PhD Proposal: Final Draft  

                                                                                                                                                                                Sukhwan Oh

Date: February 25, 2010


Word Count: 3,144

To: Dr. Hartropp & Dr. So


Subject: Research Proposal – Final Draft

Title: Dependency and Sustainability Issues in Cambodian Churches:  Problems and Workable Solutions.

1. Background

    As of December 2009, there are 2,324 churches in Cambodia, and reporting Christian population of 120,278.  That figure from the total Cambodian population of 13,395,682, indicates that less than one percent of Cambodians are Christians at this point.  More critically, of those 2,324 churches in Cambodia, Pastor Taing of New Life Churches thinks that less than ten churches are self sustaining at this point.  Based on data collected from our Research Conference in Phnom Penh in February 2009, the result is similar – many churches are planted in Cambodia, but very few are self sustaining and all of them are dependent on some sort of outside support.

Dr. Hojin Jun, the director of Cambodia Presbyterian Seminary at Phnom Penh, stated in Association of Theological Education in Asia symposium publication, February 2010 issue, that the future of Cambodia churches will depend on how many self sustaining churches can be planted now in Cambodia. 

I realize that many missionaries and dozens of church planting agencies have been working in Cambodia since 1990 and they have been wrestling with the questions of dependency and sustainability till now.   Many churches are being planted, but virtually none of them survive once outside support ends.  One missionary director from Methodist denomination reported that out of about ninety churches they have planted, none of them are self sustaining at this point.  All of the local pastors are financially supported regardless of how long they have been established as a church or the size of the church.  Such strong dependency from Cambodian pastors paralyzed their denomination from planting anymore churches. 

My personal experience is similar.  I was called into Cambodian mission one morning in 1997.  After my quiet time, Lord spoke and gave me one word – “Cambodia.”  So, out of obedience I planted a church for second generation Cambodian immigrants in South Central Los Angeles in 1998.  By 2001, I began my vision trips to Cambodia.  Then in 2002, we built an elementary school for children from Poem Trueng leprosy village in Kampong Cham province.  After few years of mission work in Kampong Cham area I realized that it is relatively easy to plant a church in Cambodia.  Cambodian government grants freedom of religion and we can conduct most of Christian projects as long as peaceful relationship and proper reporting process is maintained with local government agencies.  Just by our elementary students outreach effort, several cell groups were established in peoples’ homes and subsequent public meetings were held, numbers ranging from one hundred to two hundreds.  However, the critical observation I made from these church plant efforts is that they could not be self sustained by the local Christian membership only.   At the time we were networking with Harvest Mission International, and at the time they have planted forty or so churches, none was self sustaining.

2. Problems of Dependency

I made seven preliminary observations on why Cambodian churches are dependent at this point. First, there seem to be a historical reason for dependency: “Cambodia historically is a feudal society where an autocratic leader bestow benefits on his loyal subjects to ensure their support.”  And “Unfortunately because of the past (and some would argue continuing feudal system) the Khmers are used to handouts from their patrons – be it the King or the Prime Minister or senior government official.  So they have a tendency not to have to take charge of their own lives but to ask for help from some more powerful person.”

Unless careful consideration and much reflection is given to one’s mission effort, any missionary can easily become their autocratic leader ruling over them, and money can be used as a means of controlling leverage.  This unhealthy dependency seems to be quite common among NGOs and mission agencies and Cambodian Christian workers. 

Second, a modern day tradition on dependency formed at the refugee camp: The modern day Christian work began at the refugee camp during and after Pol Pot time, which inevitably started focusing on mercy ministry. Through the refugee camp experience, Cambodia Christians learned dependency on the institutions that helped them sustain their families and reorganize their daily lives.  They learned the significance of registration and correct labelling as means for gaining access to resources necessary to their survival. Through such daily calculations and strategies, refugees were resocialized into a position of dependence on institutions and officials, a process of clientelism that echoed the patron–client networks of pre–Pol Pot Cambodia.

Pastor Jinsup Song of Cambodia shared about some Cambodian Christians who demanded weekly compensation for coming to church, after noticing that their pastors were paid monthly salary by the denominational agencies.

Third, a national economical system is base on dependency model:  Based on ranking of Business Competitiveness Index for 2005, “Cambodia is ranked 109th out of 116 countries,” according to Professor Michael E. Porter of Harvard University. And the ranking of Cambodia’s Growth Competitiveness in the same year was 112th out of 117 countries surveyed.

The entire economic structure is built on dependency model. From our symposium one stated more than fifty percent of Cambodian economy is generated from 2,200 NGO’s in Cambodia and foreign countries.  For example, the real daily average earning of average workers in Cambodia, between 2005-2006, is the following: “Motorcycle taxi driver made $2.2 – $2.5 per day, which is the second highest earning job in Cambodia.”  However, at that time, a simple noodle dish at a restaurant will cost $1.  Also, Cambodian banks do not accept Cambodian currency, Riel, for deposit - only US dollars are accepted.  But once deposit is made bank will gladly let you take out your fund in Riel.  It is a completely ‘dollarized economy’ at this point. 

