most churches are in rural areas where people don’t make a lot of money. We pray that we can plan so that they have financial resources.
This interview first appeared in Canadian Mennonite, and is re-posted by permission.