I’ve known a number of ex-pats in Thailand who were quite negative about the work of Christian missionaries here. In the past you could even say that I belonged to this group of critics. Most of us expats were brought up as Christians but now no longer belong to this faith. Some of us can be quite bitter about our former religion. While the idea of missionaries can still leave me feeling a tiny bit uncomfortable (I’m being honest here) there is little doubt that some of these groups do useful work. It also doesn’t seem to bother the people of Thailand too much so why should it bother me?
My Previous Distrust of Christian Missionaries
I must admit that in the past I’ve held uncharitable ideas about some of the Christian groups to be found in Thailand. I lived for a number of years in a rural part of country where a local Christian group would offer free gifts if children would attend their services. I’ve also come across groups who have provided free English lessons but this turned out to be bible study. When I first heard about all this I thought the whole thing outrageous; it seemed so cynical.
After a few years it became apparent that most of the locals had a different view of the Christian missionaries. As far as they were concerned the free gifts, and the chance to learn English, were an attractive proposition. The interesting thing was that the parents wanted their children to learn about different religions. They felt confident enough in their own belief in Buddhism to not feel threatened by any other system of thought. The locals did not believe that the Christian group had any hope of converting their kids and from what I witnessed they were right. Christian missionaries have been coming to Thailand for over seven hundred years and have only managed to convert less than half a percent of the population. So they can’t really be viewed as a threat to Thai culture can they?
I worked in a Buddhist school with a monk as our head. When I first started teaching there it came as a surprise to see missionaries outside the school handing out leaflets for a Christian youth club. I asked the Thai teachers and nobody seemed the least bit worried about this. There was no attempt to make these missionaries feel unwelcome. The only time that I have heard about anybody getting in trouble for missionary work was when a teacher in Bangkok had been using his lessons to preach. Nothing was said until he upset a student by saying that his parents were going to hell if they didn’t convert. In Thailand you can get away with a lot but saying that parents are hell-bound is a definite no-no.
Christian missionaries in Thailand are here to stay. There is also a small percentage of the Thai nation that belongs to the religion. Thailand is proud of its religious tolerance, and we ex-pats should follow this example – live and let live and all that. I personally feel that the religious tolerance of the Thai people is a great example for the world. They have no real interest in converting to any religion, but they do like to hear about what other people believe. I have never witnessed a Thai try to convert visitors to their religion, but they are willing to listen to people trying to convert them. I am also lucky enough to have come from a Christian country where I was allowed to experiment with different philosophies, and to learn about eastern ideas that have been so important in my life. I was given the choice to choose my beliefs so it is only fair that the Thais get the same choices.
Here is a follow up post on this topic –
Christian Missionaries in Thailand Revisited – A Missionary Responds
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