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MISSIONS HISTORY OF THAILAND

May 1989

| MISSIONS HISTORY OF THAILAND | General Religious Background | Catholicism/Protestantism | Churches of Christ | Spiritual Needs/Challenges | General Editor | Contributors | Resource People | Sources Cited and Suggested Reading

Thailand is surrounded by countries of Southeast Asia which have been tragically plagued with political upheaval and tyranny, while it is known as the “Land of the Free.” The word Thai means “free,” and the Thai people are proud that they have been a kingdom since the 13th Century and are the only people of
Map of Thailand.png
From Operation World DVD-ROM 2010. www.operationworld.org
Southeast Asia that have never been subject to a European colonial power. They call their land “Muang Thai” (Land of the Free) or “Prathet Thai” (Country of the Free).

Known previously as the mysterious land of Siam, the country’s name was changed to Thailand in 1939. Six years later it was renamed Siam, but in 1949 the name Thailand was reinstated.

This enchanting land is a combination of green jungles, flowing canals, and traffic-congested city streets. It is a mosaic of ornate temples, teakwood houses, bullock carts, and salted fish.

Blessed with fertile agricultural land, Thailand is the world’s largest exporter of rice. It has also experienced rapid industrial growth that has helped it to quickly become the fifth economic “Asian Tiger.”

Operation World reports that tourism is a major aspect of the economy, but that drug trafficking and the sex trade are endemic.

While the king of Thailand, the world’s longest-reigning monarch, is popular and plays a strong, unifying and stabilizing role, Thai politics are deeply divided. Note these recent events:
2006
A military coup ousted the prime minister.
2007
Elections in saw his party re-elected at the head of a coalition
2008
Opposition groups demonstrating en masse and counter-demonstrations escalated.The courts then dissolved the ruling coalition on charges of electoral fraud, after which a new coalition was formed, led by the main opposition group, the People’s Alliance for Democracy
2010
The Red Shirts political pressure group, loyal to the People’s Power Party (which was deposed in 2008), initiated sustained protests that took over key areas of central Bangkok, paralyzing much of the city. The main protest sites were eventually seized by the army and police, but disruption is far from over
Additionally, violent insurgency among Muslims in the south at times destabilizes that region.

General Religious Background


An estimated 92 percent of the population claim to be Buddhist, making Thailand the largest Buddhist state in the world. The king, by law, must be a Buddhist, and he must be a good example of Buddhism to the people. Certain government ceremonies are based on Buddhist principles and there are numerous Buddhist holidays throughout the year.

Every male is encouraged to serve as a monk for at least three months of his life. Women must not touch a monk nor hand anything to him. The back seats of buses are reserved for the monks. Images of Buddha must be respected, no matter how large or small they are. They should not be placed in one’s pocket.

Buddhism deeply affects the daily life of the Thai. Its tenets direct his behavior. His status in life is believed to be tied to the accumulation of merit as described by Buddhism. This merit might have been gained either in this life or a previous incarnation. For example, the act of offering financial support to the monks or to a village temple may be a means of obtaining merit. The faithful Buddhist is hoping for an improved condition in this life, or perhaps in the next one. Thus, his status is determined by his own efforts.

There are 24,000 Buddhist temples in Thailand. A view of Bangkok’s skyline from the Temple of Dawn leaves the impression that temples are everywhere.

The temples are sacred, but there are also many spirit houses scattered around the nation where local deities are worshipped in addition to Buddha. It must, therefore, be understood that the Theravada Buddhism practiced in Thailand is not pure. It is mixed with much spirit worship.

Young people seem to be retaining the teachings of Buddhism, but a number are leaving the traditional ways of thinking and living.

Religious freedom exists, but most Thais believe that Christianity is for Westerners and Buddhism is for Asians. The king lends his support to the Buddhist clergy and, in turn, the clergy upholds the king. Thai society rests on the three-fold combination of king, religion, and nation.

The religious history of Thailand is rather obscure in its earlier years. Tradition places the introduction of Buddhism into southeast Asia around the third century B.C. Inscriptions, however, suggest that it was not well established until the third to sixth centuries A.D. In the seventh century A.D., the Mon princess, Cham Tewi, first converted the people of the Chiang Mai area to Theravada Buddhism. By the twelfth century Mahayana Buddhism influenced much of Burma.

The rulers of Chiang Mai and Sukhothai followed the example set by Burma in sending to Ceylon for Theravada instructors. Theravada Buddhism thus became dominant in Thailand. These rulers also accepted Sivaism from the Khmer of Cambodia, Brahmanism from India, and a host of spirit beings called phi. This amalgamation of various influences produced the Thai traditional religion.

Even though a syncretistic Buddhism dominates, other religions are active in Thailand. The largest of these is Islam, centered primarily among the ethnic Malays of the southern peninsula. These account for approximately four percent of the population. The Chinese religions account for about 1.6 percent of the overall population, and the purely animistic people among the tribal groups make up 1.4 percent.
Freedom of religion is guaranteed by the Thai constitution, but all new religious groups must register under one of the government-recognized umbrella networks in order to be legally recognized (Operation World).


