I've thought for a long time that Thai people don't read that much (even though the majority can read, at least to a basic level). There are very few bookstores in Thailand (not counting comic book rental shops) and I don't see people reading books that much. Out in Nong Doan, the lower class farming community where we are trying to do a church plant, I've met a number of folks who claim that they can't read (although in reality it seems that they say this because they don't have confidence in their reading ability because of low educational level). These experiences have made me think more about oral Bible story telling in ministry, the importance of good oral Biblical preaching and teaching, and distributing the Thai New Testament on MP3 for those who would rather listen than read. Along these lines, I've started listening to a few of the "Introduction to Orality" podcasts over at Story4all.
With that said, some recent experiences and some new research have made me think that reading and literature may be an important part of many Thai people's lives after all. Actually, I always wanted to believe that literature has an important role in evangelism and discipleship in Thailand for no other reason than the fact that books have had an important role in my own spiritual development. And we can't ignore the fact that God gave us the Bible in a book, not on a CD.
In his recent research dissertation on "Conversion Growth of Protestant Churches in Thailand", Marten Visser found that "[t]hough a lot of attention is given to TV and radio ministry, only 10% of the new believers mention these media as the major media influence in their conversion. 30% claim that media did not play any role at all. The remainder, 60%, mentioned printed media. This contradicts what is often said that ‘Thai people do not read’. Actually, they do. Recent research showed that two thirds of all Thai people read, not counting for study and work, an average of 39 minutes a day. Printed media like the Bible, bible correspondence courses, and Christian books have a major impact. Even tracts are mentioned by 17% of the new believers as the major media influence in their conversion." Commenting on these findings, Vissers writes, "The reason why printed media are so often mentioned is probably that printed media go from hand-to-hand, and are therefore mostly used in the context of a social network. Other media are literally broadcast, and this research again shows that that is less likely to influence people on the deep level that is needed in order to commit their lives to God."
Visser's research came to mind the other day when some neighborhood children came to play on our front porch. A little boy was hiding in an unused new trash can , popping out in order to scare his sister, claiming that he was a ghost / evil spirit. My wife Sun took the opportunity to share with the girl that if a person believes in Jesus, he doesn't need to be scared of evil spirits because Jesus is more powerful than every spirit. She didn't engage much with Sun on the topic of evil spirits but she was interested in hearing about Jesus as she had read from cover to cover the children's evangelistic magazine that we had given out as part of our neighborhood Christmas outreach a few months ago. From this magazine, she knew something about creation, Adam & Eve, the serpent who tempted them, and Jesus dying on the cross. Even though her little brother interrupted several times, she kept coming back asking Sun to tell her more about the life of Jesus. I was greatly encouraged by her interest to hear about Jesus and impressed that she had actually read the evangelistic magazine. This magazine wasn't just some cutesy pictures, a Bible verse or two and lots of games. There was lots of text and Biblical content. And she read it! Just the day before that, a couple neighborhood moms and their kids were visiting with us and Joshua on our front porch and we found out that both of the moms had read Harry Potter (in translation, of course). I think one of them was working through the series. I wouldn't have guessed that they were the kind of folks who enjoy reading but I guess that shows what I know. Sun brought out a book by a Thai man who went from poverty to being a judge, and how God had changed his life. She seemed interested in the book and took it home to read!
I am not going to stop looking into the role of oral communication and story telling in sharing the Gospel but from these recent experiences and Marten Visser's findings, I am encouraged to continue finding appropriate tracts and books to give to people in order to share the Gospel and build up believers in their knowledge and experience of God.