Vietnam – For decades a country closed to foreigners, where the stigma of war has loomed large. The country has been one of the most neglected frontiers in missions.
But now the situation has changed. With a fast growing economy, and sixty per cent of the population below 35 years old change is afoot and there are plenty of opportunities to spread the gospel.
A friendly place
Natalie, who worked in Vietnam for several years explains, ‘it is a very warm and friendly country. I am surprised about how easy it is to be there. The culture is easy going, the people are so friendly, the food is good.’
‘There are not many things you can do in the culture that will make people have nothing to do with you because they are very gracious and welcoming to foreigners.’
The country has miles of coastline and has been described to look like a ‘wet foot’ when you view it on a map. The cuisine is much celebrated and renowned as one of the healthiest in the world with its reliance on fresh ingredients, herbs and vegetables.
Most Vietnamese people would describe themselves as Buddhist but, in fact, they more often combine this with worship of ancestral spirits. While around 8 per cent are Catholic, just 1.8 per cent are evangelical Christians, and these are predominantly among a few ethnic minority groups.
Whilst there are some restrictions placed on religious practices including Buddhism and Christianity, there is still activity that people can engage within those controls. For instance the Bible is readily available and is printed and distributed from inside the country.
Although the Church has seen very healthy growth in the last twenty years there are still vast numbers of people who remain unreached. In the north of the country only 0.1 per cent of the majority Vietnamese population are Evangelical Christians and there are large minority people groups with even lower numbers.
To reach into those groups of people, a good understanding of the culture is needed and whilst evangelists have been able to impact in city areas they can struggle in rural areas without cultural knowledge.
‘Spending time on training the many Christians we know in churches and developing good partnerships with churches is one way of being effective.’ Tells Natalie. ‘It would be great to mobilise the Vietnamese to reach out to minority groups.’
There has been a high amount of persecution of the Church in recent years and for this reason there is some fear of engaging with others. The national Church can tend to be a bit of a closed community.
Food culture is very popular and many people like to eat out. Natalie tells one of the dishes, ‘Pho’ which is a noodle soup. Karaoke is also very popular, ‘the Vietnamese have their own popular songs but Vietnamese Christians do not like to go along because of the drinking and singing.’ However she sees this something which should be challenged, ‘That is where they could meet people’ and, ‘if a Christian went there they could sing a Christian song and people could learn that way.’
Christianity has a reputation as an American religion, which can bolster the reservations of the older generation but Natalie is hopeful, ‘It is not necessarily a negative thing for the younger generation who haven’t grown up with the (American) war. In fact there is openness to foreign things. The difficulty is making it relevant to them – that it’s a Vietnamese thing not just a foreign thing.’
People generally believe in God as a creator, but there are animistic influences and a tendency towards a ‘tag-on’ culture where people mix and add beliefs their existing practices.
Many believe in ancestor worship. This can create a barrier with the older generations to Christianity as they worry that they will not be cared for in the afterlife with no one offering gifts and worship to them.
‘Some Christians don’t mention anything for three or four years, it might not always be right, but it allows people to see. The Vietnamese believe by what they see and “changed lives” is the best evidence.’ Says Natalie.
Demonstrating that, ‘being concerned about parents, loving and honouring them is important, rather than simply declaring to them that they are Christian.’ She adds, ‘allowing their parents to turn and seek to find out why they have changed.’
The main virtues required to assist the Gospel in the field are dedication and patience. It can take many years, spending time, building relationships, learning to understand the culture and language and earn respect. ‘You have to walk with the people until they are ready to hear’ tells Natalie and, ‘allow the roots of the Gospel to go deeper.’
With OMF’s participation in the country being one of the lowest in its field, new volunteers are welcome and contrary to stereotype they should find a warm and friendly setting, with an ever developing youth culture.