Linh’s* brother beat her in public, and her father hit and detained her at home until she lost her job. Even so, the new Christian chose to stay with her family rather than escape. Though persecuted, she resolved to show the love of Christ. A year passed before Linh’s family allowed her to return to work. They no longer hurt her but instead asked questions about Linh’s faith.
Vietnamese Christians have experienced rejection ever since the gospel came to their country more than a century ago, according to Daniel Owens, who has spent several years as a lecturer at Hanoi Bible College (HBC) in northern Vietnam. Back in the United States now on a break from his work, Owens has noticed an unfavorable shift in the cultural landscape for American believers. “We are having to adjust to a less privileged place in society,” he says.
In this regard, Vietnamese believers can serve as examples to Christians in the West.
Outside the Cultural Norm
The Joshua Project states that 50 percent of Vietnam’s population practice Buddhism, while around 2 percent are evangelical Christians. Since many Vietnamese are already ethnic minorities, becoming a Christian can lead to familial rejection and societal discrimination.
More than 70 percent of Vietnamese practice folk religion, which is deeply intertwined with family life, because it involves ancestor worship. Most homes have altars with incense and fruit next to pictures of deceased relatives. Throughout the year families perform specific activities to honor and “care for” the dead.
“They have a sense of an ongoing responsibility through food and money, which they burn to provide for [family members] in the afterlife,” Owens explains. “In return, they hope their ancestors will watch out for and take care of them.”
First-time mothers who profess Christ experience another challenge, since by tradition they would return to their parents’ home for a month of care. Those disowned by family suffer the loss of such support.
Owens describes this exclusion as typical of an “honor and shame” culture, where society tries to shame those who step outside the cultural norm to bring someone back to the community standard.
Another Vietnamese believer, Xuan Thuy, has persevered despite discrimination. Thuy spent her childhood reading books, and her heart became captivated by New Testament stories. When her family moved to the city to care for her aging grandparents, she attended church for the first time, and the Bible became clear. But Thuy’s extended family members think she has abandoned their traditions, and others have viewed her as mentally unstable.
Thuy earned a master’s degree and works as a managing editor for a Christian organization that supplies quality theological resources in Vietnam. But her peers do not value Thuy’s life choices; they regard the hours she pours into her local church and career as a waste of talent.
Even with such rejection, Thuy looks for ways to share her faith. “Sometimes with non-believers we tend to hide our weakness,” she says. “We are afraid they will say that ‘you Christians are not different from us. ’We need to show them that we are still human—how the power of the gospel frees us and helps us overcome our weakness.”
A pastor and church planter, Manh, helped establish HBC. He says believers, besides facing accusations of betraying their country and forsaking family and culture, also combat negative media portrayal. “I have not seen any Christians working as high-ranking officials or in important state offices,” he says.
The majority of Christians live in southern Vietnam, yet Manh labors among those in remote areas of northern Vietnam, and he looks for opportunities to send believers to HBC.
Manh says that while Western leaders contribute theological resources and training, they are unable to train tribal people due to country restrictions. He adds that Vietnamese church leaders need culturally appropriate resources.
With support from The Gospel Coalition, Owens is translating into Vietnamese The Family Life of a Christian Leader by Sri Lankan author Ajith Fernando. This book deals with issues Asian Christians face and includes relevant illustrations.
While Vietnamese believers benefit from Western support for theological resources, they can offer in return their lessons in endurance: bearing witness for Christ in a culture hostile toward the gospel.
*Name is changed