THERE are many churches and church networks working as NGOs throughout the provinces of Cambodia.
What are their aims, the challenges they face and the future for their work in the Kingdom?
The Reverend Gil Suh works for Christian Reformed World Missions and lives in Phnom Penh with his family. In this article, he offers some enlightening thoughts on the church in Cambodia, the NGOs within it, and the roles they play.
How has the church grown and changed since the most oppressive days of the Khmer Rouge?
In 1979, when the Khmer Rouge regime was toppled, only a handful of Christians survived in this country. Some had escaped to other countries and were staying in refugee camps. Some returned and established churches and ministries.
The church’s growth in Cambodia has been rapid, especially during the 1990s, when there was an influx of missionaries and Christian NGOs.
In the past few years, however, the church’s growth has slowed. There is a great need for discipleship and pastoral leadership development.
What does the church (the Cambodian church and the international church body) do to address the poverty that exists in the country?
In Cambodia, there are many NGOs tackling poverty issues, primarily through the areas of community development, job training and advocacy.
Some of these NGOs are church-related, and some church denominations have established their own agencies for relief and development.
For example, CRWRC (Christian Reformed World Relief Committee), an agency of the Christian Reformed Church of North America, has been involved in relief work and community development in Cambodia since June, 1996.
Initially, that help was of the hand-out type of ministries to the poor, which created ongoing dependency and promoted false expectations, but nowadays most agencies focus on educating and training people for self-supporting and/or sustainable development.
This change recognises the value and importance of developing capacity and ownership of the people in the community for their own poverty eradication.
Local churches, mostly small, rural house churches, are seen as strategic partners who have direct access to, and an impact on, communities.
So a lot of effort is being put (by NGOs and denominational agencies) into training and empowering church leaders and members to become almost like community organisers: people who will facilitate village meetings and discussions on how people can improve their lives.
What are some of the biggest strengths the church has?
Cambodian churches are still young and small, but they have a huge potential for growth and a greater impact on the nation’s society.
Many local churches are house churches led by lay pastor-farmers and voluntary leaders, but they are members of the community, and so are closely connected to the communities surrounding where the church is.
They are loosely organised and not institutionalised, and they can grow and reach out easily without having an over-lying bureaucratic structure.
These local churches are attracting a young population (more than 50 per cent of Cambodians are under 20) by providing educational/vocational and social interaction opportunities.
What are some of the biggest chall-enges the church faces?
A lack of qualified/educated leaders to lead the young generation. The present, older generation of leaders is gradually phasing out, and this transition is not going smoothly.
The present church leaders are minimally equipped to lead the churches to move forward. There are simply not enough good resources for discipleship and personal growth that the leaders have access to.
There are some cases of discriminat-ion in this largely animistic, Buddhist society, and there is growing suspicion of, and hostility towards, Christians by some nationalistic Buddhist leaders.
In addition, the growing forces of modernisation, materialism and secularism are choking the dynamic spirit of the church members.
What do you see as the future of the church within Cambodia?
As in most other developing countries, urbanisation is rapidly changing the landscape of Cambodian society and the church. Young people move to cities for education and to find jobs. Many stay in the city and do not return to their village. The number of churches focusing on this population, and providing relevant ministries, is growing.
I feel this trend will continue. In rural areas, the churches will continue to remain small and poor, as most members are poor farmers whose world view and lifestyle will likely remain unchanged.
However, through the church’s fluid and contextualised structure, the Gospel can spread like wildfire by the prompting work of the Spirit throughout Cambodia.
It’s a largely homogeneous society with one language, culture and vocation (rice farming), and it’s a small, flat country with decent roads, so one can reach almost anywhere in Cambodia within a day’s journey.
There is a movement called Mission Kampuchea 2021 that has brought some Cambodian Christian leaders together to network and promote the holistic gospel movement to every village by 2021.