The essentials: What I have learned from Southeast Asia

November 05, 2014

Char and I have just returned from my last official trip to Southeast Asia as the episcopal leader of the United Methodist Missions in Vietnam, Thailand, and Laos. The Council of Bishops will soon designate two other bishops to oversee these missions—one for Vietnam and one for Thailand and Laos.

This is a difficult, but necessary, transition for me. My new responsibilities as president-elect of the Council of Bishops (I will become president in May 2016) and my first priority as resident bishop of the Dakotas-Minnesota Area simply make it impossible to continue to also provide leadership in Southeast Asia.

During my visit, there were tender goodbyes and some expressions of anxiety about what the future holds. I have grown to love the people of Vietnam, Thailand, and Laos. I have deep appreciation and respect for our pastors who serve these missions at great sacrifice and often personal risk of persecution and imprisonment. I have formed wonderful partnerships with each of our seven General Board of Global Ministries missionaries serving in the region.

In the midst of the emotional leave-taking, and in response to generous and insistent invitations to visit them, I did promise to return. (Every place Char and I have been privileged to serve has found a home in our hearts, and it is good and important to return home from time to time.) These are promises I plan to keep, either in support of the newly assigned bishops, or as part of Volunteers in Mission Teams from the Dakotas-Minnesota Area.

The Minnesota Conference is currently developing a partnership agreement with the Vietnam Mission to support its ministry with orphaned children. Bismarck Legacy UMC in the Dakotas Conference has recently begun to support the Thailand Mission’s work with HIV/AIDS orphans in northern Thailand. Rev. Tsuchue Vang, pastor of Wheelock UMC in St. Paul and the father of United Methodism in Laos, along with other leaders of the National Hmong Caucus in the United States, are training Hmong pastors for the Vietnam Mission. I am praying for additional partnerships to emerge between the Dakotas and Minnesota Conferences and the missions in Vietnam, Thailand, and Laos.

I thank God every day for the Holy Spirit breakthroughs occurring through The United Methodist Church in Southeast Asia. And I count it a profound honor and blessing to have had a front-row seat. Although much smaller in size than the missions in Vietnam and Laos, the Thailand Mission is growing. Two new congregations have been started this year, and plans for a regional UMC training center in Bangkok are well underway. Last year, I was privileged to dedicate the first free-standing United Methodist church building in Thailand.

The Vietnam Mission has grown to 332 congregations, with a goal of 1,000 congregations by 2020. On this recent trip, I ordained two more elders in mission for Vietnam, bringing the total number of ordained elders to 14. Currently, the Vietnam Mission is on track to be granted provisional conference status by the 2016 General Conference.

There are now 72 United Methodist congregations in Laos. Ministries with children and youth continue to grow, and plans for a UMC vocational school are progressing through the substantial red tape of the communist government. The Laos Mission has an extensive and growing micro-financing program that has enabled more than 125 Lao families to become self-sufficient through starting and managing fish, duck, pig, chicken, mushroom, and green rice farms.

Nearly every experience in life contributes to our formation as persons, disciples, and leaders—and in some cases, completely transforms us. I have clearly been formed by my experiences in Southeast Asia. My spirituality has been deepened; my trust in God and reliance on the Holy Spirit has grown. My desire to live, give, and serve sacrificially has been re-energized. My prayer life has been enlivened. I have a more profound awareness that it is God’s mission—the “Missio Deo”—we participate in, not create. I have witnessed the dynamics, energy, vitality, focus (and struggle) of the Acts 2 church. My own first proposition to “offer them Christ” (to quote John Wesley) has been rekindled. I have a heightened commitment to challenge the injustices of political and economic systems that do not serve God’s people or help usher in the reign of God. I have much greater clarity about the essential characteristics of being a disciple of Jesus Christ and a corresponding urgency to teach and model Jesus’ core missional imperatives to grow in love of God and neighbor, reach new people, and heal a broken world.

I recently heard Rev. Mike Slaughter, senior pastor at Ginghamsburg UMC in Ohio, identify three essential characteristics of a Christian disciple:

  • an undiluted devotion to Christ
  • a kingdom of God worldview
  • a missional lifestyle

It is one of the best, most comprehensive, yet simple definitions of Christian discipleship I have run across. And it gave me words for what I have been observing and experiencing in Southeast Asia.

The young disciples of Christ (most have been Christians for less than 10 years) in Vietnam, Laos, and Thailand display a passionate, expressive, prayerful, unwavering devotion to Jesus as Lord. They understand and demonstrate that the kingdom of God is at hand, that they are already living in the kingdom of God, that they are God’s own people. In spite of their extreme poverty (or, perhaps, because of it), their entire lives are offered and lived for the sake of Christ’s healing, saving, freeing, transforming mission.

It is good to be back home in the Dakotas-Minnesota Area. I thank God for the growth in discipleship; the fearless, Spirit-led congregations; and the bold, fruitful lay and clergy leaders that abound across the area. The Holy Spirit is breaking through in so many places. Congregations are embracing Jesus’ imperatives to grow, reach, heal. We are becoming Acts 2 churches. I rejoice in the transformation happening in so many individuals, families, and communities. I pray every day for the Holy Spirit to continue to unleash new life in the Dakotas and Minnesota Conferences. I pray every day for each Dakotas and Minnesota United Methodist to demonstrate an undiluted devotion to Christ, a kingdom of God worldview, and a missional lifestyle. May it be so!

Bruce R. Ough is resident bishop of the Dakotas-Minnesota Episcopal Area of The United Methodist Church.

*Click here for photos of Bishop Ough’s latest trip to Southeast Asia.

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