February 12, 2024 | Thailand | Khamsay Phetchareun, Southern Asia-Pacific Division
Turning Buddhists into Christians in Thailand has long posed a formidable challenge. Missionaries have encountered a multitude of obstacles, spanning from cultural perceptions to familial and societal pressures, rendering their uphill battle even more difficult.
Thailand boasts a population of more than 71 million, predominantly adhering to Buddhism, with just 1.2 percent identifying as Christians. This Christian minority consists primarily of ethnic minorities, such as the Karen, Hmong, Lahu, and others, who originally practiced animist traditions rather than Buddhism.The arrival of Catholic missionaries in the 1550s and Protestant missionaries in 1828 are significant dates in the centuries-long history of Christian missions in Thailand. Despite these longstanding efforts, it took 27 years to convert the first Thai Buddhist to Adventism, and even after 120 years of missionary work, the number of Seventh-day Adventists from Buddhist backgrounds remains marginal.
Several factors contribute to the challenge of reaching out to Buddhists. One is that Christianity is often perceived as a Western religion, with conversion viewed as a potential loss of one’s Thai identity. Another is that individuals who choose to accept a different faith may face isolation from their families and communities. The third reason is that Buddhist beliefs concerning offerings to the deceased make parents reluctant to allow their children to embrace Christianity, fearing they may be neglected in the afterlife.
Ubon Ratchathani, a city deeply steeped in Buddhism, features temples on nearly every residential block and celebrates its rich Buddhist heritage through events like the iconic Candle Festival. For missionaries who are now establishing the Ubon Urban Center of Influence (Ubon-UCI) for the Seventh-day Adventist Church in this cultural stronghold, the endeavor borders on the seemingly impossible.The Ubon-UCI aims to dispel misconceptions by exemplifying that being Christian doesn’t necessitate the abandonment of one’s Thai identity. It emphasizes values like filial piety, community involvement, and societal care. After a year in Ubon, the center has succeeded in building relationships with neighbors, government officials, and the local community, making a positive impact through diverse ministries.
One pivotal initiative involves a language school dedicated to teaching English, recognizing the receptiveness of children to the gospel message. By providing English tutoring to both children and parents in Ubon, the center seeks to strengthen community bonds and uplift lives through enhanced English proficiency.
Furthermore, the Ubon-UCI sponsors branch Sabbath Schools, which offer English lessons to children in various communities. These schools serve as avenues for engaging with community leaders and parents, nurturing relationships, and promoting income-generating projects and community service.
An itinerant English teaching team has been focusing on full-time Bible study with children, leading to parents expressing interest in Christianity and resulting in several baptisms.The Ubon-UCI harnesses the enduring influence of radio in a digital age, recognizing its significance in northeast Thailand. Charismatic radio presenter Sompong Khoonsawang shares Adventist health and lifestyle principles, attracting inquisitive listeners who seek knowledge about God and request Bible studies. Expanding the radio ministry’s reach remains a priority, as it has already yielded conversions.
Community service projects aim to enhance the lives of Ubon’s underprivileged residents by imparting practical skills like crocheting, basket weaving, and soap making. These endeavors contribute to poverty alleviation, improve community perceptions of Christians, and break down prejudices.
Recently the Ubon-UCI received a profound blessing as six new souls from Buddhist backgrounds embraced Christianity. Furthermore, several individuals are currently engaged in Bible studies, preparing eagerly for the upcoming baptism ceremony.
Evangelism is viewed as a gradual process requiring time and authentic friendships. History reveals that conversions often demand years of trust-building and care. The Ubon-UCI extends an invitation to both foreign and native missionaries who share a commitment to befriending Buddhists and spreading the message of hope and salvation.
The challenges of converting Buddhists in Thailand remain formidable, but the Ubon-UCI remains unwavering in its dedication to fostering understanding, helping, and ultimately sharing the Christian message of hope and salvation. Although the journey may be challenging, unwavering faith and limitless compassion serve as its compass.
The original version of this story was posted on the Southern Asia-Pacific Division news site. Khamsay Phetchareun is director of the Global Mission Center for East Asian Religions of the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists.