I’m not a serious man,” declares Aung Mang, a Burmese follower of Jesus who is currently ministering across New Zealand as the guest of Beacon Partnerships.
With a twinkle in his eye, and a smile constantly pulling at the edge of his mouth, his statement is quite believable. Aung very obviously does not take himself seriously, and it’s his ease with this that makes him a leader of intriguing dimensions, determination and experience.
He has two Masters Degrees, two PhDs, plays the bass guitar, and “keeps a simple recording studio for making music demos”. He pastors a church of 300+ members in downtown Yangon, in an eighth-floor apartment with no elevator.
His wife and their family share their apartment at any given time with up to eighteen other people.
As a teenager he had hair to his waist, but he says when he did his doctorates he lost most of it completely. His wife and their family share their apartment at any given time with up to eighteen other people, “to help them out financially whilst they study”.
He is a seasoned church planter and theological educator of over three decades; the ‘go to’ person for evangelical perspective on the church in Myanmar. His parents were rural subsistence farmers, and he chooses voluntary poverty, not even owning a bicycle. He was the founding principal and now chair of Beacon Partnerships’ Partner School, MEGST (Myanmar Evangelical Graduate School of Theology) an unregistered and therefore technically illegal Christian training institute in Yangon, but nevertheless “the fastest growing grad school in Asia”. And if that resume is not sufficiently interesting, Aung has also spent his 57 years serving God under Myanmar’s military regime, which was fiercely opposed to the Gospel.
“It was extreme control,” Aung shares. “They functioned with a really strong and oppressive spirit.” He tells about the endless armed road check points, and how he would have to ‘register’ any guests staying at his home, even for one night, including his own mum.
The authorities held to a fundamental and conservative Buddhism where it is common for fanatical monks to abuse Christians with impunity. The Chin State in the North West– Aung’s home state – was de facto abandoned in terms of government development, because the citizens are predominantly Christian. All churches, and anything to do with Christianity (or any religion other than Buddhism for that matter) were illegal, and therefore unregistered. Aung could never openly share his qualifications (Divinity/Biblical Studies, Applied Theology, Ministry, and Philosophy), as they were illegal. Christians had to be covert about attending church, and many services were held in homes.
The authorities held to a fundamental and conservative Buddhism where it is common for fanatical monks to abuse Christians with impunity. The Chin State in the North West– Aung’s home state – was de facto abandoned in terms of government development, because the citizens are predominantly Christian.
But in November last year that all began to change. Citizens participated in their first free and fair general election in over half a century, and voted in favour of democracy, giving a landslide victory to the National League for Democracy led by Aung San Suu Kyi. In March this year, the official handover took place, with Aung San Suu Kyi becoming Foreign Minister, and Henry van Thio, a committed Christian (and former Dunedin resident) being elected as the country’s No 2 Vice President, with a portfolio of social development.
Like believers across Myanmar, Aung is really excited about what this means for the Gospel. “Now we will be able to spread the Good News, legally,” he shares expectantly. “I have a very positive perspective towards my own country, now. The people are still poor, physically, but we are all poor together and can begin to move forward.
“We believe the reason why Aung San Suu Kyi won the November elections is because of the prayers of the Christians. The church prayed her in, so that Myanmar can be changed.”
With the fledgling democracy growing, Aung says Aung San Suu Kyi (or “The Lady” or “Aunty” as she is affectionately known) is already ensuring that change is happening.
“The thing that was immediately obvious, was that there were no more military check points,” shares Aung. He can now get international travel visas much quicker and for longer periods. “I am so excited that some nights I cannot sleep thinking about what this means for the Church, for Christian education, and the Gospel,” he enthuses. “I find myself at three in the morning still planning what is possible; how in about a year, all the churches will be legal. What Henry’s (van Thio) portfolio means for Christian social outreach to all Burmese. How Christians now have constitutional rights. How we will be able to register MEGST and possibly turn it into a Christian university.”
“Now we will be able to spread the Good News, legally.”
MEGST’s serious commitment to mission and growth in Myanmar will continue to be partnered by Beacon Partnerships; we’ve been working with the school since its inception in 1996. Aung has had a long relationship with Executive Director Tony Plews who, together with other kiwi education professionals, has contributed capacity development and support as it has grown. In an allied story, five years ago Jacob Mung, another Burmese leader, felt prompted to compile the first modern Burmese study Bible, which is due for publication about a year from now. Clearly God is answering the prayers of Burmese believers, and positioning things for a great harvest.
As Aung looks forward, he shares energetic plans for the training of Christian leaders; capacity development within Christian education facilities; writing five books; and touring with an outreach band.
But for the last few months his capacity building around mission has been in Aotearoa NZ, speaking at churches and Christian groups, bringing three messages that he believes are timely for the church here:
“Firstly, accomplish the Great Commission in the church context; make more disciples from among the nations. Second is the empowerment of the Holy Spirit, sharing the Gospel with power. Number three is partnership because unless we do teamwork, we will not be able to extend the Kingdom.
“It would seem to me that these are in deficit in the church in New Zealand, especially the power of the Spirit. People are doing things, but not necessarily in the power of the Spirit. I think in the West the church has lost this, and people are not crazy for Jesus as they could be. In Myanmar, believers are just crazy for Jesus”.