Are Christian Missionaries in Thailand a Good Thing?

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?

Church

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.

View of the church entrance--Laos and the Mekong River in the distance
Thailand Can Teach Us About Religious Tolerance

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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47 thoughts on “Are Christian Missionaries in Thailand a Good Thing?

  1. I saw a couple of these guys knocking around in Thailand. They weren’t very old and I always wondered what would make people travel to another country to undertake this work? Who pays them? Where do they stay? What kind of visa are they on? And don’t they have regular jobs to go to back in their own countries?

    There was a case a few years back of one of these types preaching in Pattaya. Now the guy in question was trying to preach to ordinary tourists. I don’t know the full details but he received a punch in the face. It was in the local papers.
    mark recently posted..Confessions of a Bangkok ESLTeacher- the InterviewPart 2

    • Hi Mark, most of these folk seem to genuinely mean well. In their eyes they are trying to help, but of course you are going to get people who will be offended by this. I’ve been quite fanatical about different causes in the past and it was important for me there others shared my worldview; thankfully that is no longer the case.

  2. Paul I agree with your last paragraph 100%…but I do have a problem when those visiting Thailand to ‘spread the word’, don’t have those same tolerences and seem hell bent on converting people.

    • Hi Snap, I don’t particularly like the idea of individuals having a mission in Thailand (or anywhere else) to convert other people to their way of thinking. It is something that a lot of us do in one form or another though; probably why the world can feel so messed up. I do feel though that it is hard to convert somebody that doesn’t want to be converted; although children can be impressionable and this is probably why they are so often targeted by missionaries and other groups.

  3. Paul I’m a little dubious about some of the ‘Christians’ spreading the faith in Thailand. Maybe, just maybe, some are there for the good life the country can offer more so than the good word they are meant to spread. Having said that I will admit that most are there because of their belief in their Christian religion.
    Martyn recently posted..Naga Thai National Lottery Fever Update

    • Hi Martyn, I think the worldview of some of these people is so different from mine that I struggle to understand it; they would likely feel the same way about me though. I suppose you also get westerners who get attracted to Thai politics with the aim of saving the locals.

  4. Interesting question Paul. I tend to agree with you for the most part. The first time I ever had any exposure to missionaries was when I was an exchange student in Vietnam for a summer.

    Where I was staying, there were two groups of other Americans who were there teaching English. They also were missionaries but were very discreet about it, to the point of almost being secretive. I think this had to do with the fact that the Vietnamese government had very strict expectations about missionaries, and missionaries had to be very low key. In fact, it wasn’t until several weeks after meeting them that I finally figured out they were missionaries, because they did not openly exhibit any behavior which would have indicated they were.

    One of them told me that they were very disciplined about their activities, and they were primarily in Vietnam to teach English, and not preach. In fact, they were only allowed to talk about religion with a student if that student affirmatively approached them about the topic, and then that could only be done in a discreet way not in the classroom. I had a generally positive view of this group after meeting them. They seemed to be genuinely nice, well-meaning folk who respected the local people and did not in anyway seem to reflect the “fiery hell and brimstone” stereotype of Christian missionaries.

    Years later after living in rural Thailand, I came across much more aggressive missionaries. Though possibly also “well-intentioned”, I would see large groups of them just descend on local markets and pass out pamphlets which said (in Thai) things like “The end of the world is coming, accept Jesus now” and so on. These types of missionaries struck me as being a bit over the top. But having said that, I’m not going to stop them from doing it if they wish.

    I should mention, I do disagree with you about Thailand being a prime example of religious tolerance. Although certainly many Thais are wonderful people who harbor no ill will towards others, I have to say that I have met a fair share who do harbor bad feelings towards “the other” and in particular the Muslim minority (or for that matter other minorities like Indians, blacks, etc.). Of course, I’m not singling out Thailand for this because this sort of prejudice does exist in all societies, but anti-Muslim prejudice among Buddhist Thais seems to be the most common, at least in my own experience.

    • Hi Tan, there is a bit of xenophobia in Thailand for sure. I think though that a lot of the worry about Muslims is due to a genuine concern. I’ve known Thais who grew up in places like Trang and they claim to feel under threat from local Muslims; with stories of gangs going around killing monks it is sort of understandable. I don’t think it is the religion that Thai people are worried about but the actions of some of the followers. At the moment there is a lot of hysteria against Islam around the world, and hopefully this will settle down eventually.

