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In terms of religious activity, the southern Thailand can be characterized as a conservative region. The rate of conversion from one religion to another is minimal here, which makes this area an interesting subject for debate. As a kingdom, Thailand has over 90% of population being Buddhist while the second most popular religion in this country is Islam, with about 5% of followers1. This paper will explore how the southern part of Thailand is unreached in terms of evangelical work. It will also explore how to reach out to the region effectively.
There is no official religion in the Kingdom of Thailand. For this reason, there is almost absolute freedom of worship in the country. Whoever, the king is required by the constitution to be a follower of Ravada Buddhism. The Thai Chinese citizens affiliate themselves to several religions, all of which are of Chinese origin, while only small percent of them are followers of Ravada Buddhism. Among many religions of Chinese origin, there are the Chinese folk religions such as the Taoism. The Thais who are Islamist by confession associate themselves with Tai Folk Religions that are presented in several types. More often than not, the above religions are loosely generalized as Ravada Buddhism in religious classifications, and above 90% of the population belong to this large group. Around 5 % of the population is Muslims while the rest of the population follows other religions. The 5% of the Muslim population is located in the southern part of the country and comprise the Thai Malays people.
The southern part of Thailand is a region that and remains uncovered in terms of Christian evangelical work, with the percentage of Christians being lower than one. However, the local population is receptive and tolerant to religious incomers. Among the inconsiderable number of representatives of Christianity, only 2% is are involved in in evangelical work. Thus, the low percentage of Christian population can be attributed directly to low evangelical work in this region.
Nevertheless, there is an advantage that both the local and international missionaries including evangelists can exploit, which is the fact that the local population is friendly and receptive. Throughout the course of history, the dominant religion tolerates other religions and welcomes them, as well as accepts their ideologies. There have been instances when one of the minor religions introduced in the area, the Muslims, encouraged intolerance and chaos among the rest of population. Such events resulted into numerous murders and vast property damage, due to which these confessions were described as having separatist ideologies.
The history, culture and language of the population of southern Thailand are inherited by the diverse people who live there. Thailand is the country that is characterized by remarkable heterogeneity in the distributing of numerous tribes as well as people of various origins. A vast percentage of the population is the Siamese people (the Thais) who represent the most numerous cultural group; 46 % of their population is accumulated in the central region of the kingdom, slightly higher than in the south. The south of the country is inhabited by the Malays people mostly while another part - 30% to 40% - of the kingdom’s population comprises people of the Chinese origin (Thai Chinese people). One more group of population of Thailand is introduced by the pure Chinese immigrants and few Jewish families while the rest is an assortment of other peoples from oversees who make a very small percentage.
Thai culture and tradition (from the Siamese people) are the most dominant in the kingdom3. It is significantly influenced by the Chinese culture in terms of food, religion and festivals. It is said that the original culture of the Siamese people was influenced by the interaction with the Indians, which converted the Siamese people to Buddhism. Co-existence of these two communities led to acceptance of Buddhism the Siamese. There are several languages that are utilized in the Southern part of Thailand. The most commonly used language in this part of the country is the Patani-Malays as up to 83% of the population speaks this language.
The southern part of Thailand is moderately developed and is of strategic importance to the rest of the kingdom. It must be mentioned that this place had been experiencing a continuous economic boom with the rest of the country for almost 100 years and was also democratized in the 1990s. By the beginning of the 20th century, the Gross Regional Product (GRP) of this region was $25,274.064. It has the regional economic centers such as the city of Hat Yaj that is located in the Deep South. The cities of Surat, Thani and Phuket in the southwest of the country belong to other manufacturing and service centers. The region is covered by two Asian super highways and has well developed air transportation lines.
As it has been mentioned above, the most popular religion in the area is Buddhism; the second religion in the number of followers is Islam. However, this religion became the subject of numerous conflicts in the year 2004 when it was engaged in terror activities to drive their separation agenda.
Thailand was the only country that escaped colonization and experienced a period of development when the rest of Asia was under European rule. The economic development was spread uniformly throughout the kingdom. This was the reason why the southern part hosted many immigrants from the surrounding countries. A good example of such migration is exhibited by the presence of many immigrants including several jewfish families from as far as Persia.
