One of the perennial questions about Christianity in Thailand is why the church has traditionally grown so slowly compared to other countries where Protestant missionaries arrived around the same time. Ultimately, we don’t know for sure why the church grows more slowly or more quickly in a given place. The Holy Spirit blows where He wills and we don’t know where He will move or when (John 3:8). However, God does use people and methods in his work. So, from a human perspective, it is worth considering some of the factors why church growth has been slow in Thailand.
A primary reason for slow church growth has been a strong association of Buddhism with national identity. This has been true for hundreds of years but received a great boost in the early 20th century when Buddhism began to be strongly promoted as a mark of national pride. Thai leaders were eager to modernize their country in the areas of education, medicine, communication, transportation, etc. but becoming more modern did not mean becoming more secular. Buddhism has always been retained as a force for unifying the people of Thailand. As the Thai say, “To be Thai is to be Buddhist.” In China and Korea, which have both seen strong church growth, no single religion has been tied to being a loyal citizen. The strongest church growth in Thailand has been in the North where minority tribal groups with their own cultural identity have been historically influenced more by local animistic beliefs than Buddhism.
A second reason for slow church growth is likely the American Presbyterian missionaries’ shift of focus from direct evangelistic and church work to educational work in the first part of the twentieth century. They didn’t abandon evangelism entirely but the majority of their personnel and money, both missionary and Thai, were invested in mission schools. After World War II, the American Presbyterian mission diminished and eventually dissolved even as many evangelical and pentecostal churches and mission organizations began work in the country. Some of these new groups engaged in social ministries, such as homes for orphans, but the majority have focused on direct evangelism and church planting. The evangelistic focus of later twentieth-century missions organization and Thai Christians themselves have been important factors in Christian numerical growth in Thailand since World War II.
Other factors often cited for slow church growth in Thailand are a lack of contextualized religious language, worship styles, church structures, and leadership patterns. These are important and relevant for evangelism and discipleship in Thailand but may not the deciding factors in church growth. In comparison with 100 years ago, great strides have been made in trying to proclaim the Gospel in an understandable and accessible way for Thai listeners, and this is a positive development. But the key reason why Thai church growth has seen a dramatic uptick in recent years is likely the work of dedicated Thai evangelists and disciple-makers and the blessing of the Spirit of God. Missionaries have played their part and continue to do so, but the bulk of Christian growth in Thailand comes through Thai and tribal Christians, not foreigners.
In recent years, Thai Protestant churches have seen their strongest growth ever. Though Protestant Christians still only account for less than 1% of the population, half of all the churches in Thailand have been started in the past twenty-five years and the rate of growth for Christians in Thailand is increasing much faster than the growth rate for the general population in the country. So even though there is still the perception that the Thai church is growing very slowly, that is only a perception based on the past. The number of Christians may still be small, but the Thai church is growing more quickly than ever before.
As the dynamics of globalization, international travel, and communication change in the COVID-19 era, Christians should be glad for church growth in Thailand in the past, slow though it may have been, and hopeful for the future. Bad things happen and disappointments abound in this world, but the work of God goes on and the present rate of church growth should give Christians everywhere a reason to rejoice.
This blog post was first published on the author’s personal blog, 8 November 2020.