Updated: Mar 27, 2021
I am grateful for a simple invitation I received in 1989 to visit an underground house church in Vietnam. It happened in a crowded outdoor market in Saigon when a young Vietnamese Christian approached us and asked us if we were Christians.
At the time, the underground house churches were illegal and openly persecuted by the communist government. Attending a house church involved clandestine, back‑alley scooter rides to evade the watchful eyes of the secret police and informants. My first visit was in the late 80's.
That first encounter was like an epiphany; it literally changed my life. In some ways it was like entering a time capsule from the 1st century. I saw an almost pristine depth of simplicity, purity and authenticity I had never witnessed before. The only thing I had to compare it to was the early days of the Jesus Movement before we had become “churched”, "house broken" and purpose driven.
It was a deeply moving, humbling and convicting experience for an affluent American from the American church who secretly prided itself on how advanced and all‑knowing it was in relationship to the rest of Christendom. The Vietnamese church was still relatively pure and untainted by the worldly influences of the West. The years they had spent in re-education camps had purified and strengthened them. When they were released in 1987 the communist government allowed the established evangelical church to operate but under strict guidelines and the watchful eye of government watchdogs. They were only allowed to evangelize within the four walls of the church. But many zealous Christians who had been refined by the fires of persecution during their 13 years of imprisonment refused to wear this governmental straight‑jacket. They left the buildings and began to meet secretly in houses and in jungle clearings.
When I arrived at that first meeting, I was asked to share. I felt challenged to preach a warning to them about what I knew was coming. I sensed that they were facing a dangerous crossroads. I knew that it was only a matter of time before interlopers from the western would come and try to plant their denominational flags and carve out their piece of the prize. I knew the settlers soon would follow the pioneers and bring with them all their useless fads, spiritual nonsense and spiritual hype from back home. I warned them about the flood of money that would come and the lure of materialism and consumerism that had engulfed the West and infected the church. I warned them to preserve their simplicity and purity at all costs because it was a precious thing in the sight of God. I warned them of the test of prosperity that would come and the dangers it carried. I challenged them not to compromise the lessons God had taught them during their lean years of poverty and persecution. I challenged them not to let down their guard lest they lose what God had given them when all they had was Jesus.
That initial meeting was a “divine appointment” that led to years of covert work with the underground church throughout Vietnam. It also set into motion the spiritual dynamics which would result in a major paradigm shift in my understanding of what the church was meant to be in the beginning before it was corrupted by manmade tampering. That simple invitation was God’s way of redeeming something triumphant out of the traumas and tragedies of the past.