Vietnam (MNN-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, reports the Baptist Press.
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.
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.
International Mission Board 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," said Rankin, "but you have given yourselves to the needs of the people of Vietnam."
"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."