Catholicism/Protestantism


The remaining one percent of the Thai people are Christian, divided between Roman Catholics, with about .4 percent of the population, and Protestants, with .3 percent. The Catholic religion is stronger among the Chinese people and in Bangkok. Thailand Church Groups.pngNinety one denominations, with approximately 1,030 missionaries in 70 mission agencies, comprise the Protestants of Thailand. The total number of members in these groups is 502,650, still representing a tiny percentage (1.1) of the Thai population.

The largest mainline denomination is called the “Church of Christ in Thailand.” It consists of Presbyterians, Baptists, and others. Both the Karen Baptist Convention and the Lahu Baptist Convention of Thailand are part of this group, but are listed separately in the chart to the left.

There are about 2,000 Protestant congregations in Thailand and these are often small in membership.


The Overseas Missionary Fellowship (OMF), with 283 missionaries, has the largest missionary force. The Southern Baptists have 79 foreign workers, the New Tribes Mission has 72 missionaries, and the Christian and Missionary Alliance (CMA) has 54.

Thai AGR.png
From Operation World DVD-ROM 2010. ww.operationworld.org
There are four versions of the Bible in circulation, and translation work is in progress in 16 languages.

Three of the major reasons for slow growth in the past have been (1) the social cohesiveness of Buddhism, (2) the fact that Christianity appears “foreign,” and (3) the veneration and fear of the spirit world. Young people who are breaking away from some of the traditional values of their elders may provide a better response to the gospel.

Churches of Christ


Churches of Christ began their work in 1903. A.E. Hudson was sent from England to what was then called Siam. He began a work among the Thai and Mon in the city of Nokhorn Prathom. Dr. and Mrs. Percy Clark, also of England, expanded this work in later years. Churches flourished but eventually became part of the interdenominational organization known as the Church of Christ in Thailand.

A second wave of missionary activity came in 1958 when the Parker Henderson family arrived in Bangkok. The Ken Rideout family followed shortly and, after a stay in Bangkok, moved to Chiang Mai. They were later joined by the Bob Davidson family. In both cities the missionaries established centrally located congregations. Much work was also done in the villages where many were baptized.

Most missionary effort has centered on Bangkok. For many years this was partly due to the Bangkok Bible School where many missionaries taught. Though it was closed in the mid 1980’s, most of Thailand’s present church leaders were trained there.

Recently Art and Judy Lynch, impressed with the large number of abandoned children and orphans, opened the Victory Tree Family Home in Bangkok. This facility has ministered to many children and continues to grow.

Bangkok is home to the largest university in the world. Rhamkhamhaeng University has an enrollment of nearly 500,000. In 1988, Tim Bennett and Patinya Thittari opened a campus ministry there, which has introduced many to the Christian Way.

Bangkok continues to have the largest concentration of churches of Christ, with four congregations and a total membership of 450. Of the four congregations of 100 or more members in Thailand, two are in Bangkok. The largest and oldest of these is the Soi Somprasong 4 church which has 250 members. The number of missionaries working in Thailand in 1990 is six, counting wives.

Two church-planting teams have recently formed with plans for one group to arrive in late 1991. This group, consisting of four married couples, will work with the Soi Somprasong 4 church in Bangkok for one year before moving and starting a new work. Another team of five married couples and two singles will spend 1993 training together in Abilene, Texas, and will depart in early 1994. They will plant a new church in either the Bangkok metropolitan area north.


Spiritual Needs/Challenges


Traditionally Thailand has produced little in the way of missionary fruit, and that has come only at great effort. Today only one percent of the total population is Christian. There are positive signs, however, especially among college students and young professionals, of a new openness to Christianity. Some urgent needs in Thailand are as follows:

  • Bangkok, with its many millions, is still in need of more churches. New teams are needed to plant churches in previously untouched areas of this growing metropolis.
  • Besides Bangkok, there are several large urban areas which either have no church or only a very weak Christian presence. These include Chiang Mai, Nakhorn Ratchasima, Nakhorn Sri Thamarat, and Ubonratchathani. These cities are in urgent need of teams to plant churches which can in turn evangelize these areas.
  • Existing churches in many places still lack strong, functioning leadership. Needed are trained individuals who, by their teaching and lifestyle, will help raise up mature Thai leaders.
  • Large university campuses populate the urban centers. Groups are needed to set up campus ministries on these campuses, possibly teaching English to make contacts.

General Editor


Dr. Bob Waldron, Missions Consultant and Researcher

Contributors

  • Chris Flanders, former missionary to Thailand
  • Bob Davidson, former missionary to Thailand

Resource People

  • Larry Henderson, former missionary to Thailand,
  • Bob Davidson, A&M Church of Christ, 1001 FM 2818E, College Station, TX 77840.
  • David Allen,

Sources Cited and Suggested Reading


Keyes, Charles F. 1989. Thailand – Buddhist Kingdom as Modern Nation State. Boulder: Westview Press.

Operation World. 2010. Operation World: The Definitive Prayer Guide to Every Nation. 7th Ed. Edited by Jason Mandryk. Colorado Springs, CO: Global Mapping International. Professional Version. DVD-ROM. www.operationworld.org.

Shipp, Glover and Bob Waldron. 1991. Thailand Nationscan. Abilene, TX: McCaleb Institute for Missions Education (February).

Wells, Kenneth. 1975. Thai Buddhism: Its Rites and Activities. Bangkok: Suriyabun Publishers.

Wyatt, David K. 1984. Thailand: A Short History. London: Yale University Press.