While the sinner’s prayer is designed to help people become Christians, here in Thailand (as in other places) it many times has the opposite effect of confirming people in a fundamentally animistic worldview. At its core, animism is the using of religious rituals and ceremonies to manipulate the spirit world into doing what the animist wants it to do, whether that be warding off evil or inviting blessing. Thai Buddhism is a mix of pure Buddhism and local animistic beliefs in spirits, omens, relics, sacred objects, fortune telling, astrology, sorcery, and so on. This mix of spirit beliefs and Buddhism forms an important part of the worldview and belief system of Thai people, and it is this understanding of spiritual reality that Thai people bring to the table when they come to an evangelistic rally or hear a Gospel presentation.
Animism is not a heart religion where it is important that you really believe something from the depth of your being. Animism is not about devotion or love for a particular deity or spirit. Animism is not about conforming your life to some external moral standard which has come down from heaven. Animism does not require you to change your life or to repent of your sins. All it requires is the performance of some religious rituals in order to cause the spiritual powers that be to bring about the desired blessings in your life. It is all about external things that you do in order to get what you want. But the Gospel of Jesus Christ is about a change in allegiance from self to God. It is a change of priorities from our own priorities to God’s priorities. It is about God’s plan for what my life should be like, not about using religious ceremonies to manipulate God into helping me accomplish my own ideas of what a happy life should be like. Animism at its core is pragmatic and utilitarian. Whatever gets the job done to help me achieve my idea of the good life is what I’ll do.
When Thai folk Buddhists are invited to say the Sinner’s Prayer
So how would people from a primarily animistic worldview, such as Thai folk Buddhists, understand an invitation to say the sinner’s prayer? And why does the sinner’s prayer, as commonly practiced, fail to bring about understanding and conversion among Thai Buddhists and other animistic believers?
1) The sinner’s prayer is just another religious ritual that might help you get want you want.
For Thai people hearing an invitation to say the sinner’s prayer, I think their reasoning often goes something like this: “That trip to the spirit medium didn’t solve my problem, and the astrologer didn’t give much help either. I tried wearing the sacred relic that my aunt gave to me but haven’t seen anything change. Getting a tattoo might be expensive. Perhaps this Christian ceremony will help. What’s to lose? Why not say this prayer that the Christian teacher seems so eager to have me pray? There might be something to this foreign religion after all. I can try out this foreign Jesus religion for a while and see if it really has the amazing power that the Christians are claiming. If it works, great. But, if Jesus doesn’t work, I’ll just move on and try something else. Nothing lost, nothing gained.”
2) The sinner’s prayer is viewed as a magical incantation
In animism, it is not important to understand the actual words said in a prayer or spell since the power of the prayer is in the sacredness of the words themselves, not in understanding them. Chanting at the Buddhist temple is in the ancient language of Pali that the common person does not understand. However, as long as they hear the monks chanting or say the words themselves, merit is gained. So, when asked to say the sinner’s prayer, a person will more likely than not think that the words of the sinner’s prayer itself are powerful magical words that will bring about blessings. What the words mean are largely secondary and inconsequential. Going through the motions is all that matters.
3) The words in the sinner’s prayer are automatically redefined by the listener to fit with their animistic worldview
Christian evangelists use words like “God” “sin” “heaven” “hell” and “eternal life” with the assumption that their listeners will pour into those words the same meaning that the Christian is pouring into them. But when the listeners are coming from a radically different worldview and belief system, that is a poor assumption. Although the words of the sinner’s prayer indicate (in the mind of the evangelist) commitment to Christ, the Thai Buddhist hears and interprets those words based on what he has been taught at home, at school, and at the Buddhist temple. The thinking might go something like this: “There could some kind of god out there, and maybe he can help me. Sure, I am a sinner, who isn’t? I want to go to heaven (regardless of whether it really exists or is just a happy life on this earth). I don’t want to go to hell, if there is such a place. At the very least, maybe this Jesus can help lessen the suffering in my life, which is hell on earth. I can invite Jesus to be my Savior from my problems and difficulties; I’ve asked all sorts of other spirits to help me, so why not this one?” Evangelism that only goes skin deep leaves all the misunderstandings of the Gospel untouched and any conversion that happens is superficial.
I am sure that the majority of Christians who lead Thai Buddhists to say the sinner’s prayer are genuinely trying to help them, but it is a misguided effort. It takes a long time for people from a completely non-Christian background to understand the true nature of the Gospel and to come to point where they can truly put their faith in Christ. We are not saved by how much we know however there is a certain amount of knowledge about God, the world, and self that needs to be in place for someone to truly trust in Christ. In my next post, we’ll take a look at the process of conversion and why it is impossible for folk (animistic) Buddhists to make an instant “decision” for Christ.