Book Review - The Unfinished Mission in Thailand by Samuel Kim

Written by Karl Dahlfred on .

Kim, Samuel I., The Unfinished Mission in Thailand: The Uncertain Christian Impact on the Buddhist Heartland, Seoul: East-West Center for Missions Research and Development, 1980

the unfinished mission in thailand sameul kimThere are not too many books on the history of the church in Thailand and my most common go-to books are S.G. McFarland’s Historical Sketch of Protestant Missions 1828-1928 and Alex Smith’s Siamese Gold, which brings the story of the Thai church up to 1982.  Both books, however, do a better job with chronicling earlier Thai church history (pre-WWII) than post-war.  Truth be told, Smith’s book does cover the post-war period, though he provides more information on evangelical missions working apart from the Church of Christ in Thailand (CCT) than he does the CCT itself. Kenneth Wells’ History of Protestant Work in Thailand, 1828-1958 is somewhat useful if you want an official sanitized version of the American Presbyterian Mission and CCT in the post-war period but if you compare Wells’ book with Samuel Kim’s The Unfinished Mission in Thailand: The Uncertain Christian Impact on the Buddhist Heartland, it becomes immediately obvious that there is a lot of dirty laundry that Wells left out.

Samuel Kim begins his book with a couple of general chapters discussing Thailand, Buddhism, and the history of Christian missions in Thailand up through WWII, most of which you can easily find in the other books I’ve just mentioned.  However, beginning with chapter 3, he begins discussing tensions between the American Presbyterian missionaries and Thai Christians leaders after World War II up through the late 1970s.  It is this second part of the book that is the most valuable and forms Kim’s unique contribution to understanding the history of Christianity in Thailand.

According to Kim, the main sources of tension between American Presbyterian missionaries and Thai Christians in the post-war period were the liberal-evangelical divide and growing Thai resentment of missionary dominance in the Church of Christ in Thailand (CCT). The period of time covered in the second part of the book roughly corresponds to the time period Kim himself served as a missionary in Thailand (1956-1978) and is the best part of the book because the author knew personally many of the people involved and was in the midst of many events that he discusses. I have read other books on Thai church history and Christian missions in Thailand, but Kim fills in some missing pieces of the puzzle that I have been looking for.

While the Presbyterian Church (USA) was becoming increasingly influenced by liberal and ecumenical theology in the mid-20th century, what were their missionaries doing in Thailand? Missionaries of the American Presbyterian Mission (APM) returned to Thailand after World War II at the request the Church of Christ in Thailand, the largest Protestant denomination in Thailand, which the APM had founded in 1934. But in contrast to many earlier generations of American Presbyterian missionaries, the majority of which had been largely theologically conservative, the post-WWII generation of APM missionaries had an agenda of ecumenism and community development which they actively advocated in the CCT, deprecating evangelism, and encouraging dialogue with Buddhism without any desire for conversion. Although the APM officially dissolved in 1957, with their missionaries becoming “fraternal workers” under the authority of CCT, APM missionaries still bore undue influence through personnel and the massive amount of money which they poured into the CCT, providing up to 70-80% of the denomination’s total revenue. Thai church leaders became resentful of the missionaries’ paternalism and eventually grew tired of their liberal agenda which, in the view of Thai church leaders, had not helped Thai churches to grow, either spiritually or in numbers. The number of American Presbyterian missionaries eventually dwindled as budget cuts were effected in the PC(USA) and they wore out their welcome among Thai Christians.  For evangelicals who have doubts about whether the CCT is liberal by virtue of their connections with the PC(USA) and the World Council of Churches, a reading of Kim’s book reveals that even as the missionaries became more liberal, the vast majority of Thai Christians and their leaders remained essentially conservative evangelical, broadly conceived. It would be inaccurate to say that there were not any Thai Christians in the CCT with a liberal theological outlook on at least some matters, but it would also be inaccurate to say that the CCT is liberal because that is far from the case.

As he recalls these trials and travails, Kim offers his own evaluation of the events as an evangelically-minded missionary of the Presbyterian Church in Korea who worked within the CCT. Kim wraps up the book with several short chapters on positive and negative trends in Thai Christianity at the end of the 1970s, along with prospects for the future of the church in Thailand. Overall, I found this book very helpful in filling out my knowledge of what was happening in the CCT and the APM after WWII, while other streams of Protestant Christianity, both evangelical and pentecostal, were growing independently in the post-war period, wary of the CCT because of the influence of the liberal Presbyterians.

Although Kim's book is now 40 years old and out-of-print, it can still be found in some libraries and a limited number of used copies can be bought online. For those interested in the development of Thai Christianity since WWII and the challenges of indigenous church development, The Unfinished Mission in Thailand is a worthwhile read.