Church Ministry in the Thai Context From the Sociological Perspective

by Prawate Khid-arn


I. Religion in the Eyes of the Sociologist

From the perspective of sociologists, religion and ceremonialism are forms of observation of religious tenets in society which people establish in order to clarify religious meaning, develop a sense of community and reduce personal and inter group alienation which provides the people with peace and happiness. "Salvation," therefore, is a belief found with unique characteristics in each religion, which provides inner cohesion among a religion’s adherents.

How a religion is accepted and followed by people in a society is another question, the answer to which has many facets, for example, personal faith, the ability to participate in religious ceremonies and direct and indirect pressures which are applied in order to induce faithfulness and conversion to that religion.

II. Christianity in Thai Society

Christianity, both Catholicism and Protestantism, have evangelized Thai society for more than two centuries. From a study of Thai social history, we can observe that Christianity has played a very important role which has resulted in major social changes and developments in the condition and context of Thailand by addressing issues related to the poverty of the Thai

people, including success in development and growth. Thus, we can say that Christianity has had a role in Thai society ever since the first missionary arrived.

Sociologists understand the missionary movement and extension of Christianity as a part of the extension of Western philosophy that arose from the colonial period of the Industrial Revolution. It is hard, therefore, to classify the missionaries who entered Thailand as to whether they were representatives of colonialism, of militarism or were saints filled with the love of Christ and were truly teaching the Scriptures of their religion. These are all interrelated in the work of the missionaries in an effort to conquer Thai philosophy and to replace it with total Westernization, including the rejection of Thai religion and cultural expression in order to become faithful Christians. In so far as His Majesty the King provided for religious toleration and offered lands and money to the evangelistic work of the missionaries, the Western missionaries developed confidence and pride in the belief that Thai society could be changed in no time at all.

We find in historical sources that King Louis XIV of France wrote a letter in 1702 to King Narai of Siam (Thailand) to invite King Narai and all the people of Siam to receive and follow the teachings of Christianity as the king of France had sent an ambassadorial representative to Siam with the belief that King Narai would embrace this faith of the French.

During the reign of King Chulalongkorn (Rama V), missionary Mrs. Bradley once said, "I am now old and could die at any time. The only thing that burdens my heart unto this very day is that the king of Siam is still not a Christian. If His Majesty were to convert to Christianity, I would die in peace.

This shows that Western philosophy had prospered greatly. Europeans developed and understood psychology and sociology to the extent that they could clearly understand that the Thai people humbly followed their leader. As such, if only the ideas of the leader could be changed, the ideas of the whole Thai people could be easily changed as well.

However, whether or not it was a mistake, the Thai leader refused to become a Christian as wished by the missionaries of that day. Otherwise, Thailand may have become like Europe and America or like the Philippines and some African nations.

III. The Church from the Perspective of a Sociologist

Sociologists view the Church from two angles, namely, from the angle of the Church as a social institution and from the angle of the Church as an institution of religious faithful.

A. The Church as a Social Institution

According to this perspective, the sociologist looks at the Church as simply one of many possible forms of development of an institution, not different from other institutions in a society, such as economic, political or other basic social institutions.

In Thai society, a variety of institutions were developed under a given institution of religion, such as the "wat "of Buddhism and the "surau" of Islam. Therefore, the creation of an institution called "church" and communicating the Christian faith is simply the offer of one way by which to find personal and social happiness and is simply a supplementary model by which to live.

The Church and Christian sacraments from the perspective of a sociologist are neither vital or necessary in Thai society in so far as the Thai people determine them to be incompatible with their life and society. In simple terms, if the Thai people did not have the churches of Christianity, Thailand would not likely collapse or disappear from world history. Thailand and Thai society would still exist even without CCT, without the Evangelical Fellowship of Thailand, without Campus Crusade groups, without the McGilvary Faculty of Theology or Bangkok Theological Institute and without local churches.

The Church though has managed to plant roots in Thai society. Thai people, numbering about 200,000, are a basic illustration of the fact that the Christian practices are accepted in the midst of predominantly Buddhist practitioners throughout Thailand, and the practice of Christian faith in Thailand has led to a certain measure of development, advancement and security. In the future, if the Church is somehow unable to respond to or preserve a vision or end goal for society, the Church will be abandoned.

B. The Church as an Institution of Religious Faith

The expansion of Christianity in Siam since 1662 (Catholicism) and 1828 (Protestantism) and the sacrifice of lives in foreign lands with all of their suffering, many of whom lost their lives while communicating the Good News of salvation in Jesus Christ throughout Thai society, is an obvious witness to the deep faith and full enrichment in God’s truth of God’s servants. The truth, being in God, is what incited these Christian founding parents to join in God’s peacemaking through the building of God’s Kingdom on earth in Thailand according to the manner of sacrifice found in Jesus Christ who, though being "God," took on humanity in the flesh and lived among us.

Nan Inta, the first Thai Christian in the Payap or northern region, once said, "The Gospel is not the work of humanity but is the mission of God." The willingness of this individual to declare his faith openly demonstrates a depth of understanding of religious truth which he received through God, ever aware of tremendous obstacles ahead of him. But he was not afraid, even to the point of his own death.

The truth of God in Christianity was communicated to Thai society. It must be accepted that this truth was transferred via European culture and customs. The Thai church must, therefore, attempt to understand and to separate the central core of the Gospel and Western culture, for Christianity entered into Thai society in a constant give-and-take between Western culture and Thai culture in reference to the Word of God. If the Thai church is unable at this time to distinguish the difference, the Thai church will now have become nothing more than a tool of colonialism on behalf of the West.

(Ed. note. This reflection was presented at a seminar entitled "Church Ministry in the Thai Context" organized by the McGilvary Faculty of Theology at Payap University, Chiang Mai, Thailand, and the Pastoral Office of the Church of Christ in Thailand [CCTJ from May 6 to 8, 1992.)