If “to be Thai is to be Buddhist,” as the common catchphrase in Thailand goes, how does the church help a Thai Christian reconcile their cultural and spiritual identities?
For pastor Chukiat Chaiboonsiri, pastor of Creation Church in Thailand, the answer is to “bridge the gap” between Thai culture and Christianity by showing Thais how they can hold on to their heritage and still follow Jesus wholeheartedly.
When Church Is Family
Creation Church is more than a group of individuals who pull into the church’s dirt parking lot on their motorcycles and in their cars. When they round the narrow, blind hairpin turn on the back alley and approach the concrete church building, they’re home—they are a family that does life together.
Many Thai churches feel like an extended family because Thai Christians often are cold-shouldered by biological family members and the non-Christian community. Christians have had to take a step away from their home culture in order to be Jesus followers because so much of Thai culture and customs revolve around Buddhism.
Chukiat knows this unfortunate reality firsthand. He and his wife, Sirinthorn, became Christians during college through the witness of Thai classmates. Both of their families were angry at their decision to leave Buddhism. Chukiat’s family slowly came around; his mother, siblings, and cousins, ten in total, committed their lives to Christ. His father is the only stalwart Buddhist. Sirinthorn’s family hasn’t believed—yet.
Chukiat is a bivocational pastor. He is an economics professor at Chiang Mai’s leading university. He arranges his schedule so that he only teaches classes in the mornings and can devote his afternoons and weekends to the church. When he shares the gospel with the college students on campus, he empathizes grappling with the cost to follow Jesus. But he also assures them a new, eternal family has the welcome mat ready for them.
This sense of belonging, of family, is fundamental in reaching Thailand for Christ. Chukiat said, “Relationship is the most important thing. Because [we are] Thai people, we have the strong, strong relationship between each other. If you have a good relationship, it’s easier to bring the people to church.” In fact, most of the members of the church came through the invitation from a family member to one of the church’s many special events.
Bridging the Gap
Bridging the gap of culture and faith is the hinge the church pivots on. Because much of the nation’s culture, holidays, and customs revolve around Buddhism, choosing to follow Jesus is often seen as turning one’s back on their community and country. Chukiat and his church are on mission to show Thais that their faith and culture can be a both/and, not necessarily an either/or.
That’s not to say a marriage of faith and Thai culture is easy. Thais have Buddhist customs for moving into a new home. Children utter Buddhist prayers in the mornings at school. Thailand has twenty-three national holidays, and the majority are tied to Buddhism. The Thai king is believed to be semi-divine and is required to be Buddhist. The king’s picture is hung higher than other images in homes and business places.
“In the spirit of independence, generations have spent centuries reinforcing the connection between Buddhism and Thai culture, unaware of its devastating, eternal consequences.”
Thai Buddhists have other reasons to view Christianity as a culture killer. Christianity is largely considered a Western religion, a foreign invader in the only Southeast Asian nation to not have been colonized by a Western nation. Thais are proud to have fended off foreign rule that, in their view, would have changed everything from their economics to their culture and religion. In the spirit of independence, generations have spent centuries reinforcing the connection between Buddhism and Thai culture, unaware of its devastating, eternal consequences.
Chukiat said when his church is confronted with accusations from family, friends, and the greater community that Christianity isn’t Thai, and that they are giving up their culture and customs to follow Jesus, they don’t go on the defensive. Doing so is akin to putting up your fists in response to an oncoming fighter.
Instead, they use deeds of love to show the love of God in action. They visit members of the community—Christian or not—who are sick in the hospital. They host community activities like the Thai New Year celebration. This past Christmas, church members went out in a one-kilometer radius from the church and passed out Christmas cookies and invitations to a Christmas party at the church while sharing the reason for Christmas. Two hundred people came to the Christmas party.
Bit by bit, the community’s perception of the church has changed from critical and suspicious, to that of a brother or sister you are accepting of but not completely complicit in their actions.
Celebrating the Thai New Year
Creation Church has seventy members, and they have a short-term goal of increasing their membership to one hundred. One way they hope to do this is by celebrating Thai or Christian holidays. Each month of the year, the church hosts an event related to the month’s major holiday, like Songkran. Chukiat and church members design these events to draw out culturally specific and Christ-like aspects of the holiday, effectually bridging the gap between Thai culture and Christianity.
Songkran takes place in April and rings in the Thai New Year. The nation arms itself with buckets of water and water guns for a nationwide water fight. Water is seen as an agent of renewal and purification—washing out the old sins of the past year and welcoming in the upcoming year.
“Lord willing, the good news of the gospel—news that transcends history, culture, and tradition—will spread through the kingdom of Thailand.”
During the three-day celebration, Thai Buddhists visit monks to seek their blessing. Buddhists pour water over statues of Buddha to symbolize spiritual renewal and the cleansing of sin. Thais also visit their families and pay respect to their elders. They ask for blessings from their elders and pour water over their hands, symbolizing purification and the washing away of one’s sins.
While there are elements of the holiday Thai Christians do not participate in—visiting the temple to pour water over statues of Buddha or seeking blessings from monks—there are other ways Christians celebrate the national holiday. Honoring elders is biblically based and is a central feature in the church’s service during Songkran.
Inviting older men and women—Christian or not—to the church to be recognized during Songkran is a way to show deference. During the service, older men and women sit at the front and younger members come and bow before the elders and say a prayer of blessing. The elders pour water over the younger member’s hands, modeling Jesus’s example of washing the disciples’ feet.
Showing respect to elders is deeply rooted in Thai society. And it’s practiced in the church on a weekly basis. For older Thais, with age comes respect and honor, and for those considering following Christ, it can seem like they won’t receive the same respect since they wouldn’t fully be celebrating Buddhist holidays like Songkran, where respect is physically demonstrated.
But that isn’t true, and Creation Church has set out to prove that.
Beyond These Borders
Every Thursday, Chukiat and Sirinthorn have training sessions for leaders to equip them to lead their small groups well. This July, Creation Church will host two summer camps that will focus on evangelism and discipleship of youth and children in the neighboring community.
Creation Church’s witness also extends beyond Thailand’s borders. When Chukiat told me they have a church plant, I was expecting it to be in northern Thailand. However, Chukiat’s cousins moved to Germany and Austria and have started churches among Thai communities there. A team from Creation Church will travel to Germany this year to partner with them in an outreach to the community.
The church’s influence stretches across spiritual borders as well. In Thailand, evil spirits are not simply antagonists in horror films; spirits are feared and appeased. Chukiat said the presence of spiritual warfare hovers in the air like an invisible cloud. The land their church is built on is located near two ancient temples, and he believes the powers of darkness feel threatened.
Believers at Creation Church have dedicated three days a week to prayer. They say strongholds are coming down and the choke hold the evil one had on the community is loosening.
Lord willing, the good news of the gospel—news that transcends history, culture, and tradition—will spread through the kingdom of Thailand.
Caroline Anderson is a writer and photographer with the IMB. She currently lives in Southeast Asia. Her childhood in Asia consisted of two important ingredients: braving hot chili peppers and telling people about Jesus.