Christian Missionaries in Thailand Revisited – A Missionary Responds

Last year I posted on the topic of Are Christian Missionaries in Thailand a Good Thing? . This article generated some interesting comments at the time and people continue to join in the debate a year later. The most recent comment to the thread was by an actual Christian missionary. I found his side of the story so interesting that I’ve decided to turn it into a new post on the topic. Tim’s comments are in italics.

Importance of Honesty and Effective Communications

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.

Thanks Tim, I agree that many of the problems that we have with other people could be resolved with clearer communication. It is just so easy to get caught up by the ‘in-group’ mentality where we demonize anyone who is in the ‘out-group’ . It is a personal battle for me to keep reminding myself that just because people have a different worldview it does not mean that they are against me. I can hold my opinions and be a good person and so can they.

Rice Bowl Christians

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.

I do feel that trying to coerce anyone into joining a religion is a bad thing, and I’m glad that you appear to share my view. I realize that the believers who use such tactics are in the minority, but they can do a great deal of harm all the same. They are using a cynical ploy which I think is ultimately self-defeating anyway. People should not be asked to change their beliefs in exchange for food, gifts or free education. The history of ‘rice bowl Christians’ does suggest that many return to their former beliefs once they are more secure in life, but it still feels wrong to me. It is my experience with this type of tactic that has led to an almost kneejerk distrust of missionaries. I can easily fall into the trap of tarring everyone with the same brush, and this is why it is so good for me to hear from people like you.

The Problem with Beliefs

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 sometimes look upon beliefs and opinions as a necessary evil. I don’t know how we can survive without them, but they come with a heavy price. Every time I take on a belief it is like I’ve closed a door in my mind, and if I close enough of these doors it will lead to complete closed mindedness. So yes, I fully agree with you that anything we believe could be considered closed-minded.

I do not think it is possible for any human to have access to ultimate truth – that is one of my beliefs. How could we possibly know if anything is ultimately true? Even if I woke up in heaven tomorrow I could still question if any of it was real. This is why I’m not only skeptical about strong religious beliefs but of any beliefs (including scientific). I look upon the world as one huge mystery. I don’t know the answers, and I’m not convinced that other people know much more than me, but I have to allow for the possibility that I’m wrong.

I can’t say with 100% certainty that your claims for Jesus are wrong, and it would mean closing my mind if I were to believe that. On the other hand, it would be equally closed minded for me to accept the opposite conclusion. This leaves me in a position where I have to think, ‘Tim could be right about Jesus’, but of course the same would apply to every other religious belief. This is why I struggle with the Christian idea that they have access to the ultimate truth.

The Truth About Thai Culture

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.

Many of the things I admire about Thailand do have Buddhist roots, but they are under far more threat from modernity than Christianity. I don’t believe that culture should be a static thing anyway – so you do have a valid point here. It is the Thai people who shape their own culture, and if they want to embrace Christianity then that will become part of their identity. It is a bit patronizing of us foreigners to feel that we have to save Thailand from a foreign religion.

I come from a country that is predominately Christian, but I was allowed to explore other religions such as Buddhism and Taoism. It would be hypocritical for me to say that Thai people shouldn’t have the same opportunity. I don’t see Christianity ever becoming a dominant religion in Thailand so the threat is exaggerated anyway.

The Right to Spread Beliefs

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.

One of the things that attracted me to Buddhism was that nobody tried to convert me. I had to seek out information and teachers. This way of spreading beliefs feels more legitimate to me – if something requires a ‘hard sell’ it automatically makes me suspicious. I understand that some Christian groups feel it is their duty to spread the word, and that is their motivation for coming to places like Thailand. As far as I can tell they aren’t doing anything illegal and in all likelihood are doing at least some good.

I think the problem with comparing Jesus with a cure for cancer is that there would be no need to send missionaries to spread the word about such a cure. The fact that it was so obviously beneficial would mean that the news would spread like wildfire. The problem with religious beliefs is that they involve things that are not easily proved or accepted. So I don’t think it is a fair comparison unless the cancer cure was a faith based treatment. The question of whether people are justified in spreading their strongly held opinions isn’t so clear cut. I can think of plenty of examples where people should not be allowed to spread their beliefs – even if they do think it is beneficial to do so.

