On the motorway heading to the airport in Bangkok, there are some very large billboards informing you in multiple languages that Buddha statues are not to be used for decoration, and that such a conclusion is just “common sense.” Here’s looking at you, foreign visitor, who has a Buddha statue in your luggage heading to the airport. Consider yourself informed that if you think it will be cool to take an exotic Thai Buddha home to Europe or America and place it in your living room for decoration, you are committing a grave sacrilege that is highly offensive to Thai Buddhist people.
I’m not sure how many foreigners try to take Buddhas home with them or how many have been persuaded by the billboards. But apparently NOT using Buddha images for decoration is distinctly NOT common sense for foreigners, otherwise there would be no need for such billboards.
I rarely get excited when I hear about large scale evangelistic events in Thailand (or anywhere else, for that matter).
I don’t fault the motivation of anyone involved but for all the time and money put into these colossal under-takings, especially at a national level in a big arena, the results seem meager. What results am I talking about? The goal, directly or indirectly, of these events is to get a lot of people to become Christians through praying a prayer or going forward in response to an altar call. Even when events have impressive results, such as the 2009 “My Hope Thailand” campaign which produced 12,000 decisions, most of these decisions rarely translate into committed Christian disciples.
But regardless of what I or others say, it is unlikely that altar call evangelism will be given up anytime soon. It just looks too good on the surface to abandon entirely. Even if most new converts fall away, many advocates for such events are fully persuaded by the justification that “even if one person comes to Christ, it was all worth it.” Is it? For the time and money expended, maybe different activities would be even more worth it? Just a thought.
With that preamble out of the way, I want to get to the main point of this post. Even if large scale evangelistic events have dubious value in terms of directly producing new Christian disciples, they do have two other distinct benefits that I believe gives them real value and justifies their continuation.
In the early days of Protestant mission work in Thailand, it was common for missionaries to meet Thai royalty, who often kept themselves apprised of the missionaries’ work. As the country changed and grew, and the 20th century progressed, such relations became less common.
In the early 1960s, however, a visiting Southern Baptist choir had a unique audience with His Majesty King Bhumibol Adulyadej, illustrating the goodness of God’s provision as well as the kind generosity His Majesty and his love of music. Ron Hill, a longtime missionary to Thailand who was involved in early Southern Baptist work in that country relates the story as follows.
If you spend enough time in Thailand, one of the phrases that you’ll hear often is “Same, Same but Different,” meaning that two things are almost exactly the same… but not really. The difference may (or may not) be substantial, but that depends on your point of view. A vendor is trying to sell you a wrist watch and you ask if it is a genuine Rolex. Well, it is same same from the vendor’s perspective. But the buyer’s might view it differently.
When it comes to theological education in Thailand, there is a lot that is same same as theological education in the Western world…but there are significant differences too. My point is not to say one in genuine and the other is fake, but rather that on the surface the two have many similarities. But when you dig a bit deeper there are important difference as well. These differences have an impact on how teachers teach and how student learn. Therefore, whether you are teaching Bible school students in Bangkok or running a modular leadership training program in Chiang Rai, it is important to have a heads-up on factors to consider if your previous experience of theological education has been primarily in the West. In this post, I want to briefly consider, in broad brushstrokes, what is the same between Western and Thai theological education, and three things that are different.
For anyone who has grown up in a culturally-Christian country, it can be a bizarre experience to be in a majority non-Christian country on December 25th. It is Christmas, but it isn’t. During one of my first years in Thailand, a Buddhist majority nation, I remember sitting through a school pep rally on Christmas Day at the government college where I was teaching English. It wasn’t about Christmas. It was just rah-rah-go-team-our-school-is-great. It was just a normal day for everyone. Students went to classes. Teachers taught. Everybody went to work. No mention of Christ, or even Santa Claus, although at the end of the pep rally parade there was an odd non-sequitur effigy of Uncle Sam hanging from gallows with IMF written on his chest. I didn’t quite understand what that had to do with the rest of the parade.
Meanwhile, in the United States, it would have been looking a lot like Christmas, or least the Western celebration of it. Carols. Tinsel. Presents. Big sales in the stores. Everyone asking what everyone else was doing for the holiday. Schools and businesses closed, and people traveling to see family. Snow, or at least images of snow. Regardless of whether people are committed Christians or just enjoying a secular holiday of family, food, and gifts, those are the kinds of things that many Westerners think of when they are getting in the “Christmas spirit” or say that it is beginning to look like Christmas.