BY SUZANE AVADIAR, COMMUNICATIONS MANAGER, ASIA-CMS
The newly appointed executive director of Asia-CMS, Rev Dr Chan Nam Chen, says he’s “an ordinary man who has been blessed with an amazing journey, with an extraordinary God.” His is a story of a partnership between God and humanity, and of what happens when we say yes!
The year was 1978 and a 17-year old Christian boy was on an ordinary bus ride to his sister’s home. The journey weaved through the remote interior of the Malaysian peninsula, from his home in the capital city of Kuala Lumpur to the small town of Raub in the state of Pahang.
When the bus stopped at a little village, he glanced out of the window at a group of people peddling their wares along the roadside. One old woman selling ginger caught his eye. Her gaunt face was wrinkled with the lines of a hard life. Her eyes told a story of hope fading away. The young boy was drawn to her, pondering “What is life when, at her age, she still needs to eke out a living instead of taking it easy?”
In his mind, he asked God if there was any hope for her. As a new believer, he realised that true and eternal hope is only in Jesus but all the Christians, churches and testimonies about Jesus were in the city. He wondered then, who would tell this woman in this remote village about Jesus?
Later that evening, when he arrived at his sister’s home, thoughts of the old woman lingered.
He was in his sister’s garden praying and thinking when he made a simple and quiet commitment. He told God that one day he would do something. He would share Jesus with people in small towns and remote places, those who had the least opportunity to hear about the gospel.
The young boy did not know it then, but in that quiet moment, a lifelong journey in mission was born.
Answering the call
Chan Nam Chen was the youngest of seven siblings in a non-Christian home. His parents, who arrived on the shores of Malaysia from China, were well-educated Chinese-speaking folks. Nevertheless, the family grew up in relative poverty.
At four months old, Nam Chen contracted polio and was left with a limp. Because of this physical disability, he says his “overprotective mother put the fear of the future” in him, telling him that excelling academically was his only chance for a decent living.
“Inherent in God’s church is a Spirit-birthed compulsion to continue pushing the margins. We are to live on the edge of God’s mission.”
Thus, his early life revolved around books and studies. He thrived academically and his readings led him to question everything, including God. Nam Chen was an atheist until he accepted Christ at 15, through a friend from school.
Subsequently, he began attending a small neighbourhood Assemblies of God (AOG) church, where he was discipled to live for the Great Commission. Nevertheless, he did not entertain any notion of going into full-time ministry; he planned to finish university and find a job in a small town, where he could also share the gospel. It was a simple commitment but an honest one. However, God had other plans.
During a youth camp a year later, Nam Chen distinctly heard God, yet tried hard to reason that he was not suited for ministry life. In the end, God’s call prevailed. After completing his A-levels, Nam Chen started at the Bible College of Malaysia and a new journey began.
Journey into ministry
During his third year at the Bible college he had to undertake weekend ministry, and Nam Chen chose to start church planting in a small rural area on the west coast of the Malaysian peninsula. In human terms, it was not the wisest choice for starting a ministry.
From language to location, Nam Chen had everything working against him. He was an English-speaking urbanite of Chinese descent, while the people in the area spoke Mandarin, Tamil or Malay. Nam Chen only spoke the most basic Malay.
He started small, spending a considerable amount of time fasting and praying, and asking God to lead him to those who were ready to receive the gospel. Using the book of Acts as his guide, he set out to share the gospel and discipled the few who came to faith.
In his first year, Nam Chen met three Orang Asli (indigenous peoples) teenagers from the Mah-Meri tribe who had received Christ through a Bible correspondence course. This tribal group had no prior Christians among them.
He realised then that within a 70km radius there were no Malay-speaking churches, which was the language the teenagers were educated in. With his limited Malay, he began to disciple them. As they grew in their faith and knowledge of God, so did Nam Chen’s Malay language skills.
At the same time, in another part of the area, the converts among plantation workers in his Tamil church continued to grow. Nam Chen’s original year-long ministry there extended to an eight-year sojourn among the Orang Asli, Tamils and Mandarin-speaking Chinese. This sowed the seeds for his life-long interest in other cultures, and involvement in cross-cultural mission.