      I’m glad to hear your experience of some missionaries who are respectful in the way they do their work.

  5. Paul an interesting post. As an ex-Christian(well I don’t practice the faith any more)I send Doy(7yrs) to a local Christian school that was set up by missionaries.

    The local Thai Buddhists love the school since it is much better than the Government schools and are very happy to send their kids there.

    It also turns a nice profit which they like too.

    On the other side of the coin I have actually had Thai Jehovah Witnesses trying to spread the word on the soi……the dogs eventually won.

    I think I agree that Thais are very tolerant of most things and that includes religion.
    Mike recently posted..Don’t Sell Land to Foreigners in Phuket

    • Hi Mike, I think some missionaries are more practical than others, and less “in your face”. I know that when I hear the word “missionary” it is the pushy folk that spring to mind.

  6. Hey Paul–I think, like you, I’ve grown more tolerant of the idea of missionaries, but I still go back and forth. It’s hard for me because I’ve got friends who are or have been missionaries. I don’t agree with the idea of actively trying to convert people, but sometimes the missionaries are there more like PeaceCorps volunteers–just to live life with the locals, kind-of-thing. I find that a little more palatable, but that’s pretty judgmental of me, I suppose.
    Megan recently posted..WTF What THE! Fridays Part 15- Bad Self-Esteem Edition

    • Hi Megan, I was a bit hesitant about putting up this post, because I do hold some prejudices against missionaries (not something I’m proud of, but I’m a long way from perfect :-) ). I’ve never had much contact with these people except where they were trying to convert me; sometimes quite aggressively. I don’t doubt though, that most of these folks are genuinely trying to help others.

  7. Your post reminded me of an article I was going to post about the very same topic but I archived it under “scribbles”. You have bigger huevos rancheros than me. I guess I was too nervous to post it. Especially since I made friends with missionaries. There are A LOT of them here up north.

    I had 2 missionaries knock on my door recently. This surprised the beans out of me since I live in a secure building and because I wasn’t expecting Jehovah Witnesses/Mormons/??? to knock on my door!!!!!!! Thankfully my Thai wasn’t up to snuff or par and I could just play dumb.

    They were Korean?

  8. Oh I did write a poem about them. http://tellthaiheart.blogspot.com/2009/12/cm-corner-poetry.html

    scroll down – it’s the second to the last poem :P

  9. Christian missionaries might be here to stay, but they are abandoning blogs all over the Internet. They come to Thailand for a year, blog a little bit on the liks of blogger.com and then walk away. Finish. Their abandoned blogs are everywhere. Like bits of litter.
    Catherine recently posted..Special Offer- Learn Thai Podcast Premium Course

    • I would imagine that the Thais are a tough crowd for the missionaries; it must be a bit soul destroying to be faced day after day by the impenetrable stony wall that is the Thai smile :-)

  10. True, but with such a short time here (some missionaries teach English for around six months I’ve read) do you think they’d get it? Or are they prepared before arrival?

    I do believe I’ve answered my own question…

  11. Mormons are in my area and live in the building as well. Sometimes they try to chat in the elevator or assault you at the mall. I don’t think I hate them anymore – I just don’t think they have an original message.

    • Hi Dave, I can feel uncomfortable if I think that somebody is trying to convert me to their way of thinking. I would imagine that these missionaries are just the same as we when we get past their zeal. I actually recently had a conversation with a Mormon and we had more in common than I would have ever previously imagined.

  12. take a look at this site
    http://www.sarnelliorphanage.org/
    if you want to see GOOD in action
    mike has been in isaan for about 40 years
    and is loved by everyone
    cant really call him a missionary
    just a wonderful man with a mission

  13. Paul, one of my dearest friends is a fairly strict Morman. We get along great because she doesn’t use any god talk with me and I don’t try and lead her astray with my oh so wicked ways.

    I’m into caffeine, alcohol, and have a relaxed attitude towards sex – she’s into none of the above. But it works because when those are stripped away, we are just two gals with similar interests. Mostly, getting by in life.
    Catherine recently posted..Successful Thai Language Learner- Nils Bastedo

    • Hi Catherine, I think that if we focus on what we have in common we can be good friends with anyone. I think it is easy to become prejudiced against people (at least it is for me) without actually knowing them – something I’m working on, but far from mastering.