Fourth, the practices of modern missionaries and NGOs have been indiscriminate in supporting of Cambodian Christian workers.  Nevius already stated six reasons why mission agency should not pay the local pastors or church planters in the mission field.  1) It will harm the mission agency itself.  2) It will eventually harm the person who gets support.  3) You won’t be able to tell the difference between the genuine converts from the fake ones.  4)  The number of Christians who work for money will increase.  5) It will discourage  Christians who want to work purely for their  Christian calling.  6)  It will lower the overall influence in the mission field.   Nevius’ insights are almost prophetic in Cambodian missional context – most of what he forewarned has become reality in Cambodia.

Fifth, lack of training:  Dr. Lloyd Kim of Phnom Penh Bible College argues that one of the major reason for the Khmer church’s lack of financial self-sufficiency was tendency to overemphasize evangelism only from the pulpit over the nurture and growth of local believers.

Therefore the pastors’ sermons are very simple gospel messages or apologetic messages outlining the differences between Buddhism and Christianity.  However, the people who remain in the church are not fed or trained to maturity.  As a result those in the church have never been taught how to give, or to serve, or to grow in their personal walk with the Lord.

In general, Christian leaders in Cambodia were neither challenged nor trained to become independent.  Few poor attempts have been made in the past.  In effort to empower their pastors to become financially independent, Southern Baptist missionaries in Cambodia tried cutting the support fund gradually.  Starting from cutting ten percent then increasing the percentage each year.  By the time it reached fifty percent, most of their pastors abandoned their denomination and connected with other denominational missionaries who would gladly give them full support.  Out of about 150 churches planted by Southern Baptist, only 8 are in existence.

Sixth, lack of sustainable ministry structure:  Dr. Lloyd Kim of Phnom Penh Bible college also points out that Cambodia churches have not effectively reached the middle and upper class people of Cambodia.  Most Christian missionaries either focused on the poor or students from the very beginning of their mission effort.  Some churches began at the orphanages or woman’s shelters.  But this kind of church structure is not financially sustainable and will inevitably dependent on outside source. 

Seventh, spiritual reasons for dependency:  Begging is a spiritual virtue – Monks beg for their daily need.  Christian pastors can beg for their need without feeling ashamed.  The favour is also reciprocated in Buddhist tradition:

Many children living in vats have good futures ahead of them because they are cared for by monks.  Today, throughout Cambodian society families are in crisis due to economic difficulties and they often cannot allow their children to continue their studies in Phnom Penh because the have nowhere to live.  The vat is the only place that can provide these children shelter while they are attending school or University.”

3. Research Questions on Dependency and Workable Solutions for Sustainability

There are two major research questions that I want to address in this thesis: First, what are the key dependency factors for Cambodian churches? Under this question, I want to address the following five sub-questions regarding the dependency issue. 1) What are the cultural factors? 2) What are the social factors? 3) What are the political factors?  4) What are the economic factors?  5) What are the spiritual factors? 

Second, what are some workable solution for Cambodia churches to become self sustaining?  Under this question, I want to address the following two sub-questions.  1) What would be the impact of teaching on the tithing principle in Cambodian churches?   2) What role would personal evangelism play in numerical growth of Cambodian churches and her sustainability? 

4. Sources

Since my thesis will be based on field research, my primary source of literature will be the data collected from my field survey and interviews.  Then some historical documents, and government reports will be used. I find that the most reliable resource is from the international financial institution that deals with finance, because the objectivity and accuracy in these reports are more reliable than most other Cambodian government reports. The Asian Development Bank reports and the World Bank reports have been resources that are especially excellent in measuring the economic, social, and political standings of Cambodia in comparison with other Indochina countries.

My secondary sources will be biblical texts, books and articles on the dependency issues, self sustaining issues, and John Nevius’ principle, which had a tremendous mission impact in Korean.  Also books on tithing and evangelism will be reviewed.

I sought after partnership with some Christian agencies in Cambodia, i.e., the Phnom Penh Bible College and the Indochina Research Team, to gather information and insight into Cambodia’s cultural, social, political, economic, and spiritual arenas. 

For general data, government reports and bank research reports were mainly reviewed.  But for specific data gathering, we collected samples from seventeen New Life churches in Cambodia.  This is only a preliminary stage of data gathering because I would also need to locate and interview informants from C&MA, Baptist, AOG, World Relief,  World Vision and other NGO groups to enlarge my data base and deepen my understanding on these issues.

5.A proposed workable solution to explore

I taught at Moscow Grace Bible College many years ago.  This great institution has her claim of fame in planting more than thousand churches in old Soviet Union block.  Even my current students at the time, the student body of about one hundred, who’s been in training for ten months will be sent out for two months to plant a small group or a house church in rural locations in Siberia before the school will recognize their graduation.   Once a church is established using this method each church was supported two hundred dollars a month for next two years.  In this way they were able to plant one hundred church in Siberia within ten years.  It was impressive figure.  However, when I asked the director of the Bible College, how many became self sustaining after the support ended, the answer was shocking – none.  All of hundred churches planted closed down shortly after the financial support ran out.   Something had to be done differently before next church planting team is sent out.

