Building Up a Church Body
God is using a network of people and organizations to build His church in Cambodia.
“Like newborn infants, long for the pure spiritual milk, that by it you may grow up into salvation — if indeed you have tasted that the Lord is good” (1 Peter 2:2–3).
On a Sunday morning in September, the Rev. Bun Sopheap stepped to the pulpit to preach Christ’s kingship at Prech Lutheran Church in the small town of Chhuk, Cambodia.
A blanket of gray clouds hung high over the tropical landscape, lashing the small, weathered sanctuary with periods of heavy rain and soaking the sandy soil and the shoes left by church members on the step outside the patio narthex.
Sopheap held his cloth-covered Bible in one hand and lifted it up to his smiling face. He was happy to be in the Lord’s house.
‘[Longing] for the Pure Spiritual Milk’
Years ago, before he was a pastor and before he was in Christ, Sopheap lay sick with his wife on their bed in their village home. They were hungry and had little rice. That night, a deer got its horn stuck outside their home and couldn’t escape. Fellow villagers came and slaughtered the animal and gave Sopheap’s family some meat. They ate and recovered.
Nourished and on his way to the market shortly thereafter, Sopheap met a foreign missionary. The red-haired man walked barefoot and wore shorts. Sopheap had never met a foreigner before, and certainly not one who spoke the local Khmer language. He invited the man over, and the man gave him a Gospel tract. It had a cross on the cover. Sopheap had never heard the Word of God before, and he read it eagerly.
Now, as presiding pastor of the Cambodia Lutheran Church (CLC), Sopheap reflected on how God had led him to the faith and to become a pastor. He remembered the early days when he led a house church and the floors flooded from rain.
He didn’t understand God’s Word then, but he wanted to share it with the 30 people — many of whom were children — that came. He needed to be taught, and it was at this time that he found the LCMS Recognized Service Organization Garuna Foundation and its ministry, the Luther Institute Southeast Asia (LISA).
‘[Growing] Up into Salvation’
Formed in 2006, LISA teaches God’s Word to pastors, laypeople and deaconesses in the region. In addition to its tutoring schools that supplement Cambodian schools by providing extra lessons in Khmer, reading and writing, math, basic English, and Lutheran teaching, Garuna now has a Bible training center on the outskirts of Phnom Penh — called the Luther Institute of Cambodia — that has classrooms, curriculum and office space. It’s located in a burgeoning area down the street from new apartments and restaurants.
LISA serves the Cambodia Lutheran Church, which now has 42 congregations, house churches and preaching stations scattered around the country. It’s a small church body in need of care in its ongoing formation. There are cultural nuances that need to be navigated carefully, as well as a burning desire for strong theological education. The church’s clergy are taught by local and foreign Lutheran teachers through LISA, under the local direction of the Rev. Bun Phanna, who goes by Peter. He also oversees Garuna’s schools throughout the country.
Peter is the lone Christian in his family. In Cambodia’s collective society, faith is usually determined by family relationships. As a result, Peter’s solo conversion to Christianity, as well as his formal and informal study of the Scriptures and subsequent ordination into the ministry, can cause family tension.
“I stand on what I believe,” he said. For example, many families in Cambodia practice ancestor worship, but Peter abstains from this practice while continuing to care for his parents as he’s able. In all this, he seeks to be a witness to his family for the sake of the Gospel.
Peter, like Sopheap, lived in a small town. He came to faith after high school in 1999 when he found a mission that taught English. He had never heard of Christianity before. The teachers at this mission taught Genesis and some theology, and over time he read the Bible with his father in their pursuit of English. Gradually he continued his study of the Word and was baptized in the river near his home.
Now years later, after ordination and serving as interim principal pastor of the CLC, Peter works to train and teach new pastoral candidates. “Our primary ministry in Cambodia is to preach the Gospel,” said Peter. “With Luther’s Small Catechism, with the Augsburg Confession, … there is clear teaching. There is no doubt.”
Carrying Forth God’s Word
Just two hours from the small town of Chhuk lies Phnom Penh, Cambodia’s populous and modern capital city.
