Rev. Kortering is a Protestant Reformed minister-on-loan to Singapore.
Well do I recall walking the streets of Grandville, discussing with Pastor Mahtani the potential for outreach by the Evangelical Reformed Churches of Singapore. That was back in 1990, at the time of the Sister Church Conference, a time when Singapore seemed so remote. Both Pastor Mahtani and Pastor Lau presented to the conference the real possibility of the ERCS becoming the Antioch of Southeast Asia in the cause of the Reformed faith. God used the presence of these brothers to move the PRC Synod to heed their request for a senior minister of the churches to be loaned to them. The mandate is to assist them in their own development, but with special emphasis on theological training and mission outreach.
We have been in Singapore for almost four years. Though much energy has gone into the preaching and pastoral ministry, helping on both the Session and Classical level, the Lord has given us plenty of opportunity to work in meeting the need for theological training and missions. We have written in some detail about the fledgling school, the Evangelical Reformed Bible School. This school has laid the foundation for training local church leaders as well as coordinated efforts for training foreign church workers. We also ‘wrote about the mission labors of the churches in Singapore itself. In this article we want to concentrate on the work the ERCS is doing in Myanmar. Our next article will focus, the Lord willing, on India and our need for a book fund for needy students and pastors.
Some correspondents have asked me why I always speak of Myanmar and not Burma. The two are of course the same country. Since the military junta has occupied the country, they have changed the name of the country from Burma to Myanmar. They also changed the name of the capital city from Rangoon to Yangon. Since the USA government is against the military junta, the public press in the USA refuses to use Myanmar, but insists on Burma. Here in Southeast Asia, Singapore in particular, the government accepts the military and is more interested in economic advance, reasoning that a country that improves itself economically and becomes involved in the family of nations will become a more stable and responsible government.
The original contact with Myanmar came by way of a pastor in the Bible Presbyterian Church who was-concerned about two students who lost their student visa in a local school and who, he believed, had the potential for working in the cause of the Reformed faith in Myanmar. Through careful interview with all concerned, especially the students, the ERCS began to commit itself to take sponsorship of these students and become involved in their studies in Singapore and to assist their home churches, if they expressed a desire to learn the Reformed faith. At that time there was a parachurch organization doing work in the slums of Yangon. Under the advice of the ERCS, emphasis was shifted to organize local churches which in turn would become responsible for outreach to the slums. They came to understand this need and consequently two churches have been organized in Yangon. They have adopted the names Galilee United Reformed Church of Myanmar and Grace United Reformed Church of Myanmar.
Out of this original contact, things developed in both theological education and in mission work.
Concerning theological training it became evident that the church leaders, the pastors, the members of the church who devoted much time to outreach in the local villages, and the elders and deacons needed much instruction so that they could know what were the distinctives of the Reformed faith. Since the people we are working with are mostly from the Chin Division (State), their roots into Christianity go back for centuries. The main difficulty in the Chin State is nominal Christianity. The students who are in Singapore are from that state. The workers in Yangon are also from the Chin State. Hence, they have a general awareness of Christianity, but the Reformed faith is something new.
It was through the students in Singapore that the home church became aware and interested in the Reformed faith. When the students became more aware of the truth, they recommended to the home church that effort ought to be put forth to ask the ERCS to send men to Myanmar to instruct the church leaders there.
The first official contact was made in October 29, 1994, when Pastor Lau and Dr. Daniel Kwek were scheduled to go; At the last minute, Pastor Lau was refused a visa, so Dr. Kwek went alone, since the pastors from the Chin State were already in route for the meetings. Dr. Kwek spent about five days with them, speaking to them of the Five Points of Calvinism and basic Reformed doctrine. Later, on November 24, another group of saints from the ERCS, including Allen Brummel, went to Myanmar to meet with the leaders and discuss with them the possibility of doing more work. This was followed by a more organized visit by Pastor Lau on March 20, 1995. During this tip he spent about 10 days in formal training classes for the church leaders, about 40 of whom had come to Yangon from the Chin State and the other 20 from the Yangon area. During these meetings Pastor Lau emphasized again the essentials of the Reformed faith, touching on the doctrine of Scripture, doctrines of grace, doctrine of the church, and the doctrine of the last things. Since the A-mil position was new to them (they only knew Pre-mil), much interest and many questions focused on this doctrine.
