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Cambodia: Planting a Church in 14,000 Villages

Training church planters to reach all of Cambodia

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Since 2016, Cambodian Church Planting Center (CCPC) has trained thousands of church planters and has directly assisted in the planting of 307 churches. They expect to add another 50 churches in 2020, despite the challenges COVID-19 has introduced.

You founded and lead Cambodian Church Planting Center (CCPC). What would you say makes it unique in the church world in Cambodia? What need does your organization fulfil?

We have experienced, local, native Cambodian church planters. This is something we’ve really focused on. These are people who have experience planting churches in Cambodia, and it’s quite rare.

The issue is that the Cambodian church is very young. The first evangelical believers only came to Christ in 1921. Then after the war, around 1979, it’s believed there were only about 700 Christians left in the country. Cambodia didn’t really open up to the gospel until 1993. So you’re looking at a very young church.

That means there’s not a lot of good examples of healthy church planters, but our organization has people who have been planting ever since the early 1990’s.

We’re not coming in with a curriculum or theoretical training from somewhere else – we’re coming in with experienced trainers, church planters. The pastors we train can talk to and have real relationships with these trainers, and see the track record and models that have worked in the country.  We’ve started with these experienced Cambodian church planters and built good training and curriculum around them.

So we have a combination of two things: experienced church planters with a systematic model for training.

A lot of outside groups come in from other countries and say, “Here’s the best way to do it.” And although they have some good ideas, they lack the local experience and relationships our trainers have, who share their life with our students.

You told us earlier why you came to Cambodia, but what led you specifically into starting a church planting work?

I accepted Christ in a church planting church, and have been a part of church planting churches throughout my Christian walk and my ministry.

I got here and realized people were so responsive to the Gospel, but again and again we would find churches asking for help. “We need strategies and resources for discipleship. We don’t really understand how to train leaders.”

These pastors would tell us that if they evangelized in a village that had never heard the Gospel, there wouldn’t be enough leaders. They told us, “If you give us 1000 leaders tomorrow, we can plant 1000 churches.”

So I saw – really, I was compelled – the need for training in three things: evangelism, good discipleship, and church planting.

I had an Education background and kind of a “systems” brain.  I realized that through relationship we could show people what a healthy, reproducible, sustainable church looks like.

Wayne Hester, Phnom Penh, Cambodia, 2019

 

Where do you find these church planting leaders? You train hundreds of church planters each year.  What draws them to CCPC?

We do a few things.

First, once a year, we do a church planting conference, to ignite passion and share resources. It’s a place where people can come and find out not just about New Life or our model for church planting, but they can discover other church planting models that are working across the country. When church planters come to the conference, they discover all these different resources that are available.

We do that once a year to really inspire church planting. A lot of people will come to that conference, connect with us and say, “How do I get involved?”

The second thing we do – and probably this is the most common – is conduct regional roundtables across the country in different provinces. We’ll be in 10 different provinces this year, out of the 25 in the country.

We visit the provincial capital and put the word out amongst the churches in the provinces, “We’re going to have a church planting roundtable if you want to come and interact.” So they’ll come and meet other church planters and pastors.

Each time we have a roundtable there’s a different topic we discuss. We usually start with evangelism, discipleship, or leadership training. And the beauty is it’s not just us sharing our resources – others come and share their resources as well. So it really is a roundtable.

Church planter’s roundtable in Battambang, Cambodia, 2019

 

And out of that, if they want further relationship, usually we have more requests than we can meet, of groups and regions saying, “Would you come do an envisioning on church planting training? Would you come to next generation youth training?” And so that’s kind of how I got started.

Church planting can be so difficult – all the more when you’re operating in a foreign nation. Have you had any failures along the way that have shaped you, or CCPC into the work it is doing today?

Personally, I would say my biggest failures along the way happened as a result of me losing my identity and trying to copy somebody else’ model. I’ve chased the light out of trying to please other people or use other people’s methods or models, at the expense of losing my own identity. I think identity in Christ and who we are, what God’s called us to do, is really important.

In terms of church planting, we’ve tried and failed. I think that what we’re doing now really comes out of what we tried.

“And the 70-year-old retired pastor realized that God was calling him to start a church in this village.

Maybe we realized that we needed to build relationship with the pastors first, to discover who really was passionate about church planning. Maybe we introduced some of our ideas at the wrong time.

Some of the training that we’ve done, we’ve left and realized, “Oops, these are babies that we needed to follow up on. We don’t have the resources we needed and didn’t follow up as we should.”

So we’ve been able to grow through these experiences, and develop the resources we need to follow up and strengthen these young pastors and planters.

It’s great to hear of this growth – what remains as your greatest challenge with CCPC? What’s the toughest part of your job?

I think it’s raising up more leaders and trainers as quickly as we possibly can. It’s tough. It’s a challenging environment.

Cambodia is only 2% Christian, so you’ve got a limited number of people that you’re working with, to raise up leaders to go out and plant churches. We’re trying to raise up leaders and pastors as quickly as we can so that they can then train others.

These are people that live on $100 a month. They’ve got families that are living on $100 a month, so that creates unique challenges and opportunities for them.

Along with the challenges, I’m sure CCPC has had some amazing successes. What are some of your favorite stories?

Two weeks ago, we held a roundtable in Takeo province. There was a 70-year-old pastor who came to it. He had been invited by one of the pastors he knew. He is getting older, and his denomination actually asked him to retire a couple of years back.

He had been a pastor for all these years, and now he is getting set to retire. So he thought, “I’ll go to the meeting just so I can share my experiences with these younger leaders.”

But at the roundtable, he got really fired up about church planting. He was driving home on his motorcycle afterwards, and stopped at a little village food stall. He ran into an old friend from that village. The man asked him, “What are you doing here today? Why are you coming through here?”

The pastor told him, “I met with many pastors, and we were talking about planting churches. We were discussing the need to plant churches in villages that don’t have a church.”

His friend told him, “Well, people in this village don’t know Jesus. You’re my friend, and somebody needs to come and tell people in this village about Jesus.”

And the 70-year-old retired pastor realized that God was calling him to start a church in this village. He called us and told us, “Guys, God called me to plant a church. At the age of seventy! I can’t believe that God wants to use me.” He continued, “I’m going to start a weekly Bible study that will share the Gospel with this village and plant a church.”

So those are the fun kind of things that have happened.

There is also a group called Mission Kampuchea that we partner with. The dream for the Cambodian church is that every one of Cambodia’s 14,000 villages will have a Christian presence and a Christian witness.

Well, we’re still at about 3,200 total churches in the nation, so we know we still have a lot of work to do!

Church planter describing his plan, Cambodia, 2019

 

But at the end of last year, we were in Kep province, the smallest of the 25 provinces. We were doing an envisioning seminar, to help them come up with vision and outline their goals. They got out a map, and said, “Here are the other villages in our province that still don’t have a church.”

That weekend, the pastors put together a plan to reach these last villages – by the end of the weekend they had a firm plan in place to put a church in every village in their province.

So at our year-end conference, we were able to announce to all of our national leaders, planting leaders, that this will be the first province in the entire country to have a Christian presence in every village.

That was a historical moment for us.

Wayne Hester is the Director of Cambodia Church Planting Center, partnering with New Life Fellowship of Churches. He is also an advisor to Samaritan’s Purse. His wife, Tricia, is a consultant and educator in Patient Care Ministries. Together with their three sons, they have been serving in Cambodia since 2011.

Last week we heard from Wayne about how this high school math teacher became a church planter in Cambodia – click here to read it.