Christian Missionaries versus Sex Tourists

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?

You do make a valid criticism here, but I think it would be unfair to make black and white judgments. The problem is that the word ‘sex tourist’ has been used so much that it has become a bit meaningless. I would say that a significant number of those labeled as sex tourist come to Thailand looking for companionship more than anything else. Many of them are older guys who probably didn’t have much luck with relationships back in their home countries. They come to Thailand to meet girls in a bar and will typically fall in love. In exchange for companionship (which would probably include at least occasional sex) they will then take care of this girl and her family. Some people might object to such relationships as morally wrong, but I’m not so certain. I think you are justified in pointing out a double standard here, but I don’t think either missionaries or sex tourism are black and white issues.

People are Flawed

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.

Tim I really appreciate that you have shared your side of the story here. You do make some valid points, and I feel that my understanding of what compels missionaries to come to Thailand has increased. I agree that all humans are flawed, and the best we can do is give life our best shot. I hope other people with add their own comments in reply to your well written side of the story.

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10 thoughts on “Christian Missionaries in Thailand Revisited – A Missionary Responds

  1. Paul, for me the missionary issue is a double edged sword, as is the ‘sex tourism’ matter. Believe me, as a female farang, I have my own opinions, which changed after a few visits to Thailand and a year long stay in LOS.

    Even after all of that I was still a little gobsmacked to watch this on youtube Don’t be put off by the title, it actually looks at the problem? from a few sides. The most daunting part for me, was the farang husband pageant!

    1. Dear Snap,
      If you would be willing to elaborate, I’d be interested in hearing more about your opinion concerning the opposing edges of both the missionary issue as well as the sex tourism matter. Naturally a double-edged sword implies positive and negative aspects and ironically both sides of a sword can cut pretty deeply.

      Concerning the missionary issue, it would be good to hear your opinion since you’re a foreigner and have lived in Thailand for a time. Perhaps you would identify with a bumper sticker I saw in the US that I found pretty humorous but sadly accurate – it read “Dear Jesus, please save me from your followers!” Anyway – what are some of your thoughts here?

      Also – in terms of sex tourism, you mentioned that your opinions have changed some after spending some time in Thailand. I think your opinion as a foreigner and woman would interesting if you would feel comfortable sharing.
      Thank you

      1. Tim I think Lloyd summed my feelings up perfectly – “I do not believe religious charities should be allowed to “mix” their beliefs with helping those in need and less fortunate. There is enough to be done without the need to bringing about secondary, or hidden, motives.”

        If you help someone, do you put conditions on that help? I do like the bumper sticker, but in fairness, I’m not a religious person.

        What I heard from Thai people, or saw in Thailand:

        Being able to speak English in Thailand opens the doors to opportunities e.g. moving to tourist destinations like BKK or Pattaya, for the purpose of prostitution. I was told that many of the girls from rural areas have a better command of English, than those living in towns or cities, because they’ve been taught by missionaries. Ironic!

        When I first started to visit LOS, the sight of old farang men with extremely young Thai women on their arms, made me cringe with disgust, at the men, not the girls. Years later a bloke told me a story of how he’d been living with a Thai lady for four years, accumulating quite a few major assets, in her name. Long story short, she showed up one day with her Thai husband and he lost the lot.

        That was the first of many, many similar stories, that changed the tide of my thinking. ‘Open slather’ comes to mind, with more often than not, someone from either side, being hurt, losing hope for their future and/or a small fortune.

        I wish there was a simple solution. However, if there isn’t a public welfare system to spea of, and the belief that Thai women are somehow more submissive than western women, and if girls continue to be encouraged to pursue the farang marriage fairytale, and if the production of ‘man mirrors’ continues, the situation will continue.