Out of these contacts the United Reformed Churches were formed. Presently there are three congregations in the Chin State, three congregations in the Sagang State, located more centrally and in the area of rice farming, and two congregations in Yangon. These are scattered and much distance separates them. The Chin State borders on India. The congregations are located in Falam Township, which has 189 villages. Falam City is the largest city of the township. This is somewhat mountainous country and poverty is extensive. Just to help you with your geography, Myanmar is about a two and a half hour flight north from Singapore. The northwestern part of Myanmar borders India, the northeastern part borders China, the southeastern part borders Thailand, and the southwestern part is on the Indian Ocean. The churches in Yangon are separated from the Chin State by about 600 miles by air, about 1000 miles via land travel. For political reasons, foreigners cannot travel beyond Mandalay, which lies in the center of Myanmar. Infrastructure is sorely lacking. The locals have to travel in the most primitive ways, walking long distances or riding on the back of trucks. Public buses are crowded and more like crude trucks. There is a domestic flight which flies from Mandalay to the Chin State two times a week for locals. Even that is erratic. This is a hindrance for Singaporeans and Americans, but not Burmese.
The churches keep close contact with each other, though it be with difficulty. The eight congregations form the denomination. They have a yearly meeting of the Evangelical Assembly, which is composed of two delegates from each congregation. This meets in April and does the business of the churches in common. To meet the need in the interim, there is an Executive Committee, made up of men from the different congregations. Presently Rev. Moses Nguhlei Thang Zahau from Yangon is Moderator, Rev. Tawk Fum from Falam is Assistant Moderator, Rev. James Kap Dai Lo is General Secretary, Rev. Lai Duh is Assistant General Secretary, and Pastor Bawi Hlei Thang, Treasurer. These men attend to the needs of the churches as they arise, arranging for financial assistance, meeting needs of new churches which express interest in joining, and dealing with any emergency which may arise. They are accountable to the Evangelical Assembly.
The ERCS have decided that our key role in assisting these churches is to help them grow in understanding the Reformed faith. It is the goal of the churches to conduct semi-annual meetings with the church leaders to teach them and answer their questions which come up in their development.
The ERCS has decided to send my wife and me to Yangon mid-January for a few weeks. One of the weeks will be a teaching seminar for the leaders. We will focus on such areas as the importance of the Bible (they just received the Bible in their own language in 1993), the doctrine of the covenant, a brief introduction to the Three Forms of Unity, and to answer questions in the area of church government. We hope to be able to prepare these outlines prior to going so that they can be translated into Burmese here and we can take them along with us.
Interestingly, the old-timers speak English, the younger generation speak Burmese or Chin. In the old days they were open to foreign missionaries; in the last generation the emphasis fell upon seclusion and, with that, local language. Now the schools see the need for English once again, and they are teaching it to the children in school.
The ERCS recognize that many of the congregations are poor and cannot afford a pastor. Hence, they collect through church offerings and the Classical budget money for the Myanmar churches and send this money to the Executive Committee, which distributes the money as they see fit. They handle it much as we deal with our Needy Churches Fund through synod.
To help train the church leaders more intensively, we are thankful that we have in place our Bible School here. This is not a formally organized school; rather it is geared to many unique situations. To meet our own needs, Pastor Lau is now teaching a formal class on Tuesday evenings on the subject of the church. Fung Dun is quite proficient in English and is able to handle theological training on a basic level. Even then, he has difficulty fitting into the school systems here in Singapore, so we are giving him private tutorship and finding this quite effective. Pastor Lau is training Brother Fung Dun in Eschatology and the Canons of Dordt. I am teaching him Homiletics (sermonmaking), Eschatology, and Church Government. Brother Paul Goh is teaching him practical things of finances and good leadership qualities. Sister Rip Vel is now a bit unsure of her ability to stay on in Singapore, since she is having more difficulty with the English language. Plans are that Fung Dun return to Myanmar with us in January, and that later other church leaders can come to Singapore for study. It seems that short and intensive instruction may be the only way we can provide this need.
We also have a dear pastor friend who is from Myanmar and is studying in Singapore with a view to becoming an instructor in Reformed Doctrine in a Bible College in Yangon. He enjoys reading good Reformed literature, so I loan him books and discuss them with him from time to time. He also enjoys listening to taped sermons and is an avid reader of the Standard Bearer. He has about a year and a half of study before he obtains his degree.
These newly formed churches have a burden for their Burmese neighbors. Only the Chin State is predominantly Christian. Myanmar is over 80% Buddhist. It is called the Land of the Pagodas. Already these young churches are not only working for church reformation in their own area, but also sending evangelists into the neighboring states. What wonderful zeal they display.
The work is overwhelming demanding. Pray that God may continue to give us strength and wisdom as we are busily involved with the ERCS in this mission work Pray also for the saints in Myanmar who have come to know the truth of God’s Word, that they may stand firm against all opposition. Things have developed so rapidly that it will take some time for them to become settled and mature in the Reformed faith. The fields continue white unto harvest. Pray the Lord of the harvest that He may send forth reapers.