Despite the freedom of conscience, Christianity is not spread in the southern part due to the lack of evangelical work in this region.
After the introduction of Christianity by the Portuguese, the religion did not spread as in other parts of the world. The approach that the Portuguese used could not be embraced as they described themselves as special people, and the locals saw their religion as the one for the special people. Thereafter, the region faced missionary activities that preached and established churches. The department of religion is the custodian of all the data and statistics concerning all religious activities in Thailand.
As far as the Thailand’s systems were established by Buddhism, the department of religion has not been biased in matters of religion. There are five Christian’s denominations that are listed by this department: The Roman Catholic Church, The Seventh–Day Adventist, The Southern Baptists, The Church of Christ In Thailand And The Evangelical Fellowship Of Thailand.
Although the department of religion did not register other religious groups in the recent past, it does not restrict any religion from exercising their freedom of conscience. Any religion, old or new, can be confessed without any restriction. Additionally, there is a law that puts a ceiling on the missionary resources in terms of finances, equipment and personnel that should be allowed in the kingdom. However, the government does not enforce this law, and any religion can bring in resources for their religious work. The government has even moved in since 1980 to provide tokens for Christian programs in contrast to the previous years when it only funded the construction of Buddhist structures5.
There is also a group of missionaries that are not documented but are actively engaged in evangelical work. These include The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, among other minor religious groups that start prayer groups and establish churches.
The unique history of the minor religions presented in the region, such as the Judaism and Islam, was established by immigrant families who spread them among the locals. The confession of these religions increased when the families grew.
The people and the government of the southern Thailand are very receptive to visitors and people of divergent religious views. The community is welcoming, the neighborhood is flourishing, and there are no signs of poverty in this area. This newly industrialized nation has its southern side moderately developed, with a high level of health care and education quality. In most cases, evangelical efforts are not interrupted. In the southern part of Thailand, the family unit is much respected, and every member of the society affiliates him/herself to the family. In the Thai and Malays culture, elderly people are highly respected and every member of the society is expected to follow their advice6.
The southern region of Thailand is a part of the Malay Peninsula that has a unique physical geography. The region covers almost 71000 square kilometers. It is bounded in the north by Kra Isthmas, which is its narrowest part. The western coasts are steeper as compared to the eastern ones that are generally flat, with many river plains. The southern part has the Tapi River in the Surat Thani region. This is also the region that has Phum Duang in Surat area. These two rivers flow for distances of over eight thousand kilometers, and their river plains cover 10% of the southern part of Malay Peninsula. There is another smaller river in this region, which flows for over 1000km7. There are several lakes in the area, and the biggest of them is Songkhla Lake, which covers one thousand square kilometers. Among the artificial lakes of this part of the country, the biggest is the Chiao Lan, and its area comprises sixty five square kilometers. This region is also the home to Khao Sok National Park in Surat Thani. The western coast is characterized by limestone hills. The peninsula has several mountains, and the highest is Khao Luang. The region is provided with the necessary infrastructure including network of roads, rail and air transport namely, there are two Asian highways and a rail line.
The following map shows how the Malay Peninsula is well covered by a road net work such that the entire region is easily accessible. The terrain is relatively flat apart from the western coast that is mountainous. The physical features of the peninsular are also shown as well as the boundaries of various provinces.
Fig 1: shows the Malays peninsular, physical features and road network
The southern Thailand has a reach history in terms of religious activity. The history of Christianity is complicated in the kingdom due to the fact that this area was not colonized. The formation of Christianity, which is the foundation of western civilization, was not planted as it was elsewhere. Additionally, the southern part of the kingdom was not subject to effective evangelical work.