  14. Hi, I’m glad you brought this up. I must not be the only one thinking about it. Here’s the problem as I see it. These christian missionaries are NOT simply attempting to harmlessly convert people to their religion. Religion is a central part of the Thai culture and their way of life, therefore christian missionaries are trying to replace the core beliefs of the culture! These missionaries are engaged in cultural destruction. It’s an attempt to replace the native way of life with a supposedly superior system. When the mission of your religion is to replace the core beliefs of other cultures it says that you have no respect for native culture. It says “your way is inferior, you should be more like us”. And I find that very offensive. I do NOT consider christianity to be superior to Buddhism. In fact, I dare say that Buddhism is much more practical and useful than christianity could ever dream of being. And you can tell that clearly from the behavior of those who practice those two religions. Buddhism teaches awareness, introspection, oneness, etc. Christianity teaches fear in a sky-god, the sinfulness of mankind, and that you must believe in the “one true god” or you will forever burn in hell. These are two completely different ways of doing things. I think that Buddhism has a much greater chance of having usefulness as human civilization continues to advance. In order to believe in literal christianity, one must live in a world of fantasy. Buddhism is about living in the world as it actually is, without resorting to angry gods.

    If you consider the likely course of the human race, we will begin to explore our universe. We will have a presence on the Moon and Mars. We will begin to explore outside our star system. Can you imagine those kinds of humans believing in Christianity? The very idea is ludicrous. Will non-dual awareness have usefulness? Likely it will be *common knowledge*. This shows that the christian mission sets BACK human development, and does not advance it. Advanced humans will consider christian beliefs embarrassingly primitive, much like what we think of the rituals of primitive tribes.

    • Hi Gene, thanks for the comment. I understand what you are saying, but there are Thai Christians and religious tolerance is part of what makes the Thai culture so attractive. I don’t see Christianity posing much of a threat to Buddhism because there seems to be no rush to embrace this message. I also feel that those who do convert to Christianity could not have been getting much from Buddhism anyway – maybe it is better to be a good Christian than a bad Buddhist (and vice versa). Growing up I was given the option of finding out about different religions and I’m grateful for this – why should the Thais be denied the same? Some missionaries may be too pushy and backed by too much money, but a lot are genuinely nice people doing what they thing is right. I have shared some of the same opinions you express, but I’m not sure that I was being completely fair.

  15. Tan Posted: “The first time I ever had any exposure to missionaries was when I was an exchange student in Vietnam for a summer. ”

    You may be unaware of the history of Christianity in Vietnam. The Vietnam War (what the Vietnamese call the American War, after the French left), was NOT about containing communism. It was a nationalist war where a minority christian-influenced government was trying to control a majority Mahayana Buddhist culture. You may notice that after the war, most of the “boat people” and others who left Vietnam were Christians..that’s why. The US lost the war because they were on the side of the minority. The majority of Vietnamese wanted freedom from western repression. The christian influence there was part of the repression. Of course that’s not how the western press spins it. The French brought Christianity to Vietnam, managed to convert a minority, and then put that minority in power. The war was fought to bring the original culture back to Vietnam.

  16. Paul: Agree

    And btw, would like to meet up with you one of these days. I like your writing.

    Gene

  17. As a human being I have a sense and conscience which nothing will never change without my decision. Conversion is mainly happen according to decision. we have a freedom of life, whatever to do!! Good life to not bother others, instead our own belief which can make me happy life.

  18. “I agree that it should be up to us to choose what we believe in or what we don’t believe in – we should have this choice.”

    I certainly agree. Everyone is at the level of development that they are at! However, the question was “Are Christian missionaries in Thailand a Good thing?”

    And I believe the answer is NO. Christianity is a regressive movement. Christianity is not contributing to the advancement of our species, and therefore, NO, Christian missionaries are not a good thing. In fact, doing GOOD is not their goal. Their goal is converting people *for the glory of God*, not for the benefit of the human race. Their “good works” do not come free. All they expect in return is your immortal soul. Christianity *prevents* spirituality, which is probably why it’s so popular in America. We need a great awakening in this world, not more darkness and ignorance. More detail on my point of view here:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NfJbDmhZXE0

    • Hi Gene, I’m afraid that we’ll have to disagree on this one; although you do make some good points. I’m trying to avoid black and white thinking and disregarding a whole religious system as regressive would certainly fall under that category for me. All the meditation masters that I admire have been very tolerant of other people’s beliefs; I’d like to be more like them.

