Karl Dahlfred is a Christian missionary who has been in Thailand for around 10 years in many different roles. He was kind enough to answer a few questions below about life and religion in Thailand.
His website Dahlfred.com is a good resource for Christians in Thailand or those looking for more information on the religion.
I have seen and spoken to a few missionaries in Thailand and whilst I’m not religious it was interesting to know more about their lives here in Thailand.
Firstly, can you tell us a little bit about yourself (where you’re from, you’re background in the church in your hometown etc)
I am originally from Northeastern part of the United States but have lived in a number of places. I did not grow up in a religious family but became a Christian as a teenager after being invited to the youth group at a local church and hearing the Gospel. My wife is originally from Cambodia, but grew up in California. After getting married, we moved to Thailand to do mission work together. We’ve spent about 10 years in Thailand and are currently in Scotland so that I can do doctoral studies. We plan to return to Thailand after those studies are done.
When did you first come to Thailand and how did that come about?
Following graduation from university, I worked customer service at a publishing company for a while but then applied to go to Thailand with a missionary organization called OMF International. They were looking to place English teachers in government colleges in Thailand and offered six months of Thai language study at their school in Lopburi before I would move to the city where I would be teaching. As a Christian, I wanted to share about Christ with those who did not believe in Him, and Thailand is a country with very few Christians. But in order to talk about Christ with people, and to have good relationships in general, I knew I would need to learn Thai language and culture well, so the opportunity to study Thai before starting English teaching was very attractive to me. I believe that all people are made in God’s image and have value in his sight, which is why it is important to learn the language and culture of the country where you live. It is a basic sign of respect for people and the God who made them.
Can you tell us about some of your work and projects here in Thailand?
I’ve been in Thailand for about ten years and have been involved in a number of different types of work during that time. As I already mentioned, I started off in English teaching but later moved into direct work with a local Thai church that wanted to start a new church in a neighboring district. For the past four years my family and I have lived in Bangkok where I have taught church history to students at Bangkok Bible Seminary, served as an editorial and theological advisor at Kanok Bannasan (OMF Publishers Thailand), and been part of the leadership team at Grace City Bangkok church. I’ve also been part of an interdenominational theology committee focused on research and writing about cults and other unorthodox Christian groups coming into Thailand, such as so-called prosperity preachers who try to scam money out of people with the promise of miraculous healing and so forth.
What are some of the ways you interact with the local Thai community?
Most of my working time is spent at the Bible school and the publishers, so my interaction with the surrounding Thai community is largely chit chat with sellers, people I meet in coffee shops, and various Thai folks around town. When I was living up-country, I ran an English club at a rural primary school and taught at several training seminars for Thai teachers of English. I find that most Thai people are quite friendly and willing to chat especially when they discover that I can speak Thai. As a missionary I am always happy to chat about religion if people are interested in that, but it does not always come up and I don’t want to force that conversation. I’ve had lots of enjoyable time over the years talking with Thai people about food, weather, travel, politics, religion, and traffic, as well as other more colorful topics like how men manage having one wife in Bangkok and another in their home province.
What is the role of a missionary in modern day Thailand?
Missionaries in Thailand today fill a great variety of different roles, although the majority of them involve, to some degree, telling people about Jesus and trying to demonstrate the love of Christ. When you say the word “missionary”, many people might think of the stereotype of a guy preaching on a street corner, but there are only a minority of missionaries who do that these days. I am most familiar with the work of Protestant missionaries, so I’ll just mention some of the jobs that they do. Besides the traditional church-related roles of sharing the Gospel of Jesus Christ with people and starting new churches, there are many missionaries in Thailand today teaching English, providing job skills training for women who want to leave prostitution, caring for AIDS patients, working with street kids, helping refugees, or providing medical care for people in under served border regions. The Thai government permits missionaries to enter Thailand and to work here as long as they are respectful of Thai culture and customs, and I think that most missionaries try to do that.
With Thailand being well known for LGBT issues, how does this impact the Christian church in Thailand?
Thailand may be well known for LGBT issues but the way that this impacts Christian churches here is different than the West because questions of sexual orientation, same-sex marriage and gender fluidity have not yet erupted into polarizing and divisive public debates like they have in many Western countries. On the one hand, so-called ladyboys and toms are a common part of Thai society and are not seen as out of the ordinary, but on the other hand making fun of them is still generally accepted in Thai society, such as we see in Thai comedy shows which often have a cross-dressing type character who is the butt of jokes. At the risk of over-generalizing, we might say that LGBT people in Thailand are often accepted but not always respected.
As far as churches go, Thai Christians and missionaries welcome all types of people of any sexual preference or identity to church activities and there quite a few gay and lesbian Thai who come to churches and know Christians. Christians believe that all people are made in God’s image and worthy of respect. However, most Christians in Thailand believe what Christians have been teaching for 2000 years, namely that any sort of sexual expression or activity outside of the marriage of a man and a woman is sin. So if a Thai person wants to become a Christian but is in a sexual relationship with someone who is not their spouse, whether it is someone of the same gender or the opposite gender, then that is something that needs to be addressed. Those are difficult conversations to have, and unfortunately Christians have sometimes said unnecessarily hurtful things. That needs to be acknowledged. At the same time, there are Thai gays and lesbians who feel welcomed by the church even while realizing that they have a decision to make about their sexuality if they want to be a follower of Jesus. I can think of a couple of different Thai men who made the decision to leave behind their gay lifestyle because they discovered the grace of God and wanted to live in obedience to Christ. At the same time, I know of a Thai lesbian who was very interested in Jesus and enjoyed being part of a church community but felt like turning her back on her identity as a lesbian was a bridge too far to cross. So she decided that she could not become a Christian because of that.