There has been over 180-190 years of missionary work in Thailand while the history is of the southern part of the country is rather short. There are instances of fatalities that are connected with the evangelical work. For example, in 1970, in the height of the Vietnamese war two evangelists lost their lives1. In this time period, many refugees moved to Cambodia while others came to Thailand. The southern region that had a significant percentage of Muslims felt a need to start their movement against the Bangkok government where two evangelists from Holland and Wales Minka Hanskamp and Margaret Morgan were caught in the crossfire and lost their lives. The number of evangelists who lost their lives in the larger Thailand amounts to thousand. Millions and millions of US dollars have been dedicated and used in evangelical work in this region. Research conducted in the year 2008 indicates that the number of evangelical Christians in this country is around 370000, which accounted for only 0.5% of the population2. This number includes even the visiting ones, which means that the local percentage is even lower. The situation in the south of the country is even worse as there has been several challenges that limited evangelical work.
In the northern Thailand, the number of evangelists is much higher. The north should be a point of reference, especially when evangelists are planning and executing evangelical work. In addition, the Muslim community in the Deep South sometimes engages in violence, which may discourage potential evangelists. Such evangelic representatives as The Church of Christ of Latter Days Saints and the Seventh Day Adventist, among others have tried to imbed their work in the south challenging, but they faced a number of challenges. Evangelists often lack hosts, and this limits the amount of time they can conduct their preaching work.
Another challenge that the evangelists in the south experience is demoralization from the fact that there are very few Christians in the region.
In a place where people believe that turning to other religions may cause punishment from the spirits that they worship, there is a strong need for people who can disprove such traditions. The locals need to have an example demonstrating that there are no consequences of attracting another religion.
The church in the southern Thailand is now experiencing a state of very slow growth in terms of increase in the believers. The new Christian converts are very few, and sometimes, the amount is increased due to the international evangelical groups that go back after their assignment is done. The number of Christians in the whole country of Thailand is only slightly above 3700003. It is crucial to note that the distribution is uneven, and the northern part of the country hosts the majority of them. Another place that is characterized by a higher concentration of Christians is the capital Bangkok. Unlike the north where the evangelical work can be assigned to the locals, the south has no structures that can support such systems effectively. In some places in the Deep South, the systems available are not able to handle evangelical work in a sustainable way; this means that they cannot establish self-sustaining evangelical groups without investing in training and empowering the people.
In some parts of the south, there are no enough people to form churches or other evangelical groups. In some cases, there are only isolated groups or individuals who represent Christianity. One challenge that the church is facing is the deep entrenchment of Buddhism into the lives of the locals. The kingdom is built around Buddhism, and it has become the national ideology.. The informal title of the king is the ‘keeper of Buddhism’. Thus, people see converting to Christianity as a betrayal of their nation. They feel like it is denouncing their national identity. Buddhism is also connected with numerous spirits, which makes the community install many shrines and hold festivals that are meant to apiece the spirits.
The last challenge that the church is facing since the year 2004 is security issues. The reason for this is the violent actions of the representatives of Islam who sought for more recognition and instilled fear among the confessions that are willing to gain more popularity. Since that period, the violence on the part of Muslims has become a major concern of evangelists in the area.
There are several strategies that today’s missionaries are working on. There has been a common observation of the religions that are better established in the south by families that confess them. This is the case with the Muslims who originate from Malays ethnic groups. Another example is the spread of Christianity in the north where Christian missionaries have been living in the community. The Jews have always been living in the south. It is only that the Judaism is associated with the Jewish community that other communities might not be interested in.
The church has to work on strategies that will ensure there is a stable community of Christians in the south. Aspiring Christians and ensuring that new converts have the support needed will assist the south to have greater contact with the Christians. In spite of the fact that the southern part is weakly subject to the missionaries’ work, the problem is aggravated by the fact that there are very few residents who are Christians. The missionaries need to focus their work on spending enough time with the community.
Another strategy should involve coming up with community projects jointly to increase the contact with the people.
Since the government structures are based on the principles of Buddhism, the conditions become very different from other countries where the constitutions and the rights and freedoms are based on the Bible, which makes such people have a close contact with Christianity. On the other hand, the government and the rights systems are very entrenched in Buddhism in Thailand.
For these reasons, there is a need to focus efforts to avert the people from Buddhism and other religions to imbed Christianity.
