Vietnam church gains legal status, leads national outreach

HO CHI MINH CITY, Vietnam (BP)--Vietnamese Baptists met at Grace Baptist Church in Ho Chi Minh City Jan. 10-11 to celebrate the church's receiving official government recognition and to organize a new national confederation. This historic development is expected to encourage future evangelism and church-planting efforts in the country.

The Vietnamese government made this possible by granting a certificate of religious practice to the church. The 400-member group met to create Grace Baptist Southern General Confederation. It adopted a constitution and elected officers for the new organization, which will organize and represent new churches across Vietnam.

Bouquets of flowers and banners brightened Grace's sanctuary. A delegation of Southern Baptist leaders was present to witness and encourage the new work.

Representatives included Frank Page, Southern Baptist Convention president; Jerry Rankin, president of the SBC's International Mission Board (IMB); D. August Boto, executive vice president and general counsel of the SBC Executive Committee; Chinh Van Dao, pastor of Vietnamese Faith Grace Baptist Church in Acworth, Ga., and president of the National Fellowship of Vietnamese Baptist Churches in America; and Derek Gaubatz, IMB general counsel.

"I especially want to say, 'God bless you,' to all the wonderful people of Vietnam," Page told the gathering. He also expressed appreciation to Vietnamese government officials for granting recognition to Grace.

Nguyen Thanh Xuan, deputy director of Vietnam's Religious Affairs Committee, also spoke during the service.

The church sits alongside the main airport road in downtown Ho Chi Minh City. Formerly called Saigon, the city was renamed in the 1970s at the end of the war with the United States. The church is completing an expansion of its building, prompted by a road-widening project. A new multi-story building is fronted with a dramatic spiral staircase and topped with a cross.

Grace Baptist Church is an outgrowth of Southern Baptist missionary work that began in Vietnam in the late 1950s. Missionaries left the country when the Vietnam War ended in 1975. Since then, the Vietnamese government has not allowed missionary presence.

But that foundational work continued to grow. Today, Baptists are widely acknowledged as the fastest-growing church group in Vietnam. There are now some 5,000 Baptists in 90 congregations in a dozen cities and provinces across the country. Only some of them are allied with Grace, church leaders said.

Grace pastor Le Quoc Chanh has overseen much of the church's growth, keeping his congregation intact through various hard times in the past.

While the Vietnamese government hindered Christians from meeting or pursuing evangelism in the past, it is now developing a market-driven economy, encouraging tourism and seeking an increased presence on the world scene. New national laws assure its citizens religious freedom.

The Vietnamese concept of religious freedom includes registration of church groups.

Local observers say national government leaders sincerely want to let church groups function without interference. But they also want to ensure that churches do not pursue political agendas or other programs that might jeopardize Vietnam's political and economic stability -– highly valued as the country develops. Observers say it may take longer for local government leaders in some outlying areas to move to a more open stance on religion. Opposition is still known to occur there.

Southern Baptist representatives and Grace Baptist leaders met separately Jan. 10 with Nguyen Thanh Xuan and several other national government leaders of religious affairs. The Baptists also met Jan. 12 with two Ho Chi Minh City religious affairs officials.

During the celebration service at Grace, SBC President Frank Page said, "The people of the Southern Baptist Convention love the people of Vietnam. We want to be partners with you in the future.

"The world needs the Gospel of Christ," said Page, pastor of 4,300-member First Baptist Church in Taylors, S.C. "We believe it is our call from God to share that message around the world as well as where we live.

"We pledge to you our prayer support, and we ask that you pray for us," he told the assembly, quoting from Hebrews 13. "We believe Jesus Christ wants us to grow in Him, to be strong in Him, so we encourage you today to grow in Christ.

"We believe glory will come to the Lord because of that," said Page, presenting a gift to Pastor Chanh.

IMB President Jerry Rankin told the gathering, "We're here to recognize and celebrate the progress of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam. We commend the government leadership of your country.

"They have led Vietnam to take a place of leadership in the economy and trade and human rights of the global community," Rankin continued. "But especially, we praise God for this significant occasion in which the government of Vietnam is openly recognizing and registering the Baptists of Grace Baptist Church."

Rankin talked of the legacy of missionaries who served "out of love and devotion to the people of Vietnam."

"We honor the contribution they have made in laying the foundation for Baptist work in this country," Rankin said. "But most of all we celebrate your faithfulness and perseverance to continue to serve the Lord here.

"Not only have you been faithful in worship and Bible study and serving the Lord," Rankin said, "but you have given yourselves to the needs of the people of Vietnam."

He presented Pastor Chanh with a plaque and gift after his remarks. "You have been a positive moral influence in your communities," Rankin told Grace's pastor. "We commend you and bring you greetings from those who have served among you with our mission board in the past.

"We challenge you to a vision for the future," Rankin concluded. "Continue to share the Gospel and serve your Lord faithfully. I am reminded of the words of the prophet Habakkuk: 'Look among the nations and be astounded for I will do a work among you that you will not believe.' Truly that prophecy is being fulfilled here today. We see God doing a work among us that we would not have believed and we give Him the praise and glory for this day."

Released by the international bureau of Baptist Press in Richmond, Va.

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