In this first post, I wish to ponder on how the attitude of individualism has infiltrated the mind and the culture of the Karen-Thai Christians; hence, how this way of thinking can make pastoral ministry to the Karen-Thai Christians challenging in Chiang Mai, Thailand. Although I am focusing only on the Karen-Thai Christians, since this is my ministry setting, I believe what I am describing here is noticeable particularly among the Karen whose parents migrated to a developed country two decades ago or more. This individualistic mindset is also increasing among the Karen-Burmese refugees who have been resettled to the developed countries like the States or Australia within the past 10 years.
One contribution to the infiltration of individualism has to do with how the people interpret and understand the Bible. There are a few passages in the Bible where some believe the passages are speaking more about the material blessing for the individual. One popular text is Matt. 7:7: “Ask, and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you.” The other is John 15:7: “If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you.” This type of supplication reflects a transactional relationship. The spiritual maturity of the petitioner is still at the infancy stage.
A person weak in faith believes that when God gives the favor, his faith will increase rather than the focus being having complete faith in God regardless of whether He grants the favor or not.
Perhaps their understanding of the Old Testament is polluted by popular Buddhist worldview. Some infant Christians associate “blessing” with materialism. “Blessings” in the Buddhist culture means wealth, prosperity, good health, and a healthy family. Thus, when some Christians look at how God blessed Abraham with prosperity and with a son at an old age, they equate this with Christian blessing. Indeed God may bless a person with possessions but this is not always true. Rather than blessing a Christian with material blessing, God may refine a believer with the gift of suffering, and the goal is glorification. God blessed with the patriarchs differently from how He is blessing Christians today to fulfill His eschatological agenda.
A second contribution to the infiltration of individualism relates to the Karen people relocating (or been resettled) to fast-pace and competitive urban communities, which are different from the villages of their origin where the values and activities center on the community rather than on the individuals. Church attendance becomes less of a priority among the Karens when they come to live and work in a city, particularly those who run private businesses or work for private business owners. Unless the family members are very committed and the family members try to encourage one another to free up their Sundays to be involved with their church family, the individual who is living alone in the city find the offer in this world appealing, subsequently not making church attendance as one’s top priority.
In some cases, their regular church attendance and involvement drops when they have a car, a home, and a job. This is becoming more common among the Karen refugees from Burma who are now in developed countries. When they did not have their own personal vehicle, the church provided transportation for them. This is entirely different from the
Christian Burmese migrant workers in Bangkok who travel for many miles using the public transportation to get to the church on Sundays. (By “Burmese” I mean the people from Burma regardless of their ethnicity.) Among the Karen refugees who are now in the developed countries, they see what people have, so they work hard to obtain the material possessions to the point of buying for their small children the latest and expensive gadgets. In addition, church attendance drops as well among financially struggling families who work on Sundays, especially in cases where one spouse is a Christian and the other is a Buddhist.
Burma is a Buddhist country yet the government recognizes Christmas as a public holiday. On the contrary, Christmas is not observed as a holiday in Thailand. Also, public schools and universities are opened occasionally on some Sundays for examinations or school activities. Hence, this is a small social factor that may be limiting Christians in Thailand from fully exercising their faith. In contrast, the Burmese migrant workers in Thailand own their bosses. With a unified voice these Burmese migrant workers who are Christians inform their employers that they would work only on the condition that they can have Sundays off so they can go to church. (By “Burmese” I mean the people from Burma regardless of their ethnicity.)
What are two practical applications to help the people walk closer to the Lord in my ministry context? We must provide solid and clear biblical preaching as the most important ingredient. We emphasize listening to God’s Word on Sundays in addition to the weekly Bible study and ESL Sunday school for the children. Two years ago we started in Genesis and now we are in Romans. Every Friday evening we have Bible study from the book we are studying and on Sundays a sermon is preached from the selected text of the book. There are sections in the Pauline epistles as well as in other New Testament Scriptures where we can emphasize corporate growth. Also the church members who are not committed to their church family and have not been coming on Sundays need to know that they are spiritually rich in Christ. They have simply forgotten about their great inheritance. I believe that if they understand salvation better and remember their inheritance, their commitment level will rise. If we are going to change people’s hearts, it must be done primarily with God’s Word to bring lasting change.
Second is getting the Word to the church members who come only once in a while. This means mailing the audio sermons on a CD to their house since they do not have access to the internet. Although they may not be able to come to the church for whatever may be the reason, they can still hear the Word, be rich in it, and we let God speak to them. This is a way for the church family to say we miss them and we have not forgotten about them. They are still very much part of the family even though they are absent. It is a way to reach out to them.
The church family is supported by Christians in America. The families here receive monetary gifts for medical care and scholarships for the children are provided annually. Most of the members are poor and they are struggling from day to day to put food on the table. We are blessed to help our brothers and sisters who are in need, but we are careful that we do not bribe them to win them to the Lord. As stated in one of the lectures, “In the end we have nothing of greater value left to give them but God’s Word.” We have done church activities for all ages to encourage a family-friendly environment, but the best turnouts are on days we celebrate Christmas, Easter, and the annual foundation meeting where we distribute gifts.
As there are so many more churches in Chiang Mai now compare to 25 years ago from what I remember, it can be tempting for Christians to jump from one church to another to have their felt needs / material needs met rather than committing and contributing to one local body. The local government welcomes missionaries because it sees Christian workers help alleviate poverty. However, the success of mission in Thailand will depend greatly on quality Biblical preaching rather than Christians doing humanitarian or social work.