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House churches multiplying in Vietnam

Though small in numbers and less than two decades old, the United Presbyterian Church of Vietnam already has the vision to reach the entire nation of Vietnam. It would like to see Presbyterian churches from the Mekong Delta in the south to the highlands in the north.

By Roger Dermody

Editor’s note: In May, 2012, a delegation from the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) and two members of the Presbyterian Church in Taiwan visited the United Presbyterian Church of Vietnam. During the weeklong visit, the representatives from the three churches shared ideas, vision, meals, and fellowship. It is hoped that the churches might enter into a mission partnership together, a “triangle” partnership. See photos from the visit at

Flying into Ho Chi Minh City on a warm, clear day last spring, I was not sure what to expect. I was greeted by Ho Tan Khoa, the head of the United Presbyterian Church of Vietnam (UPCV), and by Michael Parker, Presbyterian World Mission’s coordinator for international evangelism. Together we drove to my hotel by tall, modern buildings, down streets teeming with motorcycles, through business districts alive with bright billboards and bustling people.

I had come to meet Pastor Khoa and the leaders of the UPCV and to visit a number of the house churches that they oversee. Christianity, Khoa explained, came to Vietnam in the early part of the 19th century with the arrival of Roman Catholic missionaries. Today, about eight to ten percent of Vietnam’s population of 90 million is Catholic. The Protestants arrived in 1911 with the Church Missionary Alliance (CMA). Since then many other denominations have also come, and the total number of Protestants is somewhere between one half and two percent of the population.

Khoa is a third-generation Christian who was raised in a CMA congregation and became a deacon in the church. When the communists seized the South in 1975, life became very difficult, and the church, being associated with the U.S., was often harassed or persecuted. In 1988 Khoa joined with a number of others in a seven-day period of fasting and prayer. Toward the end of this week, he explained, the Holy Spirit visited them with power, and the result was a charismatic revival of signs and wonders. The CMA began to grow rapidly, producing a number of house churches.

The house church movement quickly spread outside of the CMA and soon extended beyond Ho Chi Minh City to the surrounding provinces. People came from abroad at this time to provide training for the new house church leaders. There were also overseas Vietnamese pastors who quietly returned to help the new church movement. Binh Nguyen of the Mercer Island Presbyterian Church, in Seattle, came to Vietnam in 2000. Many different denominations arrived in Vietnam at this time and offered to adopt Khoa’s growing house church movement, but he and his fellow leaders decided to become Presbyterians.

Philip Lotspeich (left) and Roger Dermody (center) of the Presbyterian Mission Agency meet with a house church leader of the United Presbyterian Church of Vietnam. The denomination has 124 churches, ranging from 20 members to over 200. There are 24 ordained pastors, 33 evangelists who are also pastoring churches, and 16 elders.

In 2002 Binh returned to Vietnam with others from his church; they provided leadership training and eventually ordained fourteen pastors. In 2007 twelve more were ordained into the ministry. “Government officials know about us,” said Khoa. “When they learned that we had been ordained by the PC(USA), things got easier.”

The UPCV has 124 churches with a total membership of about 7,500. This is an inspiring young church. Though small in numbers and less than two decades old, it already has the vision to reach the entire nation of Vietnam. It would like to see Presbyterian churches from the Mekong Delta in the south to the highlands in the north. Not content merely to evangelize its own people, the Kinh (or Viet) people who constitute about 86 percent of the population, the UPCV has also decided to reach out cross-culturally. There are 54 ethnic minority groups in Vietnam. The UPCV has selected seven of them in which to establish churches, including the Eastern Cham and Khmer, and others in the Central and Southern Highland regions. Mission is also being conducted in the north where many Vietnamese who traveled to Malaysia for work and have returned as Christians now lack a church home.

The UPCV planted ten new churches this year. The cost is $100 per month per church. The national organization will fund them for two years, and then they must be self sufficient. One of the highlights of the trip was to visit house churches in and around Ho Chi Minh City and those near the border with Cambodia. We saw small, well-built houses with rooms set aside for worshiping communities of about 20 or so. The pastors were amiable men, deeply committed to evangelism and pastoring, and all working second jobs to make ends meet. Many had experienced persecution, being harassed by the police, spending time in jail, and enduring beatings. Few had more than a rudimentary education, but, so far as we could tell, they were orthodox in their theology, committed to the Scriptures, and looked to God for daily provisions, miracles, and church growth.

Also present on this trip was the General Secretary of the Presbyterian Church of Taiwan, Chang Te-Chien (Andrew). In a meeting of the three Presbyterian churches, Khoa explained the UPCV’s strategy for church growth. Andrew then described to the Vietnamese the PCT’s current efforts to add 70,000 new Christians to the church through the One-Leads-One movement. Finally, I related the PC(USA)’s current efforts to establish 1,001 new worshiping communities in the next 10 years.

Andrew said that it was not enough for each denomination to reach out only to its own people. Rather, we should also be helping each other. Putting his thumbs and forefingers together to form a triangle, he urged us to embrace what he called “triangular mission.” Each side of the triangle is connected to and supports the other sides, and Jesus is in the middle.

It was encouraging to be with brothers and sisters in Christ who are committed to growing their churches and to introducing people to Jesus Christ who have never heard of him before. The PC(USA) is currently recruiting to fill a mission co-worker position in Vietnam. This person would work half-time teaching in the UPCV’s Bible school, and half-time working with the church’s mission team to plant new churches throughout the country. Please help fund the Office of International Evangelism in its support of the UPCV by giving to the Extra Commitment Opportunity account for Vietnam, ECO E040079. Funds in this account may be designated for a future mission co-worker.

Roger Dermody is the Deputy Executive Director for Mission at the Presbyterian Mission Agency.

What is Mission Crossroads?

Mission Crossroads is a web-based wisdom community which facilitates networking among mission participants, aids communication among members of mission-related groups, and provides a forum in which those engaged in mission may share ideas and experiences, both good and bad, so that future mission endeavors can be more effective.