Grace to you and peace from God our Creator and the Lord Jesus Christ, the Light of the World.
I wrote this article at 36,000 feet above the Pacific Ocean on my return from my other episcopal assignment as bishop of the United Methodist missions in Vietnam, Laos, and Thailand. I bring heartfelt greetings to you from your sisters and brothers in these countries.
The General Board of Global Ministries initiated these ministries between 2001 and 2005. It is remarkable to witness what God is doing throughout the region. The Holy Spirit is breaking through. Lives and entire villages are being transformed. Disciples of Jesus are being formed and equipped for ministry. Leaders are being trained.
With limited resources and in spite of repression and persecution by the communist governments in Vietnam and Laos, the distinct United Methodist witness of soul care (cultivating love of God) and social care (loving our neighbors) is taking deep root. There are now over 14,000 United Methodists in 260 congregations in Vietnam, 4,200 United Methodists in 70 congregations in Laos, and 300 United Methodists in 6 congregations in Thailand. Nearly all the congregations are small-membership churches and the vast majority are house churches.
I was privileged to ordain the very first (twelve) “local elders in mission” for Vietnam. This new clergy category was created by the 2012 General Conference specifically to deploy ordained clergy for the fast-growing missions in Southeast Asia and other parts of the world. The candidates’ interviews and ordinations were conducted in Bangkok, Thailand, because of the Vietnamese government’s repression of religious activities. The ordination service was an emotionally overwhelming experience and blessing—one I will always cherish. I have not stopped asking God, “Why me? Why, O God, did you bless me with the opportunity to help extend your reign in Vietnam and throughout Southeast Asia?”
I also presided over the respective annual meetings for the Laos and Thailand United Methodist missions. These are like one-day annual conference sessions. (Do I hear an “Amen!”?) The Laos annual meeting took place in Thailand because it is dangerous to convene large religious assemblies in communist Laos. In three days, I preached five times, taught a class on church leadership, certified 28 new lay pastors for the Laos mission, and visited three of our congregations in Thailand.
I heard many stories of transformation. The congregations are feeding the hungry, caring for the widows, looking after the orphans and children with HIV, visiting the sick, ministering to Agent Orange victims, and starting micro-businesses. These tangible acts of Christ’s mercy, healing, and redemptive love are, in large part, why the United Methodist Church is growing in Southeast Asia.
Every conversion was celebrated. Every baptism evoked rejoicing. Every new cell group was affirmed. Every increase in worship attendance drew applause. Every child and youth was welcomed. Every song was passionate. Every new Bible study was acknowledged as a step closer “to equipping the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ” (Eph. 4:12).
Every time I travel to our churches in Southeast Asia, I am reminded of the fervor and struggle of the first-century church—a church that thrived because it had no choice but to be utterly dependent upon God’s grace. I am reminded of the energy and urgency of the primitive and persecuted church—a church compelled and commanded by the movement of the Holy Spirit. I am reminded that the early Christian congregations were “aliens and exiles” in the lands where they resided—they were clearly and unequivocally counter-cultural. I am reminded of the fruitfulness of the first-century church – a church that embraced the fruitful practices of radical hospitality, passionate worship, intentional faith development, risk-taking service, and extravagant generosity (Acts 2:41-47).
I will soon invite the Minnesota Conference to discern how we can partner with the United Methodist churches in Vietnam, Laos, and Thailand. I will be inviting some Minnesota United Methodists to travel with me to meet your brothers and sisters. There is much we can learn from them and much they are eager to learn from us.
What if we were risk-takers?
I am convinced that the most important thing we can learn is how to live as a first-century church. What would Minnesota United Methodism look like if we were truly counter-cultural and not accommodating? What would it look like if we were so courageous we were considered risk-takers and not “mainline”? What would the Minnesota Annual Conference look like if every act of ministry and every expenditure of resources required a true sacrifice? What would we look like if we fully trusted the Holy Spirit to provoke us, guide, us sustain us? What would the United Methodist churches in Minnesota look like if our identity was built around ministry to the poor, the hungry, the homeless, the orphans, the addicted, the sin-sick, the lost, the children? What would it look like if we celebrated every conversion, every baptism, every new person in worship, every new disciple of Jesus Christ?
I invite you to pray, reflect, study, and discuss what your congregation would look like if it functioned as a first-century church. We have partners in mission that can inform your discovery. Re-read and study the Book of Acts. It is a lively account of God’s activity in and through the apostles and earliest disciples of Jesus. Continue to pray for the Holy Spirit to breakthrough and unleash new life in and through your congregation. Be assured that I join you in praying for the Holy Spirit to renew and revive each of our 360 congregations in the Minnesota Conference and lead us into ever more faithful and fruitful expressions of the kingdom.
Bishop Bruce R. Ough is resident bishop of the Dakotas-Minnesota Episcopal Area.
Minnesota Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church