I see many (mainly young) missionaries in the streets in Thailand stopping people to talk about religion, how important do you think their role is and do they face any problems?
The majority of Protestant missionaries that I know do not generally stop strangers on the street to talk about religion, though a few do. Some might hand out pamphlets or try to start a conversation with strangers in other, less awkward ways. Some missionaries also might walk around a park and try to talk with people, but that is not how they spend most of their time.
The young missionaries whom you often see on the streets are Mormon missionaries. They tend to be young white men dressed in white shirts and ties, often riding bicycles. You know for sure that they are Mormons if they are wearing a name badge on their shirt that says “Elder [Surname]” (or in the case of women, “Sister [Surname]”) followed by the words “The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints.” The majority of Protestants and Catholics regard the Mormons as a cult group, meaning that they make serious errors that deviate from traditional Christian teaching. Mormon missionaries tend to be polite, clean-cut, hard-working, moral people who speak Thai well. They are very visible and get around so a lot of people have met them, but I would not regard them as a Christian group. They introduce themselves as Christians but would rather people read their Book of Mormon instead of the Bible. In general, I think they introduce confusion in people’s minds as to what Christianity is about.
Do you work together with other religious groups in Thailand?
Among various Protestant groups, there is often co-operative efforts in doing local church work, publishing, and education. However, the major religious groups in Thailand (Buddhist, Muslim, Protestant, Catholic, Sikh, Hindu, etc.) don’t tend to work with each other. They usually just focus on working within their own religious communities. Representatives of the major religious group will sometimes meet together for meetings, ceremonies, and activities in conjunction with the Thai government’s Ministry of Religion.
Since Thai Christians are a religious minority, how do they relate with their Buddhist neighbors and relatives? With the Thai government?
Thailand is a free country in terms of religion, especially when compared with some of its neighbors in Southeast Asia. The Thai government generally allows Christians, Muslims, and other non-Buddhists to worship in their own way without interference. That said, it is very common to encounter the idea that “to be Thai is to be Buddhist”, implying that Buddhism is part of your identity as a Thai person, and if you subscribe to some other religion, you might be suspected of not being “really Thai.” As a result, there is sometimes social pressure for Thai Christians to turn back to Buddhism (if they grew up in a Buddhist family) or to participate with Buddhist ceremonies in their community, family, school, or work. The implication that they are not “really Thai” makes Thai Christians feel bad because they love their country and their family as much as anyone else. Sometimes they feel alone and misunderstood as they are often the only Christians where they live or work. But even with those issues in the background, I find many Thai Christians to be cheerful and friendly people, having found hope and joy in God, and wanting to be a blessing to those around them.
How can people find out more about Christianity in Thailand? – your website or other sources you know of?
For a brief overview of Christianity in Thailand, the easiest place to go is the Wikipedia article on “Christianity in Thailand”. You can then follow the wiki links in that article to learn more about any particular bit you are interested in. For those who want to go deeper, there is a book length history of (Protestant) Christianity in Thailand called “Siamese Gold”, published by Kanok Bannasan (OMF Publishers Thailand). The history of the Catholic Church in Thailand can easily be found by googling, and I am sure they have a longer written history somewhere, but I don’t know the title off the top of my head.
To find a (Protestant) church in a particular town or province, the website thaichurches.org has a church finder search function as well as a statistical map of where churches are located. Thai churches are always happy to welcome visitors of any religion or no religion.
For more reading materials about Christianity in Thailand and missionaries, the website Thai Missions Digital Library has numerous articles. My own website, Dahlfred.com, has a number of blog articles and other resources, as does Thaichurchhistory.com, a Thai-English site that I set up for my students and others who are interested in learning about Christianity in Thailand and other places in Asia.
Is there anything else you would like to say / add?
Thank you so much for this opportunity to chat about missionaries and Christianity in Thailand. Everyone has their own beliefs and I think it is important that we listen to each other and build mutual understanding.
The major religion in Thailand is obviously Buddhism, but there are many other religions in the country, as well as non-religious people, both Thai and foreign. The more we understand the diversity around us, the better prepared we will be to interact with and appreciate our neighbors, whoever they are.
I’d like to thank Karl for answering all of my questions and I found it very interesting to know more about different types of missionaries in Thailand. I have met a number of Thai Christians over time and there are a large number of Christian schools in Thailand.
There does seem to be some issues with LGBT members being accepted which is a shame but they face many issues in Thailand where they are not accepted, not just in religion.
Most missionaries that I have met have been friendly and not too pushy (These mostly seem to be the Mormon missionaries mentioned above). There are a large number who come here to Thailand and I don’t see this changing.