Laos seems to be one of the ‘Cinderellas’ of Christian work: it receives comparatively little attention from many Christians. Over the centuries ‘the land of a million elephants’ was sometimes strong and at other times conquered and ruled by the Burmese, the Siamese or Cambodians. It eventually became a French colony before gaining independence in 1949, when the King of Luang Phabang became the King of Laos. During the 1950s, a communist insurgency took place and, with the support of the North Vietnamese army, they were finally successful. On 2 December 1975, the king was forced to abdicate and the People’s Democratic Republic of Laos was established.
Laos is about the size of England and Wales. Much of the north is mountainous and a chain of mountains along the eastern border divides Laos from Vietnam. Traditionally, most people were involved in agriculture but, in recent years, mining, tourism and hydro-electric production have aided the economy.
The population comprises 6.5 million, of which 65% are Lao people with the remainder from over 100 ethnic groups. Buddhism has always been regarded as the official religion, but following the advent of communism, only 60% of people claim to be Buddhist. The majority, including Buddhists, live in fear of spirits that they believe dwell in the mountains, rocks, rivers and fields, and cause illness, accidents and death.
The Beginnings of the Church in Laos
First to take the Christian gospel to northern Laos was Daniel McGilvary, who was based in Chiang Mai, northern Thailand. In the 1880s, he made trips on elephant-back through Laos and up into southern China. In 1902, Swiss Brethren mission workers came to Laos and settled in Song Khone in the south. In 1929, the Christian and Missionary Alliance began work in the north and in 1957, the Overseas Missionary Fellowship entered southern Laos, initially to work among the tribal groups in the eastern part of the country.
By 1975, when the communists took over the government of Laos and the mission workers had to leave, there were about 12,000 Christians in 12 of the 17 provinces. Today, there are 150,000 Christians scattered among each of the provinces. In the past five years, the church has increased by 6% per year: some areas only saw small growth, while in one province the number of Christians doubled due to several whole villages turning to Christ.
Under communism, opposition and persecution has been the experience of many Christians. This comes mainly from village leaders. People in Laos value collective life. If they are Buddhists, they expect everyone to support the temple and give money for its upkeep. If they are animists, they expect everyone to contribute to the purchase of pigs, cows, buffaloes and alcohol to sacrifice to the spirits. When people become Christians and cease to take part in these ceremonies, the village leaders are displeased. In some villages, the people will refuse to trade with new Christians, in others they are forbidden to use the village water supply or electricity. The children of Christians may be prevented from attending the village school. The ultimate punishments are expulsion from the village or imprisonment.
…in one province the number of Christians doubled due to several whole villages turning to Christ.
Reasons for Growth
One of the reasons people come to faith is the lifestyle of Christians. People in Laos love parties with loud music, food and lots of beer. Inevitably people get drunk, argue, sometimes fight and often return home and take it out on their wives and children. I have known people to ask a Christian, ‘How is it that you never get drunk or fall out with your neighbours, or beat your wife?’ The Christian will explain that in the Bible God forbids such things and that when Christ lives in our hearts, He gives the strength to live a new life. This makes people want to become Christians.
In a similar way, non-Christians will say to a Christian: ‘Your teaching must be true. No one would endure the suffering and opposition that you do, unless it were true.’ They too will want to become a Christian. When someone is ill, they try traditional remedies, using roots or leaves of local plants. If that does not work, they will go to the spirit shaman and ask him to offer a sacrifice. As many villages are 40-50 miles from the nearest hospital or clinic, some go to the nearest doctor. However, it is common for relatives of the sick person to ask local Christians to pray for them. In addition to disease, the relative may be possessed by an evil spirit. When they recover or have the spirit cast out, they want to become Christians.
Opportunities for Outreach
Evangelism, such as distributing tracts or showing gospel films, is not permitted. However, Christmas is celebrated with food, dramas depicting Bible stories, preaching and gifts for the village authorities and this has become a popular way of spreading the gospel. Numbers of people are brought to faith over the Christmas period each year.
New Christians will be followed up through visits and teaching by local Christian leaders. DVDs of the Jesus films are used and training in personal witness has recently been undertaken throughout the country. This teaches people to share the gospel, lead people to Christ, disciple them and train them to win others.
The Far East Broadcasting Company (FEBC) broadcasts in eight of the languages spoken in Laos. Recorded messages with prayers and Christian songs are used to teach new believers. In recent years a Christian Facebook page has started in two of the languages:104,000 are following the Lao page and 55,000 the Khmu page. A link can be followed to a seven-lesson Bible study course and 186 people are currently studying this.
The whole Bible is available in seven of the languages used in Laos and translation work is currently being done in five or six other languages. In order to work in the country, a visa will only be given for roles that the government accepts as valuable. These include teaching English, Chinese and Computer Studies; work in agriculture, producing coffee and silk or fish farming; development and medical work.
…when Christ lives in our hearts, He gives the strength to live a new life
The Experience of Christians in Laos
The degree of opposition experienced seems to depend on the whim of the local officials. There are more than 900 Christians in one village, where N, one of the leaders, told me that the police and party members approached him four times, demanding that he sign a paper renouncing his faith, but he refused. Finally, he was called to the district governor’s office. He screwed up the paper and dropped it on the governor’s desk, saying: ‘You can execute me if you like, but I will not sign your paper’, then he left. Nothing further was heard from the police or the governor.
I met two Christians who had attended a three-day training course. Most of the participants had left but, as they live a long way off, they planned to catch the early bus next morning, then walk on to their villages. I asked if they had suffered for their faith and they told me they had both spent time in prison, one for ten months, the other for just over a year. I asked, ‘Did your time in prison make you question whether it was the right decision to become a Christian?’ ‘Oh no,’ they both replied, ‘quite the reverse, our time in prison made us grow in faith. Jesus became more real to us.’
- for new Christians to stand firm in the face of opposition
- for children who are not permitted to attend their local school and families who have been evicted from their village
- for the training of Christian leaders
- for the spread of the gospel through Christians witnessing, praying for the sick or possessed, radio programmes and social media
- for teams who are reaching out to ethnic groups among whom there are, as yet, no Christians.