      I’ve recently came across some information about some of the Christian contemplative traditions, and some of these have reached remarkably similar findings to Buddhism. There are now Buddhist and Christian groups working together with scientists to increase our knowledge of human consciousness – I see this as very positive.

  19. Perhaps you are referring to Thomas Merton, the Catholic monk who studied Zen. Yes there are examples of this, but I would be willing to bet that 99% of Christians have never even HEARD of Thomas Merton. And I seriously doubt that christian missionaries have any interest Christian meditation; they’re usually not that cosmopolitan. Their interests are more…direct. Read up on “cultural imperialism” and “white man’s burden”. That’s really the agenda. I am very much in favor of tolerance, however when tolerance is only practiced in one direction you end up like the Tibetans.

    Once interesting problem to consider, on similar lines, is the rise of Dhammakaya in Thailand. Is it ok? Is it a cult? Is THAT brand of Buddhism “good” for Thailand? To me, that’s a bit of a harder question. See the excellent photo essay in Foreign Policy magazine. Here’s the link:

    http://www.foreignpolicy.com/articles/2011/01/20/close_encounters_of_the_buddhist_kind

  20. Would Christians accept these concepts or would they be extremely hostile to them? –>

    http://magazine.enlightennext.org/2011/01/25/conscious-evolution-with-barbara-marx-hubbard/

    • Hi Gene, my experience has been that Christians don’t all think the same. Some are very open to ideas like enlightenment. Here are views of Fr William Johnston ( an Irish Cahtolic priest) “I believe that there is a basic enlightenment which is neither Christian nor Buddhist nor anything else. It is just human.”
      http://www.orthodoxphotos.com/readings/future/zen.shtml

      So I can’t answer a question which starts ” would Christians accept…” because I doubt they all think the same, and I’m not a Christian so I can’t speak for them.

  21. Dear Paul and other posters,
    First of all, I thank you each for sharing your honest thoughts, opinions, and ideas in this thread. Paul – kudos to you for having the guts to post a relevant (and potentially controversial) question and seeking to foster good, honest communication about this and other topics. I think one major issue with today’s world is a lack of honesty with others or an apathy or negligence in communicating core, personal beliefs, thoughts, and ideas with others while demonstrating utmost love and respect for them. I appreciate you trying to do so and create some space for that to happen on your site.

    And second, forgive me for this long post. I thought it would be good to join in the discussion. I’m grateful for all your comments and hope you would give these a read too.

    I found this question intriguing because I’m a missionary in Thailand (6 years and counting…) and often wonder what Thais and other foreigners think of our presence and work. Believe me, I cringe along with many of you for much of the negative interaction you’ve had with Christians, both here in Thailand and abroad. I share your distaste for “baiting the hook” or “switcheroo” tactics that some may employ and prefer to be open and honest about our desire to love and serve others in the name of Jesus. Wouldn’t things be better if we all shared what we believe and retained great respect for others in doing so?

    I have utmost respect for my Thai Buddhist friends and many of them exhibit what Christians would call “Fruit of the Spirit” from Galatians 5:22 love, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control in their daily lives. Many to a greater degree than some who claim to be followers of Jesus! I understand that Christianity is pretty controversial and seen as closed-minded. Would you all agree that anything we believe could be seen as closed-minded? Those who would identify as open-minded could move towards a closed-mindedness when it comes to those who would say there’s absolute truth, right? The claims of Jesus (both his deity and mankind’s only hope for salvation – through grace not works) don’t sit well with many because they draw this ultimate, absolute, line.

    I thought it would be appropriate to weigh in here as a Christian missionary (the very subject of this post) and say that I have wrestled over many of the points you all have brought up. Will we have some detrimental effect on Thai culture by sharing the story of Jesus? As an artist and patron of the arts, I have great appreciation of Thai art forms, especially ancient forms of Raam Thai, Muay Thai, Poetry, and cuisine! From a Christian perspective I would posit that these are gifts from God (look at the distinctive qualities of all cultures) to be celebrated by Thai and foreigner alike. Even as Thailand is primarily Buddhist would it become any less Thai if many were to believe the claims of Jesus and become Christians? Did Korea become less Korean as Christianity grew? Would the US become less American if Buddhism continues to grow there? I don’t have all the answers but please know that I care very deeply about Thais as a people. Cultural identity is wonderful but for the Christian, our ultimate identity is in Christ.