It’s here where LCMS missionaries Rev. J.P. and Aimee Cima live and work. They have spent more than 15 years serving with the LCMS Office of International Mission, the last five of which have been in Cambodia. Aimee is mercy manager for the Asia region, while J.P. serves as a mentor and theological educator to the pastors and leadership of the CLC. He travels throughout Cambodia to lead training seminars and visit church leaders.
Born and raised in Richmond, Va., J.P. studied Japanese in high school. That interest in the language led to his involvement in two short-term exchange programs and a study-abroad term in Japan. Later, after studying at Concordia Seminary, St. Louis, he made connections that led to his call as a missionary to Asia. He never thought he would work in the international mission field, nor did Aimee, who was born in Tulsa, Okla., and also raised in Richmond. Yet after overcoming some initial doubts, Aimee encouraged J.P. to talk with LCMS missionaries and explore the possibility of international service.
“God has been active in Cambodia for decades, even hundreds of years,” J.P. said. “Even when we consider the Lutheran work in particular, God’s work did not start with our arrival here. Rather, our work in Cambodia rests on the shoulders of former LCMS missionaries and many partner organizations who have and continue to operate in Cambodia.”
On a Friday evening in September, the Cimas held the weekly youth group gathering at their home. A typical rainy season downpour kept a few away, but those who came were rewarded with a warm, home-cooked meal. The Cimas’ young son, Isaac, led the small group in a common table prayer. After dinner, they gathered on couches as J.P. taught on worship, sin and the joy we have in Christ.
The next morning, low clouds filtered the sun as it rose over the high rises of Phnom Penh. The sound of motos became a chorus as drivers commuted through the city. Breakfast vendors dished out bowls of meat and noodles in broth, a popular local meal.
The Cimas worship at Christ Lutheran Church, which is shepherded by the Rev. Un Songim. Like Sopheap, he also came to faith by hearing the Word and living and learning at one of his village’s mission houses. Christ Lutheran Church is situated on the fringes of downtown Phnom Penh and houses a variety of offices, including the Lutheran Hour Ministries office, where Songim works.
On this particular day, J.P. picked up Khorn Sopha, who serves as director of Lutheran Heritage Foundation (LHF) in Cambodia and helps him with translation during training seminars. Together they drove south to Chhuk to meet with Sopheap, Deaconess Neak Mao and Bun Sary, principal of the local Garuna school.
There, they gathered with school staff members for an afternoon devotion. Mao read from Luther’s Small Catechism while guests sipped coconut water from freshly macheted coconuts. J.P. added explanation from the catechism, and Sopheap led the group in prayer. They all sang Khmer Christian hymns and built each other up in the faith.
The next morning, after the Word was preached by Sopheap, after the children sang “Jesus Loves Me” and the congregation ate noodles and broth in fellowship on the floor, and after Sopha helped hand out LHF-published Bible story books for the children, J.P. led a training seminar on sin, starting in Genesis and tracing his way to Christ’s work on the cross. Outside, torrential rain continued to soak everyone’s shoes.
These men and women of the Cambodia Lutheran Church — with the Cimas walking alongside — work together to build up this small church body in this country where nearly 98% of the people are Buddhist.
“The goal of our work is to build up God’s people here in Cambodia so that they can do the work that God has called them to do,” said J.P. “God has called His people here to be the ones to carry forth His Word, to proclaim the Gospel and to administer the Sacraments. Of course, I’m going to help. I’m going to encourage. I’m going to be there. I’m going to cheer for them. But ultimately, I want to give them the opportunity to do what God has called them to do.”
Pray with Us
Almighty Father who orders all things for the good of those whom You have called, we give You thanks for the proclamation of the Gospel in Cambodia. We ask that You would continue to bless the pastors and people who proclaim Your Gospel in word and deed, that those in Cambodia who live in the darkness of unbelief would see the light of Your truth; through Jesus Christ, Your Son, our Lord, who lives and reigns with You and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.
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Erik M. Lunsford
Managing photojournalist for LCMS Communications.