The article first originated from East Asia’s Millions (July-August 2020).
‘What can we pray for you’? The three visitors from a North American mission agency waited as a dozen local church leaders discussed among themselves how they should answer the question. Finally, one spoke: ‘pray for us to be more missional.
There are always reasons to be afraid, or reluctant, but we just need to do it with faith. We need all our members to be spiritually healthy, so they can be witnesses wherever they are.’ While on the surface this may not seem a particularly noteworthy response, in the context of Myanmar it is quite revealing.
Christianity first arrived in Myanmar nearly a thousand years ago, probably through economic migrants from India and China. Ever since, church growth has been, and continues to be, impressive.
Today, Christians make up 6 per cent of the population, occupy many key positions in government and humanitarian agencies and the Church is strongly committed to mission. Recently around 3,000 people attended the inaugural conference of local missionaries and evangelists organised by the Myanmar Baptist Convention, the largest denomination in the country. Moreover, outreach, in the form of evangelistic trips, orphan care, and pre-schools, is strong, with active fundraising to support these ministries. Also, as society changes and people move into the cities, churches are focusing on new initiatives to share the good news of Jesus in urban areas.
However, the Church in Myanmar also faces challenges. Decades of authoritarian rule, isolation, and life as a minority group in society have all weakened the spiritual life of the Church. The conflation of religion and ethnic identity has undermined the witness of the Church, resulting in prejudice, disunity, and, in some cases, has been a contributing factor to armed conflict between different ethnic groups. The strength of the Church has declined in more rural areas, mainly due to people moving to the towns and cities, but also, as church leaders acknowledge, due to the neglect of spiritual renewal.
One church leader bravely summed up what many of his colleagues privately believe when he commented: ‘our churches are not healthy – and unhealthy churches will only produce more unhealthy ones’ .
“l realise now how we need to reform the church -but it isn’t possible to do it by ourselves. It needs all church members and leaders to really have their eyes opened to see what church really is…”
Recognising the need for renewal within the Church as a crucial first step to enabling local church mission, Baptist churches began to develop and undertake training on healthy church. This looked at the essence of church, healthy church leadership, how to grow healthy church members, and what healthy church mission, especially in a multicultural and multireligious context looks like. In the last five years, over 100 church leaders, and many more church members have participated in training events held across the country. In 2020, revised course manuals are being printed and distributed, to make the course available to a larger network of different ethnic and denominational groups.
After the training, one pastor commented: ‘I realise now how we need to reform the church – but it isn’t possible to do it by ourselves. It needs all church members and leaders to really have their eyes opened to see what church really is’.
Another new initiative seeks to address a lack of biblical literacy. Recent surveys revealed that while ordinary Christians had a deep love for the Bible, only a small percentage of them read the Bible. This is partly because it is too difficult for some to engage with. In response leaders from seven church groups have proposed a project to develop a ‘Bible in One Year’ style reading app. This will deliver Bible passages in text and audio formats with an accompanying commentary, to enable ordinary Christians to read and understand the Bible for themselves.
We can all join in the prayer for churches in Myanmar to be more missional. One way we long to see this happen is for the tide of economic
migrants from Myanmar to be increasingly populated by missional migrants, completing the circle of the millennia where the good news first came to the country through Christian economic migrants.