I got permission from the director that day to be in charge of next church planting support team, and came up with a master plan.  After twenty-seven churches have been planted or identified from the previous attempt, we organized on going pastors training conferences in Siberia every six months.  We published a teaching material in a simple fill in the blank manner and taught these church ‘planters’ to transition to become ‘pastors’.  We gave them practical guide and moral support, as most of them had to endure harsh climate and serious persecution in their serving area.   Also based on our research, we advise them to take on a role for their church to become self sustaining by means of running micro finance business or get a high paying job on the side to become bi-vocational ministers.  In this way, after seven years, ninety percent of the new church plants survived and some of them even planted their own daughter churches.  Last time I was there to teach, these ministries got together and gave me mission offering for Cambodia amounting thousands of dollars.

So, the question is how do we get the principle out of Siberia experience and apply to Cambodian setting.  I want Cambodian churches to do more than just surviving but start to  multiply themselves so the Gospel can spread quickly and more effectively through out Cambodia.

After reading through about one hundred books on Cambodia, and met over thousand Cambodian pastors and Christian leaders last several years, I want to see two things happen in Cambodia.  One, to challenge and equip Cambodian Christians, and not only pastors, to become an evangelist and share the Gospel at least once a week within their own villages.  Two, to teach and train Cambodian Christians to make tithing as their spiritual lifestyle and give to their home churches.

First on evangelism - In October 2008, Pastor Taing of New Life church started a group called “Weekly Evangelism Club” and started teaching local pastors and Christian leaders how to share the Gospel using Dr. Bill Bright’s Four Spiritual Laws.  As of January 2010, WEC has more than eight hundred fifty members and seeing more than one thousand Cambodians come to know Christ each month.  About two hundred churches are involved with this joint project and there are reports from village churches, like Kampong Spurr, that their church attendance doubled in last twelve months due to WEC.  V2R Foundation and WEC is networking to see other Christian agencies to join this effort.  By the end of 2010, we are expecting the membership to grow to be around two thousand and we will see close to two thousand Cambodian accepting Christ per month.

About eighty five percent of Cambodians are farmers, and great majority of them can not read, we are introducing a new Gospel track, based on picture only and training young people to share on their own, since sixty percent of Cambodian are younger than twenty years old at this time.

Second, teaching on tithing – I wrote a simple book on tithing last year and V2R Foundation published three thousand copies, making them available through Christian bookstores and other Christian networks.  I have taught this book to about two hundred pastors and Christian leaders up to this point.  This year we are printing twelve thousand copies in order to give and teach the new converts through WEC.   Pastor Taing is excited to be part of this joint venture, because he feels that too many Cambodian Christians started their faith journey by ‘receiving’ instead of training in ‘giving’.  He even had a wonderful report of one of his church member, who’s been at his church for long time, recently gave nineteen thousand dollar tithe to church after reading my book.  Pastor Taing feels many more churches will not dependent on missionaries support as their church members learn to give tithe and take ownership of their own churches. 

6. Methodology

My research methodologies will be in four stages.  First, I will examine the ‘causes’ of dependency in Cambodia by using empirical analysis including interviews and surveys.  Second, I will develop various proposals through engagement with active field research as well as textual research on how to overcome dependency.  Third, I will do an empirical analysis of the churches that are intentionally adopting both WEC and Tithing explained in section 5, and make a progress report an ongoing part of the research.   Fourth, critical analysis of assessment will be made in order to suggest possible strategies for the Cambodian churches to become self sustaining.

My research approach will be that of an embedded researcher and teacher. The methodology relied upon in this thesis will be primarily field research through interviews and surveys.  This will be done by reading all relevant primary and secondary sources on the research topic.  Fortunately, most of these sources are in written in English, however I would have to work with qualified translators for my interviews – both in conducting interviews and translating my survey questions.

This analysis would be done through a text-based research as well as possible surveys and interviews.  A high degree of in-depth analysis will needed to be able to yield a new understanding and insights on the dependency issue and to suggest possible solutions to the problem as a part of this thesis.

7. Justification

In 1923 the first Protestant missionaries (C&MA), Rev David Ellison and his wife started evangelism and discipleship work in Battambang and in 1925 formed a Bible school to train national leaders.  Paul Ellison (David’s son) notes that “at this time the term ‘Rice Christians’ was first noticed, when David received rumors of local people receiving a bag of rice and 200 riels as a reward for converting.”  According to Article 43 of the Cambodian law, it is forbidden to ‘buy’ converts.  However, the government ministry of Cults and Religion are however too poor and unorganized to police such law at all twenty provinces of Cambodia.   From the beginning of mission effort  in Cambodia, it seems ‘dependency’ was a major hurdle to overcome.

I want to see  the significant contribution that these two new strategies, i.e., WEC and Tithing,  will make in promoting the sustainability of Cambodian churches in the future. I am praying that Cambodia churches will not depend on outside support to maintain their ministry but to become self sustaining and then start multiplying on their own.  Also, it is my heart desire to see Cambodian churches start training and sending their own missionaries all over Southeast Asia and all over the world sharing the Good News of Jesus Christ.  That’s what happened in Korea, and I am praying that same wonderful history can be written for Cambodia.


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