Ministering to a Pre-Christian Community in Massachusetts

By Anne B. Doll

Pastor PoSan Ung often talks about "persevering" as he describes his church's ministry of evangelism and discipleship in Lynn, Massachusetts. Six years ago, the native of Cambodia and survivor of the Cambodian holocaust planted Living Fields Church in this northern Boston community. It is a city "trying to develop, to gentrify itself," he says, but a "struggling city" plagued by "gang activity, violence and poverty."

Lynn is also home to part of the nation's second largest Cambodian population, yet less than 0.5 percent are Christian. In 2004, Pastor PoSan, who attended Gordon-Conwell and has taught evangelism at the Boston campus, rented space in an office building and set out to advance the gospel among a people group he characterizes as pre-Christian.

"This means that there simply aren't many Christians and that they see Christ as a foreign god," he explains. "They're mostly Buddhist, but Buddhism is very nominal for them. They are more driven by materialism, instant gratification, gambling, etc. So we need to gather as a Christian community amongst them, trying to be salt and light."

Today, his congregation is mostly Cambodian, with a sprinkling of Korean American, Caucasian American, Vietnamese and Pan Asian members. Assisted by a few volunteer staff members, he is reaching out to children, youth and adults, beginning with corporate worship where non-believers "can hear the Gospel and learn from the worship of God."

The church then connects visitors through fellowship, relational evangelism activities, and ministry and discipleship groups that meet nearly every evening of the week. These opportunities can range from community dinners to outreach music lessons, one-on-one discipleship and Bible studies in both English and Khmer, their native language.

Outreach also extends to children, who PoSan says "need the blessing as well." Each summer, the church stages a Vacation Bible School for about 100 children, an effort he describes as "huge...because this is a pre-Christian community. It's not like we have parents who sign them up...and drive them to the event itself. We need to go door-to-door to invite them and register them. Then we go door-to-door to pick them up, bring them to our VBS and take them back home. It demands quite a bit."

The annual VBS, which he views as both evangelism and outreach, has drawn a number of children to the church on Sunday mornings. Here, he says, "they can gather in a safe environment to have fun" and participate in activities that help them "learn God's Word, praise God and pray." But this, too, is challenging "because little children require transportation." Their participation is sometimes determined by the number of drivers available to pick them up. In a pre-Christian community, it is quite a challenge since "'the workers are few,' yet God has been stretching us to do what we can."

In 2007, Pastor PoSan embarked upon yet another major ministry, purchasing a house in which young adults who are new believers could live and be discipled.

"I was just wracking my brain and heart before the Lord, and wondering why I wasn't seeing more mature disciples among the Cambodian people," he recalls. "I have attended to that question through every stage of ministry that God has allowed me to do. I wanted to preach the true gospel, helping people to see God for who He is, and to know that our only true hope is in Christ...But still, over the years I do not see true disciples maturing."

The pastor says that one day, as he wrestled with this dilemma, he was walking out of the church office and spotted a pool of sewage water in the gutter. "I felt the Lord asking me, 'If you had an infant lying in that pool of sewage water, what would happen to it? If it didn't die, it would simply be unhealthy.'

"I realized that with all our effort in the community, people spend one or two hours a week in the ministry our church is offering. In those few hours of Sunday worship or outreaches, about 10 minutes is spent in God's Word. And in that 10 minutes, how much time is spent reflecting on God's Word and prayer? Five minutes? Maybe not. So it's no wonder that these babies are actually sickly or dying because they are not getting enough nutrients. They're not living in a context where after they attend church, they get to go home to find their identity as Christians in their family. Rather, they receive discouragement and hostility for their faith. They're the only Christians in their family, and it's extremely lonesome."

He points to one new believer who is often accused by his grandfather of bringing shame to the family name by attending a Christian church. His grandfather leads a Buddhist temple. And when another member became a Christian and started attending Bible study, his mother told him, "You're being stupid."

Given this reality, Pastor PoSan realized that Lynn's new Christians needed to "be nurtured and experience God's love in a tangible way." He wanted to have a discipleship community where these young adults "could live and experience what Christian living looks like: how we pray regularly, how we respond to life's challenges, how we search the Scriptures for we have reverent training in God's Word, and for more than five minutes! My prayer is that by experiencing this learning community for two or three years, they will grow, be equipped and ready to return to their homes to become a different kind of neighbor, a different kind of son/daughter, or future husband/wife. That they would, in turn, know how to make disciples among their own friends and families."

Since purchasing the discipleship house, Pastor PoSan has nearly single-handedly renovated the facility, retrofitting the first floor apartment as a men's dormitory and the third as a dorm for women, with the middle floor for living and ministry space. But the renovation is still a significant work in progress, sandwiched in among the pastor's myriad ministry responsibilities.

In addition to the ongoing task of making the facility functional, currently a key need is to renovate the basement as a place for Sunday worship/gathering space. The congregation is rapidly outgrowing its rented quarters. "This is completely a walk of faith, because it takes a lot to do this," he admits. "I don't know how God is going to provide, but I trust He will in His timing."

Through the church's ministries of outreach and discipleship, he adds, "God is allowing us to persevere, and it is bearing fruit." He points to the response of an international student from an elite family in Cambodia. "The young man met us as he was earning an MBA in Boston after studying economics and law in his homeland, and pursuing additional study in Taiwan on a fellowship.

"At first, he was just interested in getting to know us," Pastor PoSan recounts. "But an opportunity came for the gospel to be presented to him, and his response was, 'I don't care.' That was quite a moment of formation for all of us...With such great effort, how was it that the gospel seemed to fall on deaf ears? You can imagine the dynamic in our hearts. But knowing God was ministering in that moment, I realized that He was calling me to trust that salvation belongs to the Lord and to find our joy in being obedient to Him."

The ministry team, therefore, continued to invite the young man to church, but he didn't show up until a month later. "I was serving communion, and he wanted to receive it," Pastor PoSan remembers. "I asked him how he was doing, and he said that he needed Jesus. At the end of worship, he told me that he had always been the master of his own life, and he realized he couldn't save himself from his sin and that only Jesus could."

As the pastor prepared the man for baptism, he expressed the desire to grow, even asking PoSan to teach him how to better understand the Bible and to disciple him. After the new Christian completes his degree, he wants to attend seminary, then return to Cambodia as a professor where he desires to make disciples.

"He told me, 'Pastor, I'm going to have thousands of students, and I'd like to know how to disciple,'" PoSan notes, "so God is using this little church in this faraway place to do a work halfway around the globe, maybe not today, not this year, but maybe in 10 or 20 years. Who would have thought that God would do that kind of a place like Lynn?

"Doing all this is quite a task when you don't have many resources," he says, "but God has been gracious to bring us a great harvest, and He is allowing us to persevere in this mission field that's located in our own backyard."

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