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Gary Lye

Southeast Asia: A profile of churches

JOHOR BAHRU, Malaysia — Sitting on the couch in his living room, Gary Lye opens a notebook filled with hand-written Chinese characters.
Between cups of Chinese tea, he shows how the symbols that represent “person,” “eight” and “boat” combine to form the character for “large ship” — perhaps a reference to the first ship mentioned in Genesis and its eight human passengers. Other words in Chinese — one of the world’s oldest written languages — allude to biblical accounts of creation, the Garden of Eden and the Tower of Babel.
Lye became a Christian at age 18, about a year after a classmate first brought him to church.
“The Christian faith is more logical. … God’s salvation is more believable” than the Toaist teachings of his youth, he says. Now he studies Scripture with his Chinese neighbors, who are fascinated by the possible links between their history and the faith.
“Christianity is not from the West,” Lye says. “Christianity is actually from the East.”
Followers of this Eastern faith represent a tiny fraction of Southeast Asia’s faith groups. Buddhism, Hinduism and Islam are prominent beliefs here. In Singapore, the Moulmein Road Church of Christ sits between a Buddhist temple and a Hindu education center.
Johor Bahru, a city of 802,000 people just north of Singapore, has two Churches of Christ with a combined membership of about 70.
In the region’s wealthy communities, churches struggle to grow — not because of opposition from other faiths, but apathy toward religion in general, said Ong Kok Bin, a church member in Seremban, about three hours northwest of Johor Bahru. His congregation conducted a house-to-house survey in a predominantly Chinese neighborhood recently.
“Only about 3 percent were interested in anything that is religious at all,” Ong said. “Most are interested in what will make their family happy … in social mobility.”
In less-developed regions of Southeast Asia, Christians find receptive audiences. Church members from Johor Bahru make trips to the Malaysian state of Sarawak on the island of Borneo. Christians have baptized at least 200 people there since 2006, said Chee Yong, who helps coordinate the work.
“Our objective is to have 100 churches established throughout Sarawak within 20 years or before I expire, whichever is later,” Yong said.
Christians also find spiritual seekers in China itself. Hundreds of church members have traveled to the communist nation to teach English. In 2005 a U.S. teacher assigned students an essay on “the most important thing for China right now.” One student wrote that what China needs most is faith.
“I am a communist now, but in the bottom of my soul I am empty,” the student wrote. “I believe most youths in China are … caught in the same puzzle.”
BURMA, LAOS, VIETNAM — Evangelism is difficult in communist Laos and Vietnam and military controlled Burma (also known as Myanmar), with a combined population of about 141 million people. Christians meet in small groups in Laos and receive support from believers in neighboring Thailand. Tom Tune, a former missionary in the South Pacific, works with young churches in Vietnam and serves underprivileged children in Ho Chi Minh City. Churches around the globe contributed aid to Burma after a 2008 cyclone claimed more than 138,000 lives. The country has several small Churches of Christ and a ministry training school.
CHINA, TAIWAN — A nation of more than 1 billion souls, China has countless small groups of Christians meeting in homes. In 2005 about 100 U.S. and Asian church members formed an informal effort to foster church-planting movements in China. A government-sanctioned Church of Christ for expatriates meets in the capital, Beijing. The island of Taiwan, population 23 million, has six congregations with a combined membership of less than 100.
THE PHILIPPINES — Missionaries from Restoration Movement churches traveled to the islands of the Philippines in the early 1900s. U.S. Christians served in the Philippines during World War II, and mission work increased dramatically after the war.
Today Churches of Christ meet across the nation of 90 million souls. U.S. missionaries serve in ministry training schools, including Leyte Christian College. Filipino Christians increasingly are involved in mission work. Mhalbe Lagria helps operate a day care center and feeding program for impoverished children in the Filipino province of Albay. MARCH for Christ, a Philippines-based medical mission, has served patients as far away as Sri Lanka and Pakistan.
“I love the idea that, in my own small way, I can make a difference in someone else’s life,” said Gigie Carranza, who works with the ministry.
MALAYSIA, BRUNEI — Home to more than 25 million people, Malaysia is an Islamic nation. Its constitution defines all ethnic Malays as Muslim.
Evangelists from Churches of Christ began working in Malaysia in the 1950s. The Web site of the Seremban Church of Christ, cocsrban.com, lists congregations in about 25 Malaysian cities. Though Muslims may not legally convert to Christianity, churches have made inroads among immigrants from China and India. Ong Kok Bin, a Chinese-born Christian, works with the Church of Christ in Seremban, Malaysia.
There are no known works of Churches of Christ in the Sultanate of Brunei, population 399,000.
SINGAPORE, INDONESIA, EAST TIMOR — Singapore is a high-tech, wealthy city-state of 4.8 million people. Ira Rice helped plant churches here in 1955. Today the island has about 14 Churches of Christ. The largest, Pasir Panjang, has more than 400 members and supports mission work across Southeast Asia.
Sue Ann Mak, a second-generation Christian at the Moulmein Road Church of Christ, said that teens in Singapore struggle with distractions similar to those faced by U.S. teens. Growing churches in Singapore have effective outreach to Chinese immigrants, she said.
About 86 percent of Indonesia’s 228 million inhabitants claim Islam as their faith, making it the world’s largest Muslim population. The nation has more than 150 Churches of Christ with a combined membership of nearly 10,000, said Winston Bolt, director of Batam Bible College, south of Singapore.
Congregations have grown dramatically on the island of Nias and other locales, due in part to relief sent by Churches of Christ after the 2004 tsunami.
There are no known works of Churches of Christ in East Timor, an independent nation since 2002 with 1.1 million inhabitants.

  • Feedback
    thanks for the article!
    Jee Kim Wong
    Moulmein Road Church of Christ
    Singapore, Singapore
    August, 11 2010

    I have a CD with a presentation of these Chinese characters connecting them with the Bible.
    Lloyd Deal
    Memorial Rd Church of Christ
    Edmond, OK
    April, 27 2010

Filed under: Global South

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