The ministry of Christ was characterised by compassion for the whole person. It was against the backdrop of ministering to physical needs (Matthew 9:36-38) that Jesus told his disciples to pray for workers for the spiritual harvest.
It is difficult to maintain the balance between ministering to physical and spiritual needs while keeping the spiritual primary – especially where the physical well-being of an entire society is in peril. Cambodia is such a place!
With a population of 12 million and an average yearly income of $300 dollars per person, the physical side cannot easily be overlooked in Cambodia.
The spiritual condition of the Khmer people is bleaker still. Few have ever heard the name of Jesus Christ and less than 1% profess him as their Lord and Saviour. Yet the light of the gospel is spreading, and the harvest is becoming more plentiful.
In 1965 all foreign missionaries were forced from the country. After 40 years of work, less than 1,000 individuals were numbered as followers of Christ. When missionaries were allowed to return in 1970 they found that less than 300 of the believers had remained faithful.
However, in God’s providence the church experienced unprecedented growth during the next five years. Soon after this, Cambodia was drawn into a bloody civil war that ultimately ushered Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge into power in 1975.
When the country fell to the communists, the Cambodian church numbered over 10,000. This young church was soon left on its own again, as all foreigners were expelled by the Khmer Rouge.
What transpired between 1975 and 1979 is well documented; Cambodia became home to ‘the killing fields’. Every part of society was devastated by the Pol Pot reign of terror. Between two and three million died at the hands of their own countrymen. The bizarre and ghoulish behavior of the Khmer Rouge can only be attributed to demonic wickedness.
Everyone suffered during those years, but none more than the church. By 1979, estimates put the surviving evangelical church at 100 – the church had been decimated!
But God preserved a godly group of leaders that would build his church in the years ahead. Today the church numbers over 200,000!
During those dark years many Christians escaped to refugee camps on the Thai border, and thence to the West. Thousands came into contact with the gospel in refugee camps.
In 1979, Cambodia was invaded by the Vietnamese. While this signalled an end to the slaughter of the population, it did not end the plight and persecution of the Christians. The Vietnamese remained in power until 1989 when the United Nations began brokering a peace agreement.
During all these years God was doing his perfect work. Hundreds of Cambodian leaders were being trained at Christian colleges and seminaries around the world, and waiting for the opportunity to return to Cambodia.
With the introduction of UN peacekeeping troops, the first wave of believers returned. In addition many Christian relief and development agencies entered. Their task was overwhelming and made more difficult by political instability.
These Khmer Christians, along with expatriate workers, laboured tirelessly. Steady progress has been made during the last 13 years.
The Khmer church today is still very young, but is full of energy, growth and vision. There are now seven Bible schools training the next generation of leaders. While disunity amongst Christians is still a significant problem, there is a growing desire to embrace one another in the love of Christ.
The political outlook is uncertain, but that has only added to the sense of urgency to labour for the gospel while there is relative freedom.
The spiritual and physical needs of Cambodia are overwhelming! It has the highest HIV/AIDS infection rate in Southeast Asia. It still has one of the highest infant mortality rates in the world. Child trafficking, the exploitation of women, prostitution and corruption remain the norm for Khmer society.
Socioeconomic conditions are improving slowly, but most of the population live below the poverty line and are subject to malnutrition, substandard education and a lack of clean water.
In the midst of this, God is stirring the hearts of people all over the country to seek him. Churches are being planted in both urban and rural areas.
Christians are demonstrating Christ’s compassion in ways that are resulting in unprecedented opportunities to share the gospel. The next generation of university students is openly questioning its Buddhist heritage.
Cambodia still needs foreign missionaries. They must be willing to be servants and partners with Khmer brothers and sisters in building the kingdom of Christ. They must also count the cost! The climate, language, culture and political environment make long-term ministry very difficult.
But there are scores of opportunities for church planting, leadership training and evangelism – as well as a critical need for Christians with expertise in development, education, medicine and commercial enterprise.
The harvest is indeed ready – please pray that workers will be sent!