Due to the above observation, the other strategy that could be useful includes working with the community through various programs in the course of evangelical mission. As a part of evangelists preach and spread the gospel to the people, another part of them can engage the community in such activities as supporting orphans and low-income families. Additionally, the Christian community can liaise with evangelism teams to support the mentally challenged in the southern region. It is crucial to note that the society of southern Thailand differs from that in India or Africa since it is well developed and has advanced healthcare and education systems. Still, the above mentioned vulnerable groups need support, which will give the evangelist an opportunity to spread gospel and the love of Christ.
In the 1930, there was an alliance of missionaries who sailed to the kingdom of Thailand to spread good news. They did their work, and in the year 1950, they faced a serious problem with the local community5. The alliances encountered many people who suffered from leprosy and who required immediate care. There were thousands of sick people, and the alliance began an outreach program to cater for them. After ministering to the lepers and working in the community for long, Maranatha Bible School had been characterized as a major breakthrough in Asia and the whole world. This was the first school in the world to begin and run a four-year course for people with leprosy. Since this alliance of missionaries arrived to Thailand, over 110 churches have been started, with over 7000 of followers who came to churches to hear the word6. This alliance ministry was engaged in training ministers, evangelists and several other community support programs. The most important thing is that the alliance took its time to engage in the society for long, and this was the reason for success.
This is how Christianity was introduced in the north and Bangkok. In the south, missionaries need to follow this strategy and utilize it. After preaching the world, there is a need for evangelists to run projects in the community and relate intimately with people. Thus, evangelists need to live among the southern community and spread the love of Christ. This will aid greatly in establishing Christianity in the region so that its standards could be accepted among the people.}}
A church sending a missionary group to the southern Thailand should be prepared to be engaged in a long mission. As it can be seen in the above discussions, short missions to the area may not leave a lasting impact. There is a need for a long-term plan where the missionaries sent by church should have multiple goals. Still, the overall mission should make plans for an extended time period.
As it is evident from the gospel books, Christ himself did not introduce a church during his life. He spread the will and the love of the Father. He talked about the kingdom of God and implemented all that he taught in his life through love, kindness and compassion for people. Still, he demonstrated his submission to the Father.
In such a way, the missionary work should first concentrate on the hearts of the people by teaching them the love. In Matthew 16:18 Jesus said to Simon Peter, "And I say also unto thee, that thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church; and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it." Since Jesus did not start any physical structure or a church, the church that he built on Simon Peter was the embodiment of his faith. Through his work and teachings, Jesus built a strong foundation of faith in Peter and his followers. The church nased on strong love and faith in Jesus Christ cannot be shaken.
Therefore, the focus of any missionary should be put on building strong foundation of faith among the residence of the southern region. The process should be continuous, and it is natural that the missionaries will face a number of obstacles. Christ himself took a step by step approach and was an example for his followers. Being an example means that the group has to be based within the community for long enough. The engagement between the community and the missionaries becomes even more effective when the missionary group engages in activities that show their compassion for the community.
Missionaries working among this group of people should take serious steps to de-entrench the locals from the fear of spirits. Most of the people in the southern part of Thailand as well as anywhere in the kingdom cannot even imagine shifting religions due to fear of spirits that are attended to in shrines, temples, among many other places. Additionally, they also need to delink the religion and national identity. People need to understand that everyone who converts to Christianity does not betray his nation or kingdom.
Additionally, the missionaries working in this area have to dispel the fear of spirits. People should understand that they have a right to choose their religion freely, without fearing spirits. The missionaries need to help adopt this thought in the community not trivializing the religion of the natives.
For missionaries living and working among the community, it will be important to understand that some things are better demonstrated than taught, while at the same time continue spreading the good news. It can be very hard to teach about the love of God while doing nothing about the weak, afflicted and vulnerable. It means that the love has to be demonstrated. In the book of Luke 17: 11: 19, Jesus healed ten leapers. Jesus demonstrated that the welfare of people was very crucial. Whenever there was a need for help, he temporarily suspended his teaching to help the needy person(s). This approach was introduced tested in Thailand where the alliance missionaries started a program to minister to lepers, which was a great success in making the mission’s work being accepted by the community. The love of God has to be practical. In John 3:16, God loved the world and proved it with his actions. Whenever the love of God is taught, it has to be demonstrated through action so that people can be able to relate to it.