    I sincerely hope that my desire to live and work among the Thai people would never be detrimental to them. I guess we all start from of beliefs and work out from them, don’t we? Jesus’ claim to be God and the only hope of salvation for anyone compels me to share this with those around me. If you thought you had a cure for cancer, would you share it with others? I think you can follow the analogy here. If you truly believed that Jesus was the only way to salvation why would you keep that from others?

    Paul’s question has given us all a chance to share our beliefs as well and in a sense we’re all trying (at one level or another) to see others come to our way of thinking. I agree with you that many Christians have been heavy-handed in doing so. I would say that that grieves the Spirit of Christ Jesus. If you read the gospels you’ll see that Jesus was both tender (as with the woman at the well) and harsh (with the religious leaders of the day) as he needed to be. His followers are simply sinners looking to a God of grace to save them. We’re miserable when it comes to engaging people as Jesus did. He was perfect after all.

    I would encourage all of us to form our opinions about others by getting to know them, seeking further understanding, and engage in meaningful dialogue. And to challenge them, like this question and subsequent posting did more me.

    For example, I’m pretty prejudice about the foreigners who travel to Bangkok for sex. A similar question, “Are Sex Tourists in Bangkok a good thing for Thailand?”, would likely yield a bevy of answers finding root in our core beliefs. One may say, “No problem! The girls love it and need the money!” – Another, “It shows disrespect for Thai women and Thai culture.” – and another “Prostitution at it cores destroys souls and degrades people who are precious in the eyes of God and made in his image!” I would whole-heartily say that sex tourism is seeking to destroy Thailand. Would you agree with that?

    I try to keep my motives and actions in check and your posts are invaluable in doing so. Unfortunately, followers of Jesus are flawed, broken people and fail miserably when it comes to sharing the love of Christ perfectly. I’m compelled to share the good news with others because I believe it is true, the Jesus gave his life for you. I do want to you to wrestle with that as being truth just as you may desire to help me wrestle over my core convictions.

    grace and peace to you all for the journey,
    Tim

  22. Very interesting blog with all the different opinions. Thank you Tim for your post from a Christian’s view point.

  23. Hey paul i am a student in fellowship academy christain school we are doing this project for bible class. But we have to contact a missonairy in thialand. Is it possable i could get your email that will help alot becuse we have to ask you some Questions.

  24. dear Paul,

    Paul firstly I want to asking are you from Catholic or Protestant? The
    reason I’m not from there, can help me one more thing in planning one day I
    want to move settled in southern Thailand permanantly can you be introduced christian community and church there because I am from malaysia. Sorry about my english writting very poor in english.

  25. My Very Dear Brother and Sisters in Christ hi?

  26. Hello. I guess this topic has been going on for a long time. Much longer than most missionary efforts for other countries as well as American communities here in the states. I came to see how people view other religions in Thailand…and overall I have concluded from many searches that they really are a welcoming people. I actually will be going there this summer to visit. It also saddens me to see just how much damage Christianity has done to its origins in the minds of people. I’m a Christian…but don’t associate myself with that terminology. It is so flippantly used and carries a lot of negative baggage. I also do not hold myself to the school of thought that we must save everyone from Hell…and that we must CHANGE everyone to the way I believe…or to the way I do things (culture/structure). I believe it is very destructive to go into a land and force our belief on anyone…to correct people…and to put down people that do not believe my way. The Thai culture and especially its art is sooooooooo beautiful and rich with history. I’m an art major and i have been fascinated with it since I took an art history class on far eastern culture. It really is amazing! While I would embrace anyone that is willing to discover Jesus…I would never recommend them to disown their culture…and I don’t believe God would either. I believe the bigger impact on the world is not through a dictatorship of religion…but of a helping hand and giving instead. I think some of these missionaries that preach doom and gloom miss the bigger image…God never said to condemn people…but to love and help/give. We cant change others…we can only change ourselves…and through that we can impact people. Not for them to change to our way…but to help people where they are at. If most churches could get that I believe there would be a better view of Christianity.

    • Hi Shane, I worry that trying to save the Thai people from Christianity might be as bad as saving them with Christianity. I agree with you 100% that the only people we should try to change is ourselves.

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