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Through Vietnam’s eyes

BIBLE SOCIETY NEWS  |  Bonnie Lepelaar

Thursday 10 March 2016

In a country ravaged by war and poverty throughout the 20th century, God’s word is spreading and making a difference. The history of Christianity in Vietnam is a testament to the way God can work through hardship and persecution, and how his people follow the call of Jesus whether on the mountain or in the valley. Here, Bonnie Lepelaar, international communication officer for United Bible Societies’ work in South East Asia, goes on a journey through the history of Christianity in Vietnam. It’s a story that spans 400 years to the present moment, where translation work happening right now is continuing Vietnam’s Christian story into the future and carrying the Word of God to millions more people throughout the country.

DonateThe Church in Vietnam first began when Roman Catholic missionaries arrived 400 years ago.  A French Jesuit priest developed a Romanised script for the language, which helped with the modernisation of Vietnam. It is estimated that there are six to eight million Catholics in Vietnam today, nearly 10 per cent of the population.

The Protestant church has only been around for a bit over a century. Christian and Missionary Alliance missionaries (C&MA) translated the first Bible, published in 1926 and the Evangelical Church of Vietnam (ECVN) was founded three years later. Growth was slow but steady and mostly in the southern part of the country.

When Vietnam was divided between North and South in 1954 after the First Indochina War, the ECVN was also split into two separate north and south churches. What followed was 35 years wartime which brought tremendous suffering and destruction.

When the war ended in 1975 and the two Vietnams were reunified under a communist government, all foreign missionaries had to leave the country. Yet despite significant difficulties, Christianity continued to grow, from about 160,000 to almost two million evangelical believers today.

In the late 1980s the house church movement began. The early house churches were heavily influenced by Pentecostal and charismatic ideas and were soon receiving generous financial support from overseas. Growth was explosive and by 2009, there were an estimated 250,000 Christians in 2500 home groups belonging to 70 house church organisations in the south. To discourage continuous splitting into new groups, the house church movement has organised itself into two major Evangelical Fellowships.

In the north, Christianity among ethnic minorities in the Central and Northwest Highlands has also grown rapidly in the past 20 years by adopting the house church model. In the north, many minority groups have not been granted permission to build their own churches.

These Christian “montagnards” or “mountain people” heard the gospel through radio broadcasts from the Far East Broadcasting Company during the Vietnam War, when ethnic minority groups were given radios by the northern Vietnamese army, mainly for propaganda purposes. But gospel broadcasts floating into Vietnamese radio waves from across the border saw thousands of mountain people commit to Christ. Christians in these areas now number in the hundreds of thousands.

The exciting growth of the church since the Vietnam War has led to an increase in demand for Scriptures in native languages. In the 1960s, during the war, several Bible translation projects in minority languages had been started but were then interrupted for the next two to three decades.

In recent years, these projects have been resumed. Now, New Testaments and Bibles in various ethnic minorities’ languages are being published and made available to the Church.

Bible Society is working with churches and mission partners in more than ten minority translation projects to continue the work of spreading the gospel in a country that, for the past 50 years, has been officially closed to the word of God. 

Longing for God’s Word in Tay

by Kaley Payne

When Ken* became a Christian, living in a northern Vietnamese village, he couldn’t wait to share the love of God with his neighbours and friends. He was asked to leave the home he shared with two of his brothers because he wouldn’t burn incense to his ancestors, a popular form of ancestor worship in Vietnam.

Ken travels for hours to meet with other translators.

Ken travels for hours to meet with other translators.

Ken is passionate about his heart language, Tay. He joined a Tay Bible translation team with Bible Society because of that love. The Tay people are one of Vietnam’s largest minorities, with about 1.9 million spread mainly through the north of the country. But not many people can read and write in Tay, with the government pushing education in the national language, Vietnamese.

A Tay alphabet was developed by Tay people themselves in the mid 20th century, but written materials are scarce. Ken wants a complete Bible in his own language, the language he thinks and speaks in, to be able to share God’s love with his own people, in their own language. His work is first to complete the Tay translation, and then to record the new translation into an audio form. The first complete Tay New Testament is well on its way, thanks to Ken’s dedication.

The Tay people in Vietnam are largely untouched by Christianity in northern Vietnam. There is no registered Tay church, though small home groups are scattered across the landscape. In some places, Christians from several small minority groups come together for worship in Vietnamese.

Ken sees it as his life’s work to help build up a Tay Christian community, starting with providing access to the Word of God.

“I thank God for his faithfulness and for calling me to work with the Tay Bible translation project. I have been praying that my people will have the Bible in Tay. But because few people can read Tay, I pray too that there will be a Tay audio Bible so that many people can hear the gospel.”

* Full name withheld for security reasons.


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