        Personally I’m not against prostitution, so long as it’s by choice and not due to necessity, such as feeding your children and parents, or to support a drug habit. And, for the record, I spent a few days mingling with some bar girls while visiting a friend’s establishment in Pattaya. Very lovely ladies. As were other ladies (not in the trade) I met in CM, but for most of them desire to nab a farang husband is foremost.

        Ask Stray (my husband) and he’ll tell you he was viewed/treated differently, nicer, when I was with him, than when he was walking around on his own. Obviously not in a bar area, just in general.

        On the bright side, I have met mixed couples (regardless of where and how they met) that are happy and leading normal family lives. But I believe they’re in the minority.

        I think I may have gone completely off track, or zig zagged a little, but these are my personal feelings and observations and are in no way intended to offend or disrespect.

  2. Paul, your answers are well written, informed and well read, personally I would have deleted the response without reading it 🙂

    I do not believe any religion should be allowed to “spread” their word through charity, if people have a “calling”, desire or want to help those in need or less fortunate, why do people feel the need to bring their beliefs into it, surely the feeling of goodwill is enough.

    My wife and I anonymously donate more than 2 Million Baht per year through several non denominational charities in Thailand and surrounding countries as we don’t have the time at this stage in our lives to help directly, the feeling that gives us, as a childless couple, lasts long in our hearts and minds.

    As for you the questions “Are Christian Missionaries in Thailand a Good Thing”, anecdotal evidence or beliefs aside I do not believe religious charities should be allowed to “mix” their beliefs with helping those in need and less fortunate. There is enough to be done without the need to bringing about secondary, or hidden, motives.

    1. Hi Lloyd, I do admire the fact that you give your donations anonymously like that. I like that you don’t need to make a big deal of your good work. The Thais have a proverb about this ‘putting gold leaf on the back of the Buddhist statue’ (ปิดทองหลังพระ) – i.e. not doing good to be seen to be doing good.

      I agree that it is preferable when there are no strings attached to charity, but I can’t fully go along with your opinion. It was a Buddhist temple that helped me finally give up alcohol. They treated me for free, and I will always feel indebted to them for that. I’m so glad that places like that exist. It would be hypocritical of me to criticize religious charities; although I will say that there was never any push for me to accept Buddhism as a religion. I fear that if religious charities like Thamkrabok did not exist things might not be so good for me right now.

      1. Very unusual to have see such a thoughtful and rational approach by someone with (what I understand to be) your beliefs.

        Personally I don’t advocate any religious missionary ideas, but the kind of charity work you benefited from at the temple is a perfect example of how even deluded fantasists can do good in the world.

        But it would be very hard to avoid trying to do any conversion work alongside coming from a Christian POV. Maybe if you pretended you were working in a hardline Muslim country where such activities are capital offenses.

        Since you’re relatively sex-positive, you should beware that many many Christian missionaries have turned out to be abusers that way, and not just Catholics. Some actually set up their whole organization structure with institutionalized abuse as the underlying goal from the beginning. Rare I admit, but do be on the lookout, and build safeguards into your procedures in any such organized outreach.

        1. Hi HansBkk, thanks for commenting. I’m sure there are some bad people in these groups who will exploit others sexually. People will have their own motives for doing things and for believing things – sometimes these motives are not good.

  3. One of the many things I love about Thailand is the lack of aggressive believers. Or maybe I’ve just been lucky?

    In the US hardly a day goes by without a mention of God, church, and the phrase “I’ll pray for you”. In the UK (where I spend most of my time away from Thailand), it’s not so much (thank god 😉

    When the opportunity arises, one of my Thai friends will try to get me to prostrate myself in front of monks but it’s not a hard sell. After the suggestion, which I always refuse, I’m left to wander around on my own. It’s not a rude rebuff, and not taken as such by her or anyone around.

    1. Hi Catherine, I grew up in Ireland which has a reputation for religious strife. I didn’t notice much of this growing up in the republic. Most people there don’t talk much about their religious convictions in public – those that do are viewed as a bit odd. It is generally understood that religion is a personal thing. I remember seeing evangelists for the first time on TV and being a bit shocked by it all.

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