It was also during his time there that Nam Chen met and married his wife, who he believes is “a gift from God”. She would go on to become his strongest support system. As Nam Chen grew as a minister of the gospel, so did his reputation as one of the few theologically trained Malay-speaking pastors in Peninsular Malaysia at that time.
Then in 1990, he was invited to serve in a church in Kota Kinabalu, Sabah, in East Malaysia. In addition to pastoring their Malay-speaking congregation of nearly 200 worshippers, he was also their missions director, spearheading church-planting efforts into inland areas. He spent the next 10 years developing their in-house Malay language Bible school to train and deploy indigenous church planting teams and pastors.
In 2001, Nam Chen went on to serve as the senior pastor of a large multi-ethnic AOG church in Peninsular Malaysia, after a brief hiatus in Manila to complete an MA in cross-cultural studies. During his 10 years as senior pastor, the church raised pastors and mission workers to plant churches in Malaysia, Cambodia, Indonesia, Nepal and China.
At the end of 2011, Nam Chen resigned as senior pastor to pursue his PhD in intercultural studies from Fuller Theological Seminary, focusing on mission and leadership in crosscultural situations. He currently still serves as the district superintendent for AOG, Sabah, until June 2018, as he transitions into his role in Asia-CMS.
On the edge of God’s mission in Asia
What excites Nam Chen about God’s mission is seeing God’s light come into a place where there was no light. “The other thing is seeing ordinary people touched by God, transformed, and rising up to be leaders to transform other lives.
“One of the churches that I planted in Kota Kinabalu had about 70 people when I left; a young man whom I discipled is now pastoring the church, which has grown to over 400 worshippers. That excites me!” he explains.
“A major reason why I resigned as a senior pastor was to pursue my doctoral studies – I see myself equipping God’s leaders for the next generation,” he adds.
Helping churches cross boundaries
When the role at Asia-CMS came onto his radar, he had his initial reservations but the more he prayed, the more he began to realise that it fitted well with what he had done, and what God had done in his life thus far.
He wants to see more of God’s churches cross boundaries, which he believes is an ongoing process. “God’s mission involves the crossing of boundaries, which includes ethnic, cultural, socioeconomic and geographic. Inherent in God’s church is a Spirit-birthed compulsion to continue pushing the margins. We are to live on the edge of God’s mission,” he says.
“For Asia, it is important for local churches to actually engage with mission needs and opportunities right here at our doorsteps. The option for local churches to merely send money and perhaps a dedicated missionary is over. Also, crossing national boundaries into countries where there is minimal Christian presence is equally important. It is mission from everywhere to everywhere!
“We can only do well if we go in to learn; to engage authentically with those of other faiths and cultures; to understand where they come from. Only as our own faith is challenged and we ourselves are changed in that learning and living process, can we be effective bearers of the gospel in all its richness,” he continues.
“Mission is not about individuals. We are to live and do life as communities of faith. The formation of communities is what God’s Church is all about. But the ‘shape’ of specific faith communities also depends very much on the context of the cultures and faith where those communities emerge. It is different in every location.
“If Asia-CMS is to be effective, we must be part of that process of being contextual. What does it means to be the church and to do church? How do we do mission? All of these questions can only be answered and developed through an on-going contextual process,” he says.
For those taking their first steps into mission, Nam Chen advises beginning with simple steps and learning how to connect with people in the church who are passionate about mission.
“Mission is most powerful when you are walking with others – they can be walking ahead of or behind you – it doesn’t matter, as long as you’re not walking alone. Surround yourself with people who will explore God’s mission with you.
“It is important to find people who have a similar hunger to pursue God’s mission and purposes. If you don’t have that yet, pray and God will connect you to them,” he adds.
The Call in Action: GIVE
Could you support faithful local leaders as they take steps to put their call into action, as Nam Chen did? Church Mission Society helps to support 60 local partners worldwide, including 21 in Asia. To help set them free to put their call into action, click the link below.