In the Southern United States, church steeples dot skylines and country towns. In Thailand, temple spires pepper cityscapes and mountain tops.
Roughly 95% of Thais are Buddhist, and the country’s 40,000 temples are evidence of the religion’s predominance. Thailand has the second-largest population of Buddhists in the world, second only to China, and has the highest percentage of adherents per capita.
Buddhism is woven into the fabric of the Southeast Asian nation. Holidays, cultural traditions, and everyday activities like moving into a new house and attending school incorporate Buddhist customs. Most of Thailand’s 23 national holidays have ties to Buddhism.
The mantra “To be Thai is to Buddhist” is often given to describe the interconnectedness of religion and society. Social pressure to conform to Buddhist customs influences many Thai people’s willingness to become Christians.
Although Protestant missionaries introduced the gospel almost 200 years ago, slightly more than 1 percent of the population are Christians, said Mark Patenaude, a retired missionary with the International Mission Board.
Many people living in rural towns in eastern Thailand, mountain villages in the north and neighborhoods along the coastlines have never heard the gospel and don’t know anyone who is a Christian.
IMB missionary Doug Derbyshire said this is what drew him to Thailand — as well as the desire to bring Christ’s light into a land of spiritual darkness. Derbyshire said he’s found many opportunities to share the gospel. His team hosts mobile medical clinics and practices medicine in a Christian clinic in central Thailand.
Church growth has, for decades, been moving at a snail’s pace. Patenaude said he and his wife led very few Thais to Christ in their 18 years in Thailand. Patenaude and his family served in northern Thailand before retiring.
Thailand has religious freedom, but persecution often comes from family members who shame Christians for their decision to leave the faith of their fathers and mothers.
The younger generation of Thais are interested in the gospel and a growing number are committing their lives to Christ, Patenaude said. Younger Thais are often less devout in their faith than their elders and are therefore more open to new beliefs.
New Christians share the gospel with family members, and their faith and their newfound freedom are slowly making a difference among the older generation.
Thai Christians find ways to show family, friends and neighbors they don’t have to let go of their heritage to follow Jesus. Chukiat Chaiboonsiri, the pastor of Creation Church in northern Thailand, said they found ways to reconcile cultural and spiritual identities.
In a land of 40,000 temples, it’s the prayer of IMB missionaries and Thai Christians that Thailand will become a land of people who learn their body can be a temple of the Holy Spirit.
Learn more about Buddhism.
Learn more about how Buddhists pray.
Read more about how Buddhism spread.
Learn what certain colors mean in Buddhism.