Church Growth in Thailand - Why So Slow?
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.
Who We Are
Karl became a Christian as a teenager through the ministry of a Presbyterian church youth group. During college, he was a student leader with InterVarsity Christian Fellowship and got his first taste of missions through a short-term trip to Poland. Karl taught English and assisted with evangelism and discipleship as part of an OMF church planting team in Thailand for two years before returning to the U.S. to study for a Master of Divinity (M.Div) at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary. He also holds a Master of Theology (Th.M) from Talbot School of Theology (Biola University) and a Ph.D. in World Christianity from the University of Edinburgh (read my thesis!). Karl is an ordained minister in the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA).
Sun and her family fled from the killing fields of Cambodia and arrived as refugees in California. Sun heard the Gospel in Sunday school and later prayed to receive Christ. After high school, Sun sensed the Lord calling her into missions and pursued a degree in Biblical Studies from Biola University. Following graduation, Sun went on a short-term mission trip to Cambodia and then taught elementary school for a few years before returning to Asia to teach English in Laos. During her four years in Laos, she also earned an M.A. in TESOL through Azusa Pacific University. After Laos, Sun sensed God leading her to a very large Asian country where served for two years. Sun and her team shared the Gospel with top university students and partnered with churches.
Karl and Sun were married in 2005 and have three children, Joshua, Caitlin, and John. They did church planting ministry in Central Thailand during their first missionary term and then moved to Bangkok where Karl taught part-time at Bangkok Bible Seminary, assisted with editing and translation of Thai Christian books at Kanok Bannasan (OMF Publishers Thailand), and they both were involved with Grace City Bangkok, a church plant in downtown Bangkok. They are currently in the United States, preparing to return to Thailand.
What We Do
Karl and Sun Dahlfred have served as missionaries with OMF International in Thailand since 2006. Karl taught church history and missions at Bangkok Bible Seminary, and assists with translation and editing at Kanok Bannasan (OMF Publishers Thailand). They have engaged in church planting efforts in Central Thailand and Bangkok. The family is currently living in Florida and will return to Thailand in autumn 2023 when Karl will begin teaching at Chiang Mai Theological Seminary.