Unity for Vietnam's Baptists is pastor's next goal

RENTON, Wash. (BP) -- When Christian Phan felt God's call to plant a church in Vietnam in 2007, he never dreamed it would lead to a new three-story building -- one of the first public places of worship built in Ho Chi Minh City in decades -- and, now, the launching of an entire denomination.

Dedicated in January, Agape Baptist Church's new building is one of the first public places of worship constructed in Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon) since communist forces claimed South Vietnam in 1975. In addition to hosting worship services and theological training, the facility also will house the offices for the proposed national Vietnamese Baptist Convention.
 
But that is what Phan was privileged to be a part of during his most recent mission trip to Vietnam.

He spent two weeks traveling the Southeast Asian country to connect with Vietnamese pastors, advance the creation of a national Vietnamese Baptist Convention and dedicate a new campus for Agape Baptist Church in Ho Chi Minh City.

Phan, 42, leads a Seattle-area congregation -- also named Agape Baptist Church -- which he started in 2004 in Renton. And he is president of the Vietnamese Baptist Fellowship, a network of more than 120 Vietnamese Baptist churches in the United States and Canada.

Phan also has a dream of unity among Baptists in his native Vietnam. Like their Southern Baptist brethren, he wants Vietnamese Baptists to know they can accomplish more together than on their own.

Since the fall of Saigon in 1975, government restrictions on public expressions of religion have forced Vietnamese Baptists to adopt a house church model, leading to dozens of small disconnected groups. During his January trip, Phan invited the leaders from these house churches to meet and plan for the future.

Christian Phan (center, green shirt) stands with the proposed leadership of the national Vietnamese Baptist Convention. The fledgling denomination will apply for official recognition by the Vietnamese government later this year.
 
"I asked them about their vision for Baptist churches in Vietnam, and they realized an individual church isn't strong enough to do anything big for God," Phan recounted. "I challenged them to come together, but they didn't know how to start."

That's why he began partnering with Vietnamese pastor Nguyen Thanh in Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon). In less than a decade, they have established 42 new house churches in Vietnam under the network of Agape Baptist Church. But rapid growth still left the house churches scattered. Phan felt the need for a central rallying point, which led to the construction of the new three-story Agape Baptist building in Ho Chi Minh City.

The building will serve as the headquarters for Agape network churches in Vietnam, a place of corporate worship for Agape house churches in Ho Chi Minh City, and as a campus for the Vietnamese Baptist Theological School, which provides biblical training for pastors and lay leaders. It also is ground-zero for Phan's biggest project in Vietnam yet -- the establishment of a national Vietnamese Baptist Convention.

Christian Phan, pastor of Agape Baptist Church in Renton, Wash., speaks to the Vietnamese Baptist Fellowship of North America at their 2015 annual meeting in Plano, Texas. Phan is the fellowship's president and leads the organization's efforts to support the creation of a national Vietnamese Baptist Convention in Vietnam.
 
To catalyze a movement to unify the country's 400-plus Baptist churches (including the Agape network), Phan spent much of his January trip meeting with Vietnamese pastors to garner their support. If successful, the Agape Baptist building in Ho Cho Minh City will house the offices for the Vietnamese Baptist Convention.

Phan currently is helping Vietnamese Baptist leaders establish the constitution to govern the new convention. His goal is to have the leadership team, constitution and bylaws approved by mid-summer.

The fledgling denomination will then face its biggest challenge -- recognition by the Vietnamese government.

Phan said there is no timeline for how long that process may take, though he believes Vietnamese officials will likely give their approval. Vietnam's government has slowly loosened restrictions on religious freedom over the past decade, driven largely by its bid to become an economic powerhouse in Southeast Asia. Phan said pending trade agreements like the Trans-Pacific Partnership will force Vietnam to comply with human rights and religious freedom requirements.

Dozens of Vietnamese pastors gather to pray during an altar call at the 2015 meeting of the Vietnamese Baptist Fellowship of North America in Plano, Texas.
 
As evidence, Phan points to three previous mission trips he made to Vietnam to train church planters in 2006, 2007 and 2008, all of which were conducted in secret due to government restrictions. But on this most recent trip, he was able to travel openly as a pastor and church planter.

If the government does recognize the Vietnamese Baptist Convention, Phan said it will speed the spread of the Gospel among Vietnam's 94 million people, of whom 2 percent are evangelical Christians. Vietnamese missionaries could then be sent anywhere in the country without fear of persecution from local or regional authorities.

"It's very important to have a convention where people can come together and have more power to serve God and greater impact on the nation -- that's very significant," Phan said. "For a long period of time, over 40 years, we've been separated into small groups and not been unified. The need to come together is urgent."

The cooperation of Vietnamese Baptist churches through a national convention also would facilitate the sending of Vietnamese missionaries to other Southeast Asian countries in need of the Gospel, Phan added.

"When we come together, we can do something bigger. I dream of sending missionaries everywhere in this country, to Laos, Cambodia, Taiwan, Malaysia -- wherever God leads."

Don Graham is a writer based in Richmond, Va.
Download Story