Churches in Myanmar: Fighting the Fear of Man and Glorying in God
Though they may never receive the fame of an Adoniram Judson, faithful workers across Myanmar are quietly laboring to build up the church.
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I remember the day the Lord called us to serve in Myanmar (Burma). Despite the clarity of our calling, we didn’t know much about the Burmese people or their culture. We began researching and discovered a recent history filled with devastating cyclones, extensive spy networks, raging civil wars, bloody strikes, and pervasive spiritual darkness.
I also remember when I first read of Adoniram Judson and his family who came to Burma in the early 1820s. I remember being greatly encouraged by their faithfulness and perseverance as they served the Lord amidst great affliction. The Lord empowered them to master the Burmese language and then use those skills to translate the full Bible. The Lord empowered them to introduce many to the gospel and then, as people believed, to establish the foundation upon which the modern Burmese church stands.
Despite that foundation, the Burmese church isn’t without problems, and my engagement of it is of course not exhaustive. Nonetheless, my experiences have revealed discouraging trends of misplaced fear and leadership struggles that―left unchecked―threaten to render the church idle.
At the same time, the Lord has many faithful laborers in this land, and exciting things are happening.
FEAR OF MAN RUNS RAMPANT
Myanmar is aggressively Buddhist. In the face of that aggression, many pastors have exchanged the fear of the Lord with a fear of government and Buddhist leaders. The consequence of this exchange is an unwillingness to proclaim the gospel in the church. In other words, misplaced fears have turned the church inward.
I recently asked a church leader about evangelism and her response was dictated by fear. “We will go and share the gospel,” she said, “if you can promise with certainty that the people will join our church. We must not bother people because several years ago the government closed us down. We must be careful not to bother the people anymore.”
WEAK SHEPHERDS WEAKEN THE FLOCK
Church leaders struggle to shepherd well during times of worship. When a pastor preaches, he often will not deliver a solid, expository sermon. Instead, pastors deliver topical sermons devoid of biblical context and filled with the stories and thoughts of others. Moses, a Burmese Christian and weekly cell-group leader, lamented, “Trying to explain the sermons we hear is weird. Our pastors do not preach Scripture. It seems like they just read books and then preach from that and not from the Bible.”
Additionally, it’s not uncommon for pastors to open the pulpit to guest speakers without much discrimination. The dangers of this practice were never more apparent to me than the morning our pastor invited someone from the Interfaith Dialogue to share. Interfaith Dialogue is a group of youth from different religions who work together to “promote unity.” That Sunday, our pastor invited a Muslim youth to read Scripture from the pulpit and a Buddhist youth to pray over the congregation. The group ended their time by leading us in a song in which the primary message was “we are all the same.”
At the individual level, many pastors struggle to model biblical discipleship. In many cases, life-on-life discipleship simply isn’t discussed as an integral part of the Christian life. “For a long time I didn’t know what discipleship even was. No one in the church ever taught it,” said Moses. The result of this neglect is churches filled with spiritual infants who in many cases remain infants because no one expects anything different.
“Burmese people will not change,” Moses added, “until our pastors lead us to make disciples.”
FAITHFUL LABORERS QUIETLY PERSIST
But what happens when the church fears the Lord and operates under the wisdom and guidance of the Holy Spirit? In my experience, it grows.
Pau is a Burmese church planter. He and his wife, Lynn, live in a city that had no Christian witness prior to their church plant. Through their obedience to serve their community and speak the gospel, they now have between 30–50 Buddhist-background believers who meet at their house for worship each week.
They understand that obeying Jesus means actively making disciples. To that end, they provide in-home, weekly Bible studies for each church member. The purpose of these studies is to promote spiritual growth and godly character. But they also believe that discipleship doesn’t stop with Bible studies. It requires life-on-life relationships.
“We have younger Christians who want to study more and learn leadership. They live in our house and we teach them what we know. We take them to do ministry so they can learn how to love people and share the gospel,” Lynn said.
Pau is the primary teacher in their church, and he takes this responsibility too seriously to open his pulpit up to outside influences. He gives significant time each day, including all day on Saturday, to pray and study for his sermons. “He studies and he prays a lot,” Lynn said. “This is very important. Sometimes he preaches topics if the church has a need, but mostly he preaches through the Bible. This is better for the people. They can understand the Bible this way.”
DIFFICULT, BUT WORTH IT
Planting a church hasn’t been easy for Pau and Lynn. Like many others, they’ve experienced hostility. “We must be careful. When we worship we sing softly and always try to be respectful. Some Buddhists have accused us of things and complained, but we still worship and must share the gospel.”
Their troubles do not end with accusations. They’re also far from their families and often battle feelings of isolation and loneliness. Lynn shared, “This work is very hard. We have little help and we miss our families a lot. But this is our calling. God is with us so we can do it.”
Across Myanmar, church planters and leaders like Pau are giving themselves for the kingdom of God. They may never receive the fame of those like Judson who came before them, but their desires and hopes are the same. They long to see God glorified in Myanmar. They fear God and strive to lead well because they believe that Jesus is worth it—and they need your prayers. Pray for perseverance. Pray for conviction and courage. Pray that God will be glorified in Myanmar.