Missionary Spotlight – Tribal evangelism in Thailand

Robin Griffith
01 March, 2003 3 min read

Thailand’s population is nearly 64 million — similar to UK but in an area twice its size.

The majority are Thai; but there are also over 30 ethnic tribal groups, varying in size from a few hundred (such as the Yellow Leaf) to almost half a million (the Pwo Karen).

Some tribes have been assimilated into the majority population, but others maintain their particular identities in language, customs and beliefs.


The tribal groups are animistic, constantly making offerings to the myriad spirits believed to inhabit the village, houses, trees, paths, mountains etc.

Animistic ceremonies must also be carried out on behalf of ancestors. In addition, there is often a layer of syncretism between Buddhism and animism.

Church planting has been going on among several of these indigenous groups for 20 years or more, principally through the New Tribes Mission (NTM) and OMF, although other evangelical agencies have also been active.

While there is a growing interest in Christianity amongst Thais in general, the greatest response has come from these indigenous groups.

Pwo Karen

NTM works with the Lawa, Pwo Karen, Red Karen, Brai and Yellow Leaf tribes in north Thailand, and the So, Bruu and Nya Kaw tribes in north-east Thailand. OMF works with the Lisu, Pwo Karen, Hmong and Lahu tribes in north Thailand.

The Pwo Karen have several dialects. Work by NTM and OMF among the northern dialect group has just resulted in a completed translation of the New Testament. Churches have also been planted in different villages.

In central west Thailand, NTM church-planting continues in two areas. In the area where we live there is a small church established. Mark’s Gospel has been translated and printed, and translation is currently in progress on Genesis.

There are also rough translations of other books of the Bible, currently used for teaching purposes.

Heart language

Workers in tribal evangelism face many problems, especially in the initial stages. Coupled with an ongoing teaching programme, there is an urgent need for a tribe to have the Bible in its own language — especially if its use of Thai is limited.

Although the government has started schools in many tribal villages and the people are becoming familiar with Thai, missionaries still need to learn indigenous languages and customs. Many tribal languages are completely unrelated to Thai.

As one person put it: ‘We use the Thai language for external business, but our heart must be reached through our own language’.

A major problem to overcome is a tribe’s perception that becoming a Christian means following a foreigner’s religion. Also, in evangelism, we cannot assume that the people’s understanding of common terms such as ‘God’, ‘sin’, ‘heaven’ and ‘salvation’ are the same as Scripture’s. We have to start right at the beginning.

A good foundation needs to be laid, beginning with Genesis, to teach fundamental biblical truths clearly, along with the precious truths of the gospel.


Various things have had an adverse impact on tribal people, and have indirectly hindered missionary work.

With increased modernisation, roads have been built into once remote areas. This has had many economic advantages. For example, schools and clinics have been established. But also a tribal ‘barter economy’ is gradually being replaced by a money-based economy, and this has caused some Christians to fall into materialism.

There are problems too caused by the government’s insistence on people registering their land. Outsiders get tribal land registered in their own name and thereby rob the people of land they have used for many generations.

Some churches and mission groups (especially some large Charismatic and South Korean churches) have engaged in ‘poaching’ people from pioneer missionary churches.

A small church receiving offers from a larger group — to build it a ‘fancy’ church building, provide a paid-for pastor, and send its people to Bible school — can find these offers hard to resist. Sadly, accepting them invariably results in the takeover of the church by the bigger group.

Where a local church has been well-taught and is grounded in the Word of God, it is usually able to resist such pressures.

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