Global Campus Reports

Bowing to Statues; Becoming Monks: Challenges Christian Students Face in Thailand

“We seem to have a big problem,” observed one of the pastors as I struggled to grasp the raw meat, “—with chopsticks!”

I smiled a sheepish smile. You’d think that chopstick brandishing would be second-nature to me by now, given everything that happened in Japan. I’d traded Japan’s autumn air for Thailand’s balmy breezes only a few days ago, arriving to meet a family who pastored a church active in student ministry. They had invited several other pastors over for a colossal barbeque, where I now sat adding meat slices to the communal grill betwixt our circled chairs. –Or, trying to add meat.

“You should interview this guy,” suggested a pastor across the grill from me, pointing to a young man who had just joined us. “He’s a student.”

“What do you study?” I asked.

“Filmmaking,” he replied. With the pastors as translators, he relayed that Christian students face the most pressure in Thailand when their families are from Buddhist backgrounds. These situations are especially challenging since Thailand, like Japan, is a collectivist culture centred around the concepts of in-groups, status differences, and the importance of ‘saving face.’ Because of the shame associated with abandoning Buddhism, students who convert to Christianity cause their entire families to ‘lose face’—the worst thing someone in a collectivist culture can do.

Compounding the scandal of converting to a ‘foreign religion,’ students who become Christians can also drop a cultural bombshell by placing their families’ perceived eternities at stake.

“In Thai culture,” one of the pastors at the BBQ explained, “families expect at least one of their sons to become a monk, so that the family can go to heaven. If a son wants to convert, his family will say, ‘at least become a monk for a few days first.’” Here, he jabbed one thumb toward another pastor. “Even he was a monk!”

“For 15 days,” the former monk nodded, smiling. “But that was before I became a Christian.”

Priority seating for monks at a Thai airport

This cultural expectation to become a monk placed the filmmaking student under extra pressure, as his only brother had also converted to Christianity. Despite the relational strain of leaving his family ‘monkless,’ the student reported that he didn’t feel lonely, because he had friends in the same situation, and because his church supported him like a family would.

“What are some ways that churches support students in these situations?” I asked the pastors present.

“Provide housing for the homeless students,” one pastor exclaimed, triggering a burst of laughter around the grill. “That was a joke,” he assured me, “but in the past, we have had some families cut off financial support to students who become Christians, so the students have nowhere to go. One student in that situation stayed with staff at the church. But many parents of Christian students come check out the church, see who we are and what we do for the community, and then feel okay about letting their kids join us.”

One of the ways this church both serves its community and reaches out to students, I learned, is by hosting volunteer programs which students can join for school credit. I had the chance to attend one of these programs, setting up for a Christmas event one night, where a political science student relayed some of the other challenges confronting Thai Christian students.

A 700-year-old Buddhist temple

“In some Thai universities,” he said, “students have to bow down to statues or go through certain ceremonial practices. In my university there’s nothing like that, but in the city where my brother is studying, every new student is supposed to pay ceremonial respect to the founder’s statue. At that campus, Christian and Muslim students don’t have to attend the ceremony. But in some places, where 95-96% of the people are Buddhist, it would be hard not to participate.”

Another challenge he mentioned is the pressure students may face to jump headlong into campus nightlife. This sort of peer pressure, I realized, is common to Christians not only around the world, but also across history, as Peter’s words to the early church reveal:

 “You have spent enough time in the past doing what pagans choose to do—living in debauchery, lust, drunkenness, orgies, carousing and detestable idolatry. They are surprised that you do not join them in their reckless, wild living, and they heap abuse on you. But they will have to give account to him who is ready to judge the living and the dead.” (1 Peter 4:3-5, NIV)

In his next epistle, Peter warned of another age-old challenge which the Thai student—not to mention others I’d interviewed in New Zealand, the Philippines and Japan—also brought up: false teachers.

“But there were also false prophets among the people, just as there will be false teachers among you. They will secretly introduce destructive heresies, even denying the sovereign Lord who bought them–bringing swift destruction on themselves.” (2 Peter 1:2, NIV)

We have groups on campus with false teachers,” the student explained, “who go out and tell people about Jesus, like we do. But they try to force people to convert to the groups’ opinions, making the image of Christianity on campus negative. Many people misunderstand that all Christians aren’t like that and reject us because they have been mistreated by the false teachers.”

“So, if you had a younger sibling coming to campus,” I asked, “what advice would you give to help them face these challenges?”

“I’d say, ‘Find a Christian group you’re comfortable with, which has the right teaching,” he said, echoing the themes which I’d heard in almost every other country, “and make Christian friends, since Christians are the minority here.”

He also emphasized the importance of church attendance, saying that his church featured one-on-one mentoring.

A Chinese temple in Thailand

“Spiritual mentors at church help the young people through all their questions and do personal Bible studies with them,” he said. “I think that is the most efficient way for youth to keep their faith and grow in Christ. I’ve seen so many people drift away because no one took care of them; no one spent time with them; no one was praying with them.”

As vital as mentorship is for helping students keep their faith in college, however, students and youth leaders around the world have been teaching me that the goal of mentorship is much bigger than that. It’s about equipping students not only to be strong disciples themselves, but also to become strong disciple makers

As one journalism student in Thailand told me,

“In my church, students didn’t have permission to practise teaching, or to learn how to share a sermon with a small group. But at my campus ministry, everyone has an opportunity to lead, to do something new, and to help others. I think at church we learn to be followers, but in university we learn to be leaders.

Giving students training, resources and opportunities to minister might sound as uncomfortable as trying to wrangle slabs of raw meat with chopsticks. But what would happen if families, churches and campus ministries took intentional initiatives, however inconvenient, to help students step into their God-given ministry passions? This sort of multiplicative mentorship, where older Christians mentor students to mentor other students, could creating a snowballing generation of young leaders equipped not only to handle their cultures’ challenges as Christians—but also to impact their cultures for Christ.

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