We arrived in Vietnam -- one of only five remaining socialistic dictatorships ruled by Communist ideology, circumscribed by its assumptions and demands. However my reading had not prepared me for what I saw and was to learn.
Vietnam is a country of surprising contradictions. Made infamous by wars with the French and Americans I was accustomed to the American's view (remember I was a student in in the '60s/'70s) that their strategy, called the "domino theory", was to prevent Chinese and Vietnamese from extending communist rule throughout South East Asia. I also assumed it is a country where the Gospel is driven underground by a repressive Communist government. I found it is and isn't.
My first stereotype was shattered when outside of Ho Chi Minh City -- still called by many "Saigon" -- we were taken to the campus of the Biblical and Theological Institute of the Evangelical Church of Vietnam South (ECVN/S) -- a denomination still often called "C&MA" (Christian and Missionary Alliance). I looked around and saw to the left a multi story main building for classes and administration for 150 students. To the right a 7-story student residence with a second under construction. In front a 3,000-seat church also under construction. All in a Communist country which continues to enforce unpredictable and contradicting laws.
That's one side of the story. The other is the control by government over all matters religious: this is a one party government shaped by a materialistic ideology. The prudent reminded me not to be lulled into thinking the government has gone soft on Christianity. They had many stories describing the quick and harsh reminders of who is boss.
Yet within these polarities there is a vibrant Christian faith pulsating its way through varying contradictions: an unease with government, conflicts/division within the Christian community, a country seeking to emerge from the wars of the past. My understanding of this alluring and hospitable land has been tutored by many, who, if noted by name, would be put in jeopardy.
Again some background: About two thirds of the Protestant church (also called the Tin Lanh church) is made up of the Evangelical Church of Vietnam (ECVN). Started by the Christian and Missionary Alliance in 1911 it is in effect the traditional church. It is divided into two separate operating denominations (north and south) since 1954. It is in process of reuniting, a strategy just recently delayed by the government. This is one example of the constant interfering role of government and the delicate road leaders walk in keeping their people out of the cross hairs of governmental (police) action.
The many small "denominations" reflect a cultural mistrust of others, and the seeming need for leaders to create their own independent church or group of churches with many divisions caused by outside funders who want their own identifiable piece of the action. There are about 80 denominations in the country. Twenty-seven (27) are members of the southern Vietnam Evangelical Fellowship and about 12 belong to the northern Hanoi Christian Fellowship. A "denomination" can be an overstatement as it may mean just a few house churches led by a strong pastors, which may fade once his presence is diminished or he passes away.
Also the term "house church" is often a figure of speech. We rode down a river in the Mekong Delta in a dugout type boat to meet a pastor of a "house church." We stepped on to the dock and saw in front of us a beautiful church building able to seat over a 100. I said, "I thought we were visiting a house church?" We are, I was told. A Korean donor wanted them to have a chapel so (and here the story was less than clear) either they bypassed government restrictions or got permission to build. Not looking like a house to church to me, it still is counted as one.
The term "house church" can mislead. It does not always refer to where congregations meet, it most often means they aren't registered with the government. However many "house churches" meet in a building built as a large house so to avoid being shut down by government. Also, all house churches aren't necessarily small. In short, a house church usually means it is a smaller group between 30 to 150 meeting in often a larger house. Some build without government permission while others will work at getting permission. There is a drive towards building a house of worship, in order to give cultural presence to their faith. Usually only congregations worshipping in a church-type building are shown to foreigners. But the preponderance of house churches continues to meet in actual homes.
Early one afternoon we pulled up in front of the Hanoi offices of the Ministry of Public Security (the police overseeing all Vietnam). For two hours we exchanged candid and competing ideas with Corporal Vu Van Toan, chief of the division that oversees religion in the Ministry of Public Security. He asked if we had concerns of government. I pointed out that Christians here in Vietnam were part of a worldwide body of some 650 million Evangelicals. This helped establish the community in which Vietnamese Christians (and in this case Evangelicals) are members. Our conversation was pointed and candid.
Amazingly within that week, an event so outside of what Christians in Vietnam ever could have prayed for happened: an Australian evangelist, funded by a Buddhist business man, filled stadiums and his speeches were carried on State-run television network even as newspapers crooned his praises. This young man, armless and legless was an instant hit with young people, and it seemed, the entire nation.
Even in its beauty, Hanoi camouflages a government rooted in a materialist view of human life, ruling a country so compelling in its potential, human skill and determination.
But I've run out of space, so in Part Two I'll complete this story of surprising contradiction.
Brian C Stiller
Global Ambassador - The World Evangelical Alliance