Models for Christian Church Growth in Asia
by Jong Sung Kim
In Vientiane, the capital and largest city of Laos, the Lao Samphang Methodist Church (LSMC) designed a program to help women improve their living conditions. Through this livelihood program, two church members—the sisters P. and S. Vintha—received seed money to start a mushroom farm.
A new mushroom bed starts producing mushrooms after two months and remains active for about five months. Each day during the growing season, the mushrooms can be harvested and either eaten or sold in the market. Once each set of mushroom beds is ready for harvest and sale, the original amount of seed money is usually recouped within two or three months and passed on, allowing other women to start mushroom farms or to launch other small business projects. And the extra profits from the sales can be reinvested in the original mushroom farm.
In 2006, the Vintha sisters received about $300 from the LSMC Seed Project. Still farming today, the two were able to expand separately, each buying her own truck and improving her own housing. By hiring help to support their growing, harvesting, and marketing efforts, the sisters also provided extra income to some of their neighbors and relatives.
The mushroom farm venture in Vientiane is an Advance project, #14927A, which is supported by giving beyond the United States and Europe. United Methodist neighbors in Asia—much closer to home—are providing support for their sister United Methodists in Laos.
The United Methodist Church is not new to Asia, Methodism having long been active in parts of Southeast Asia. In the late 1800s and early 1900s, the Methodist Church was probably the largest agency sending missionaries to Asia. Methodist work was prevalent in Malaysia, China, India, Singapore, and Hong Kong. But there were some Asian countries in which other Protestant denominations were establishing missions and where, consequently, Methodist missionaries did not go.
For example, there was little Methodist history in Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, or Thailand until United Methodists arrived in the 1990s. Interestingly, in those countries where we now have a presence, Methodism is very strong—particularly in Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos. Mongolia is another Asian country where the UMC did not have much history. The mission there began in early 2002.
Now, though, in the twenty-first century, the Seed Project in Laos has caught the attention of new United Methodists in Vietnam. From their beginning, the Vietnamese United Methodists have embraced the social as well as the personal holiness advocated by Methodism’s founder, John Wesley.
Cell Groups in Vietnam
The model that Global Ministries has initiated for church growth in Vietnam is mission “from everywhere to everywhere.” So the United Methodist Initiative in Vietnam is on the move, going to any place where there are possibilities for growth. Establishing cell groups in the country—small groups meeting for Bible study and worship—has been a very effective means of promoting growth. In some areas of Southeast Asia, the local United Methodist church will send out laypeople to develop ministries in nearby villages. Then, when a cell group has more than 20 adult members coming to worship once a week, it becomes a local church. At that point, the bishop—Bishop Ough of Ohio in this case—will appoint a pastor. But until the cell group reaches that level, it remains a ministry of the local church that started it. At present, Vietnam has more than 250 local United Methodist churches and about 70 to 80 cell groups.
An important program in Vietnam is called “Generous Givers.” In partnership with the West Ohio Conference, Global Ministries recruited 20 pastors in Vietnam who were identified as potential leaders of larger churches. All 20 were serving in local churches at the time. Then volunteer groups from West Ohio traveled to Vietnam twice a year to work with these pastors and their congregations. In two years, six out of the 20 congregations led by these pastors became self-supporting churches. Global Ministries generally provides a number of development programs in the Mission Initiatives, including salary support for the pastors. Now, the pastors of these six churches no longer depend on Global Ministries or partnerships with US churches for salary support. Instead, they go out in mission, developing cell groups on their own, using their own resources. This is a significant accomplishment for such a young church.
In 2012, for the first time, all of the local United Methodist churches in Vietnam joined in making offerings for the ministry of the whole church. This collection raised about $4,800. The participants decided to designate one-third of the offering to Laos for the development of the mushroom seed project.
Mongolia’s Mother Church
Mongolia is following another model of church development used by Global Ministries—the center-church or “Mother Church” model. This model is completely different from the one used in Vietnam.
In Mongolia, there are two very strong churches in Ulaanbaatar, the country’s capital city. Global Ministries has provided these churches with the resources and missionaries needed for them to develop smaller satellite or “daughter” churches on the city’s outskirts. Thus far, the two mother churches have planted seven new church satellites. All of the local resources for these “daughter churches”—even the pastors—have been developed from the two mother churches.
One of the two churches in Ulaanbaatar—the Chingeltei United Methodist Church—started the Zurkh Ol house church. This church began with worship services held in the house of a former Chingeltei church member who moved to Zurkh Ol village. Now Chingeltei UMC sends two church leaders to coordinate the worship at Zurkh Ol each week. About eight to 10 people gather for worship. There is no other church in this mountainous area.
During the summer of 2012, the Chingeltei church hosted a Vacation Bible School (VBS) for its new fellowship in Zurkh Ol. “Although this was the very first VBS in this village,” says missionary Sun Lae Kim, who works with the Chingeltei UMC, “it was attended by 55 to 60 children every day. Six teachers from Chingeltei Church ran the VBS. They led the praise, the Bible studies, and the fun activities, and they gave the messages during worship.”
In Mongolia’s case, the Mother Church has been a highly successful model. Global Ministries is now in the process of trying that model in Thailand, where the start-up costs of new church development are very high. In parts of Asia, the average salary for a pastor or church worker is about $80 to $100 dollars per month. In Thailand, however, the minimum salary is about $350 to $400 per month—four times as high. Though we have been trying to use the center-church model of church development in Thailand, we have encountered many challenges thus far.
Preparing Church Leaders
In any context in which new churches are planted, church development and leadership development have to go hand-in-hand. Often Mission Initiatives cannot develop new churches because they do not have access to qualified leaders. In Southeast Asia alone, we have close to 500 persons in ministry who are participating in a United Methodist credentialing process. That’s one of the reasons the churches there have been so successful.
In training new church leaders, we use the Course of Study Program—a three-year program endorsed by the General Board of Higher Education and Ministry, in consultation with Global Ministries. For three days every month, all the pastors and lay workers who serve within the church participate in this program, which is slightly modified according to the context in which the training is used. This way, more participants are being certified as pastoral candidates every year. When they successfully complete the course of study, they will be commissioned as mission pastors—the equivalent of the local pastor in the United States.
A Committee on Ministries, organized in the Southeast Asia region, interviews these pastors. The 2012 General Conference passed legislation that makes it possible for us to ordain a local person as an “elder in mission.” This is an entirely new pastoral entity developed for the new churches. Vietnam alone has about 16 candidates to be ordained as elders in mission, having successfully completed the Advanced Course of Study. In Vietnam, highly educated pastors are being developed in this way.
We also have students from the Southeast Asia mission settings who are studying at more established and traditional seminaries, such as Trinity Theological College in Singapore and the Methodist Seminary in Seoul, Korea. These full-time students will have their Master of Divinity degrees when they return home. This extensive theological preparation positions The United Methodist Church for strong growth in Southeast Asia in the decades to come.
The Rev. Jong Sung Kim is the executive secretary for the Asia-Pacific region, Mission Relationships, General Board of Global Ministries.
From top: Children at United Methodist-sponsored Grace Orphanage outside Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. Photo: Adam Neal As part of the Mushroom Seed Project in Laos, mushrooms farms are housed in these small crude structures. Photo: B. Barte
Chingeltei UMC Bread Mission of the Mongolia Mission Initiative regularly provides meals to the homeless. Photo: Su n Lae Kim Mushroom farming, Laos Seed Project. Photo: B. Barte