As discussed earlier in the paper, the ethnic communities in this place and the members of the Buddhist majority are very receptive to foreigners. A recent survey conducted indicated that the locals did not find the name Jesus or God offensive. This indicated that they would not be offended by people talking about Christianity. Therefore, the framework for preaching and teaching in order to spread the gospel needs to be holistic and robust.
At the same time, the missionaries need to be very careful in order to escape dealing with hostile communities. In the recent past, there was a hostile separatist movement in the Deep South, the representatives of which killed innocent people and destroyed property. Apart from their political ambitions, they have been known to be violent to foreigners and people who wish to introduce another religion. The largest population of Muslims is presented in Deep South. For this reason, safety precautions should be taken to avoid injuries or fatalities.
If a church or a missionary group wishes to send laborers to the southern Thailand, the church must decide on several things. The best strategy for accomplishing this should include a reconnaissance study to identify the needs of the laborers. For instance, it is now known that the community is mostly peaceful and receptive; there is freedom of worship there that is supported by the government; the area is covered by the transport and communication systems and has other infrastructure. It is also known that less than one percent of the population is confess Christianity and that the region is unreached evangelically. However, the church or the missionary group should identify the immediate needs of the society, especially of those representatives who need assistance, such as widows, orphans, street families, lepers, mentally ill, among others.
The best strategy for such laborers should involve working with the communities as this will increase contact with its people. The missionaries should work with the community in programs that will make people absorb the main message. This strategy will also portray Christianity as a caring religion, which is admissible and desirable. This strategy worked in Africa and China where Europeans worked with schools and health facilities. Afterwards, people would easily convert to Christianity as it was seen to be helpful. The services that were rendered to the locals increased contact between the missionaries and the locals, which significantly boosted the level of trust and good will between the two groups.
Arrival of groups armed only with sound equipment and teaching materials might miss-portray Christianity. If it is only evangelists who are seen going around and preaching and teaching about the kingdom of God, the whole concept of God’s love might be lost.
The principle of the compassion of Jesus Christ might not be captured, and some may be left wondering how important this Christianity is. The host community might think that the group is selfish and simply want to attract more members. Finally, such an approach would interrupt the important contact with the locals, through which the missionaries could teach and demonstrate the love of God. Obviously, the focus should be put on living with the communities. The missionary groups should focus on living among the community.
The missionary group has to deviate from past practices that did dot add any value to missionary work. It is important to note that the fruits of any successful evangelical work are the establishment of a thriving church. While the group engages in serving the community, they need to involve in training the local communities on how to run a church. This is very crucial and will ensure that the church is sustainable in the long run to ensure that the . There has to be a church that is independent, sustainable in the long run so that evangelical work continues even when the missionary group is back to their country. The missionary group should have a strategy to start a church after mobilizing, preaching and teaching the love of God to the local community. To enhance the functioning of such a church, there needs to be training as well as capacity building of the trusted leaders who would form and maintain the church. The established church should also be informed that they are expected to evangelize to the rest of the community in order continue to spread gospel to the community.
There are societies and communities in the world that have not received the message of salvation. Such communities deserve a chance to be evangelized. There are several constrains that prevent evangelists from spreading the gospel. Any evangelical group and missionaries have a duty to overcome all the challenges and ensure that the word is received by all. One of such places that require the concerted efforts of missionaries as well as other evangelical groups is southern Thailand. The population of Christians in this region is very low. The percentage of Christians is less than 1% of the population while the religion, with the majority of believers in these places, is receptive and does not restrict evangelical work. This poses a challenge for evangelist to engage the community through evangelism so that people can receive the word of God. In order to start effective evangelical work in this region, it is important to consider the background information about the community. Additionally, effectively reaching out to these communities as well as establishing structures that will continuously evangelized to the communities is important.