Christianity in Laos
As we climbed the wooden ladder of the house on stilts, I thought of its owner; a 95-year-old lady, and her long journey of faith. She had been walking it since the day her husband, once the village spirit medium, had believed and then been stoned to death for his faith.
She had brought up her large family who, though poor and despised by this world, still stand strong in faith. As we sat on the wooden planks of the house, her daughter told us that she wasn’t surprised to see us — she had dreamt she would have visitors the next day.
She talked about the road accident that had killed her teenage son. When it happened she prayed, ‘God I don’t understand your ways but I know they are higher than mine’, and so she was comforted.
As we talked further about the church in Laos, she added, ‘There are so many groups coming in, saying this and that. They say we all believe the same thing, but I am not sure! It is like the last days that Paul writes about!’
Before leaving, we sat beside the old lady, who can no longer speak, and prayed for the church in Laos in these difficult and confusing days — that God’s Holy Spirit would guide his people into all truth.
The daughter’s comment pinpoints one of the problems facing the Lao church. There are about 80 groups working across the border from Thailand. Many are building up their own work and offering financial incentives for Christians to accept their particular message. They do not relate directly to the existing churches in the country.
There is one church organisation officially registered with the government — the Lao Evangelical Church — and its leadership is accountable to the government for all that happens in the length and breadth of the country.
But there are also a growing number of house churches and underground groups meeting in secret and accountable to no officials.
Recently I travelled in Laos and was greatly encouraged to see that the church is growing and evangelising, despite fear of imprisonment. I met people who have been in prison and heard how they have had opportunities to share the gospel with fellow prisoners.
Growth and trials
Some have even been able to baptise fellow-inmates. As one of them said to me, ‘God let me be in prison so that many could hear about him. How would they have heard otherwise?’
We heard of new church plants and of whole villages united as Christians. There are villages where, although the church building has been closed or destroyed, the Christians are defiantly meeting outside the closed doors.
We heard too of all-age baptisms — and of Christians being harassed and driven from their villages and fields at gunpoint, but refusing to give up their faith. It was exciting to hear of new believers in areas where 30 to 40 years ago seeds were sown … and so much more.
As I talked with some of these Christians I glimpsed something of their suffering, for their faith has surely been tested by fire. But that faith has come through the fire stronger and more genuine. They had no one to help them but God, and they proved he was there for them.
This present growth is in contrast to the early years of gospel preaching in Laos, when the growth of the church was slow and difficult. The first converts were among a minority ethnic group, the Khmu.
They were fruit from the ministry of Dr Daniel McGilvary, an American Presbyterian who visited from Thailand between l872 and l898. However, the church dates its real beginnings from 1902, when Gabriel Contesse and Maurice Willy of the Swiss Brethren arrived in the country.
The Christian and Missionary Alliance (CMA) entered the North in 1928. The gospel mainly appealed to the non-Lao groups or to people who were outcasts of Lao society. This became a further barrier to many Lao people becoming Christians.
The Swiss Brethren and CMA worked hard to advance the work. The first translation of the Bible was in l932, and gradually other literature and teaching materials became available. Simple translation of Christian literature was begun in some of the minority languages. Leprosy and medical work was done also.
Bible schools were set up in both north and south Laos. Radio programmes were prepared for broadcasting from FEBC in Manila. OMF began its work in Laos in 1957.
The main work of the missionaries was in evangelism — alongside Lao and tribal Christians — and in leadership training, literacy and Bible teaching.
All this took place before l975, when the OMF were invited by the Swiss Brethren to work among the minority groups in mountainous eastern Laos.
As war spread from Vietnam into Laos, large areas in the east came under enemy occupation. In l975 the country was ‘liberated’ by the Pathet Lao and all foreigners had to leave. Many influential Lao, tribal and Chinese people also fled the country.
Since then, the Lao People’s Democratic Republic has been a communist country. For almost two decades the country of Laos was closed to the outside world.
The government continues to declare its intention to eradicate Christianity. In recent years they have encouraged the teaching of Buddhism, using it as a uniting factor and a bulwark against outside religions.
They have taught that to be Lao is to be Buddhist. About 60% of the country is Buddhist; and overseas Lao are invited to invest their money in the building and renovation of temples.
Today, as the door slowly opens, there are overseas Christians working in Laos with various non-governmental (aid) organisations or in private business. It is not permitted to be there with a ‘missionary’ label or to have a public Christian ministry.
What of the church today? It is a church that has been tested and tried through years of isolation and suffering. It has stood on its own feet without outside aid and monetary support. It is constantly under government surveillance.
The last few years have been the most oppressive for Christians and many have been forced to sign statements renouncing their faith.
When pressure was put on one church to sign, the children kept chanting, ‘Don’t sign! Don’t sign!’ In another place the women said to their men folk, when they were ordered to nail up the church building to prevent services being held there, ‘Anyone who nails the door shut will be punished by the church’.
Recently, possibly due to outside pressures, there have been fewer imprisonments and in some areas local officials have allowed more freedom.
God has been building his church in Laos and he will continue to do so — until that great day when we join the people of Laos around his throne to unite in the praise of the Lamb that was slain for his people.