This is an article from the May-July 2000 issue: The State of World Evangelization

Case Studies of CPMs - The Khmer of Cambodia

Case Studies of CPMs - The Khmer of Cambodia

The Setting

The 20th century has seen more than its share of wars, dictators and genocide, but few surpass the tragic modern history of Cambodia. Buffeted by the Vietnam conflict for more than two decades, Cambodia emerged from that war with Maoist dictator Pol Pot driving the country into ruin. During his five-year reign from 1975-1979, Pol Pot's Khmer Rouge engineered the murder, disappearance or starvation of up to 3.3 million of the country's 8 million citizens.

This reign of terror left Cambodia's infrastructure in shambles, its adult male population decimated and its youth illiterate. The subsequent rule by a Vietnam-installed government ended the genocide, but could not undo the damage done to Cambodian society.

The societal upheaval set the stage for the changes which were to come. Centuries of Buddhist influence were undermined by communist ideology. Roman Catholicism, which had gained a foothold in the country, was targeted by the Khmer Rouge because of perceived foreign ties to the Vatican and France. Earlier in the century, missionaries from the Christian and Missionary Alliance and Overseas Missionary Fellowship had introduced Protestantism into the country, but their numbers had never exceeded 5,000. During Pol Pot's rule, the Khmer Rouge dealt them a severe blow, expelling missionaries and murdering many of the scattered flock. By 1990, Cambodia's evangelical population had dwindled to no more than 600 believers."

What Happened

According to a senior missionary who served in Cambodia for decades with Overseas Missionary Fellowship, the turning point for Christianity in the country began in the 1990s. By 1999, the number of Protestant believers had risen from 600 to more than 60,000. The largest number of these were Baptists with 10,000 members, followed by an indigenous Campus Crusade denomination, then the Christian and Missionary Alliance and various other groups."

The primary catalyst for change came in December 1989, when Southern Baptists assigned a strategy coordinator to the Khmer people. By 1991, he had completed language study and already begun implementing a strategy for reaching the Khmer people.

Instead of planting a church himself, as had previously been his custom, the missionary began a mentoring relationship with a Cambodian layman. Within a year, he had drawn six Cambodian church planters into his mentoring circle. Over the next few months, he developed a church-planting manual in the Khmer language and taught the Khmer church planters doctrine, evangelism and church-planting skills using resources such as the JESUS film, chronological Bible storying and simple house-church development. He also instilled in them a vision and passion for reaching their entire country with a Church Planting Movement.

In 1993, the number of Baptist churches grew from six to 10. The following year, the number doubled to 20. In 1995, when the number of churches reached 43, the Cambodian church leaders formed an association of like-minded churches which they called the Khmer Baptist Convention (subsequently changed to the Cambodian Baptist Convention). The following year, the number of churches climbed to 78. In 1997, there were 123 Baptist churches scattered across 53 of the country's 117 districts. By the spring of 1999, Baptists counted more than 200 churches and 10,000 members. Few of these churches met in dedicated buildings. The vast majority met in homes that, in the countryside, could accommodate 50 or more individuals."

The strategy coordinator departed the assignment in 1996, leaving behind a small team of missionaries and a network of vital church planting churches scattered across much of the country. The work has continued to grow and strengthen."

Key Factors

In his account of why this Church Planting Movement happened, the strategy coordinator cited several key factors. "Over the past six years," he wrote, "there has been more mobilized prayer for the people of Cambodia than any other time in their history." The missionary credits this prayer with protecting church planters and opening the hearts of lost Khmer people to the good news of Jesus Christ.

Prayer also characterizes the lives of the new church members, filling them with a strong sense of God's direct involvement in their daily affairs. Signs and wonders, such as exorcisms, healings and other acts of spiritual warfare, continue to be commonplace among the Cambodian believers.

Training has been a fundamental element in the movement from its inception. The strategy coordinator established Rural Leadership Training Programs (RLTPs) wherever possible. These centers for church planting and theological education by extension were intensely practical. They met in facilities near the area in which they hoped to plant churches and relied upon logistical support from nearby churches. Training was offered in eight two-week modules consisting of Bible teaching, practical training in church leadership and equipping for evangelism and church planting. The 16 weeks of training generally stretched out over a two-year period of time, enabling the church leader to continue both his pastoral work and secular livelihood while gaining the much-needed training."

