In Asia, Thailand is the go-to location for Christian conferences. Thanks to its sunny weather, low cost of living, bountiful hotels, and close proximity to countries closed to missionaries, Thailand is often the gathering spot for missionaries and international evangelical organizations. Though Theravada Buddhists make up about 93 percent of the population, the Thai government is open and accommodating to Christian groups, to the point where the country has become a popular spot for numerous mission agency headquarters.

Yet the freedom that Christians enjoy in Thailand hasn’t translated into a wide acceptance of Christianity by local Thais. Despite nearly 200 years of Protestant missions, only about 1.2 percent of the population are Christians. The question of why Thailand is such difficult soil for the seed of the gospel to grow has plagued missionaries, as many have seen little fruit for the years they’ve spent learning Thai, building relationships, and trying to introduce locals to the gospel.

CT asked two missionaries and three Thai church leaders about why they believe growth has been so slow in Thailand and what can be done to help Thais better connect with the gospel. They pointed to the reality of spiritual warfare, the challenge of communicating Christian concepts to Thais, a lack of discipleship, and the role of Buddhism in Thais’ cultural identity.

Allan Eubank, cofounder of Thai Christian Foundation and missionary in Thailand for more than 58 years, Chiang Mai

In Thailand, people experience multiple layers of powers and principalities. One of the reasons Christianity hasn’t grown in Thailand is because many of us do not fully understand the struggle against powers and principalities outlined in Ephesians 6:10–20. When I first received the calling to be an evangelist, I didn’t understand these powers. Neither did my theology professors in the 1950s and ’60s during the peak of rational criticism of the Bible.

In the beginning of my ministry, I struggled to reach people because I thought that their belief in evil spirits would pass away with education about different spirits, including the Holy Spirit. However, after 10 years, I realized that Thais needed to know more about who God is, why we need him, and what happens when we accept Jesus as our Lord and Savior. We then created a small booklet that talks about salvation called the Itract. Since then, I have seen more people responding to the gospel.

Another reason that Christianity hasn’t grown very quickly in Thailand is because Thai Christians often don’t look any different than the world. We have often given in to the temptation for power, material wealth, and sex. We have often been very arrogant, choosing not to repent when we do something wrong and choosing not to forgive those who have hurt our feelings.

As Christians, we try our best to evangelize and share the gospel with others despite our weaknesses. However, in the end, conversion happens in God’s own time. He will bring the harvest.

Manuel Becker, coordinator for YWAM Frontier Missions Thailand, Phitsanulok

The foremost reason for the apparent resistance of Thais toward Christianity is the inseparable intertwining of the cultural identity with religious affiliation to Buddhism. To be Thai is to be Buddhist. Consequently, embracing Christianity—which is viewed as a Western religion—entails losing one’s Thai identity, which results in significant social repercussions, as becoming a Christian usually means staying away from anything related to Buddhism. In Thai society, almost all important events include Buddhist elements.

Christians need to free the gospel from Western Christianity and allow Thais to explore ways to follow Jesus the Thai way without adopting Western forms that are foreign to their culture. This will affect the form of the gatherings of believers and how the gospel message is proclaimed. Instead of trying to plant megachurches, we should focus on smaller house churches that foster a familial atmosphere. The perception that clergymen are more important and holy than laymen needs to be overcome, and the priesthood of all believers needs to be promoted.

Only when Thais find incarnational ways of following Jesus will we see a greater kingdom breakthrough in Thailand.

Natee Tanchanpongs, lead pastor at Grace City Bangkok and former academic dean of Bangkok Bible Seminary

Over the years, the Thai church has often been the same as the world around it when she should be different, and different when she should be the same. For example, materialism, moralism, and class system have often looked the same in both society and the church. At the same time, the church has often used words and concepts that are foreign to the people around her. It’s possible that the Thai people haven’t fully embraced the gospel because the gospel message has not been clearly communicated and Christians in the church haven’t lived out the gospel of Jesus Christ in the ways that they should.

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D. A. Carson points out the truth of compatibilism, which means that God is sovereign while at the same time human beings are responsible for their actions. Jesus puts forward this twin truth when he says, “All those the Father gives me will come to me, and whoever comes to me I will never drive away” (John 6:37). Perhaps this is the best way to explain what happens in Thailand.

Jesus goes on to say that no one can come to him unless the Father draws or enables them (John 6:44, 65). In the end, God is the one who draws individuals to himself. There is thus a sense that what happens in Thailand is not within human control, just as corporate spiritual revivals are not ultimately caused by human beings and their actions.

Mali Boon-Itt, church leader and pastor’s wife at 4th Church Suebsampantawong, Bangkok

Christians haven’t been able to communicate across different worldviews. Even though we are speaking Thai, Buddhists don’t understand what we are saying because Christianity isn’t the same as the Buddhist worldview. Christianity doesn’t make sense to them, so it doesn’t touch their hearts.

Another problem that may impact Christians’ ability to be influential in Thailand is that there is a lot of corruption in churches. There are a lot of lawsuits where Christians are suing one another. This is not a great witness to the Thai people.

In order to effectively share the gospel in Thailand, you not only need to know Thai well, but you also need to know both Christian theology and Buddhism very well. You need to be able to communicate in a way that Buddhists appreciate and understand. In order to do that, you need to understand how to translate the concept of redemption in a way that Buddhists can understand. This isn’t only a problem in Thailand. It’s a problem across the Buddhist world.

Nurot Panich, executive pastor of Acts of Christ Church in Bangkok

Christianity hasn’t grown in Thailand because Thai churches often lack unity. There is a lot of conflict in churches, and a lot of problems arise within and across organizations.

Also, Thai church leaders often act as bosses rather than managers. In Thai culture, it’s widely accepted that lower-level leaders cannot disagree with senior leaders. This means that rising church leaders must always follow the senior pastors. This is a problem because sometimes junior leaders have good ideas, but because of their status, they cannot propose them.

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Thai church leaders also struggle to provide discipleship, especially for new believers. Churches in Thailand might evangelize well but often fail to disciple new converts. Only about 10 percent of new converts continue to get involved in church. Discipleship is a long-term process that requires commitment. Because many church leaders don’t want to make that commitment, they prefer evangelizing at a one-time event.

As Christians, the best way to share about Christ is to allow our life to be a good witness whether we are at home, at school, or the marketplace. No matter where we go, we should represent Christ. When people see that our actions glorify the Lord, they will be impacted in a positive way.