To be Thai is to be Buddhist. Most social activities, including building houses, celebrating annual festivals and attending funerals, are tied up with Brahministic/animistic ceremonies.
Buddhism receives ‘donations’ for its temples which are automatically docked from the wages of civil servants. Buddhist schoolchildren and students are expected to bow to Buddha as they enter school or college each day.
So how do people become Christians in Buddhist Thailand?
Paitoon, a mango farmer, was admitted to Manorom Christian Hospital with tetanic convulsions. On opening his eyes for the first time after weeks on a respirator, he saw the Bible text: ‘Come to me all you who are weary and burdened and I will give you rest’.
He determined to discover just who was issuing that invitation. He is now an elder in his local church; and his wife, son and mother are Christians too.
Sawat was telling her neighbour about her nightmares concerning evil spirits. She was advised to pray to the God of the Christians, who has power over all spirits. The following day being Sunday, she went with her neighbour to the local church to find out about this God — who had given her the best night’s sleep in months.
Lit, an aging maize farmer, was coughing up blood and realised that he was near death. He was afraid of hell because he had killed several people in the past over land disputes, when there was little law and order in areas newly reclaimed from the jungle.
He remembered that his nephew was a Christian. He had already heard through him that Jesus Christ could redeem sinners. So he began to write to him to come and explain.
Before he had finished the letter, his nephew appeared at the door! Lit and his family came to believe in Christ — and Lit lived another ten years.
In some ways, Thai people live closer to the truth than the average postmodern Westerner. They believe in the law of karma: ‘Do good get good. Do evil get evil’. To them nothing happens by chance. They believe in heaven and hell, and a world of unseen spirits.
So when they see the power of Christ to heal, deliver and change lives, they are interested.
In spite of Buddhism’s teaching that we are only in the world to work out our karma — that we are merely shapes with names and not real persons — the Thai people are hungry for love and trust.
It is common to hear Christian converts testify of how they first saw the love of God in the lives of Christians (for example, missionaries bending down to scrape lepers’ feet).
One of the Prime Minister’s advisors admitted that it is Christians who have the answer for AIDS patients (who are rejected by society), because they value them as individuals.
It is recognised that leprosy has been eradicated from Thailand largely through the work of Christian medical workers.
Most of the 100 small churches in central Thailand have members who were first contacted in this hospital.
Thai people are not embarrassed to talk about spiritual issues and are ready to ask for prayer for help.
As new missionaries back in 1975, my wife and I had no awareness of the ‘spirits’, which are a normal part of Thai life. We found it essential to be aware of the reality of 1 John 4:4: ‘the One who is in you is greater than the one who is in the world’.
The weak cosmology of the Thai worldview — the world came about by ignorance and desire, and is a place of chaos from which we need to escape — paves the way for teaching about the one true God, who has always existed and who created a world later spoilt by man’s ‘desire’.
Most Thais will admit that the five laws for Buddhist laymen — do not destroy life, commit adultery, steal, lie or drink alcohol — cannot be kept. They admit they need forgiveness.
With the common practice of putting every male over 20 years old into the Buddhist priesthood to earn merit on behalf of their mothers, the concept of substitutionary atonement is also acceptable to them.
It is even believed that an unmarried son who is untainted by any misdemeanour provides more merit.
Today in Thailand there is much emphasis on learning English to improve the chance of obtaining a good job.
Many Thai people are first contacted with the gospel through English clubs and classes, where they are befriended by Christians and encouraged to study the Bible.
For the past three years, my wife Jan has arranged for teams of students from the UK to teach at local secondary schools in our town, and stay in pairs in the homes of Thai teachers.
Both teachers and children have been impressed by the lives of these Christian young people; and several students want to believe.
The paradox is that, while parents are concerned for their teenage children (who are under peer-pressure to experiment with drugs and sex), and are happy for them to be in a wholesome Christian environment, it is difficult for the children to declare themselves Christian, since they do not want to ‘dishonour’ their Buddhist parents.
The opportunities for missionaries to work alongside lay leaders of small churches and to follow-up personal contacts are unlimited.
The town churches need youth workers to reach technical colleges, universities and schools with the gospel, and there are increasing requests for people to teach English in contexts where personal evangelism has already been effective in bringing people to Christ.
Is the Lord calling you to go through one of these open doors for the gospel in Thailand?