The strategy coordinator also insisted on modeling and mentoring as a core value of the movement. Referencing Paul's instructions in 2 Timothy 2:2, the strategy coordinator developed what he called the "222 Principle": Never do anything alone. In this manner, vision, skills, values and principles transferred from believer to believer."

As the movement unfolded, the momentum burned from within. Local leaders expressed their own vision for planting churches in every district and within each ethnic community. As they acquired training and encouragement, the primary church planters were the church members themselves, rather than missionaries or professional church planters. The coordinator later observed that "churches planted by other churches are reproducible, but those started by funded church planters are not (with few exceptions)."

In order to ensure indigenization and limit dependence on outsiders, the missionary placed time constraints on the formation of a new church. This also infused the movement with the characteristic of rapid reproduction.

With the departure of the strategy coordinator in 1996, the movement entered a new phase. The IMB missionary team that remained in the country assisted the movement by staying in a catalytic role rather than a prominent assertive role. A team member expressed this in his admonition to his colleagues to "earnestly seek to become the low-profile footman," and "avoid the temptation of being a high-profile frontman."

Unique Factors

Though not entirely unique, it was helpful that the Cambodian Baptist Convention quickly adopted ambitious goals for their emerging association of churches. They challenged one another to spread the gospel throughout the country and plant churches in every district. This passion for evangelism and church planting affected the selection of convention leadership. Men were sought who had led in church planting themselves and had served as instructors of other church planters in the Rural Leadership Training Programs.

Within the Cambodian Baptist churches a unique model emerged, which blended New Testament substance with forms from the communist traditions. Each new church was organized around a core of seven lay leaders (see Acts 6:3, which describes the choosing of the seven deacons). The term they adopted for this seven member core was not deacons, however, but the Central Committee. The Central Committee directs the various outreaches to the community, including evangelism, literacy, worship, pastoral teaching and ministries to women, youth and men.

As the CPM progressed, it became evident that the Rural Leadership Training Program was essential to its growth. A missionary later observed, "Where there are RLTPs in place, church planting always follows." With this in mind, the missionary invested himself heavily in organizing and developing training materials as well as raising support for the RLTPs from churches across Asia.

Learning Points

  1. Shortly after the International Mission Board placed a strategy coordinator in Cambodia, more than 30 other mission agencies entered the country. None of these saw the church planting success of the IMB effort, primarily because they lacked an intentional church-planting strategy.
  2. The missionary bypassed the step of "passing the torch" to the Cambodian believers by starting the movement with the torch firmly in their hands. He insisted that every church planted be planted by Cambodians.
  3. The "222 Principle" (2 Timothy 2.2) of modeling has proven to be an invaluable means of training leaders for a Church Planting Movement.
  4. The Cambodian Baptist Convention has adopted a Church Planting Movement ethos and vision. Leaders are selected based upon their ability to contribute to this vision.

Other Emerging Movements

As we look around the world, we see other Church Planting Movements emerging. Encouraging signs are appearing among the Maasai of Tanzania and Kenya. Their very inaccessibility on the rugged savannah lands of the Maasai Plain has limited missionary access to them. Offering to construct church buildings or subsidize pastors means little to these semi-nomadic people with their barter economy. Penetrating the forbidding terrain, IMB missionaries have engaged the Maasai with the gospel, placing their major emphasis on training Maasai church planters and leaders.

The result has been rapid church growth among the Maasai. Worship is filled with expressions of awe and power as Maasai look to God for healing and personal direction. Chronological storying of the Bible has evolved naturally into the Maasai singing of Bible stories. Spontaneous clusters of Maasai men and women form choirs to sing the great stories of the Old and New Testament. As the Maasai accompany their songs with high vertical leaps into the air, there is little doubt that the Maasai Church Planting Movement is deeply rooted and truly indigenous.

Other Church Planting Movements are surfacing every few months: 30,000 believers in a Southeast Asian country, 100,000 believers swelling 800 new churches in eastern India; 20,000 coming to Christ over a four-year period in one Chinese province; church starts doubling in six months in one Western European country; 383 churches starting in a single state in Brazil.

Missionaries are sharing these reports with each other--and telling one another the means by which God is doing these marvelous works. God is doing something remarkable. Let's take a look at what we've learned from these mighty works of God around the world.

Contents ©2000 by the International Mission Board.


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