Outreach

Notes from the diary of a church planter (Part 1)

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Sanpranet Methodist Church, Thailand

Rev Henry Yeo and his wife, Sungwan Yeo, were sent out by the Methodist Missions Society, Singapore (MMS) to help establish the Methodist Mission in Thailand (MMT) in 1998. Rev Henry served as the Country Coordinator and then later as Country Director. Sungwan is a native Thai from the province of Nakhon Ratchasima, Thailand.

In 2004, MMT was renamed the Mettakij Church Association (MCA). The main objective of MCA is to plant churches supported and enhanced by community services and social welfare.

This is Rev Henry’s account of their time spent church planting in Thailand from 1998 to 2005.

034 Shineforth 14
Shineforth Methodist Church, Thailand

1998

It is a cool, dry February day in 1998 when we arrive and set up our base in Sanpranet. Sanpranet is a relatively well-populated community in the Sansai district in the northern province of Chiang Mai. Most inhabitants are the native Lan Na Thai people (also known as Khon Mueng or “City People”), while the rest are from hill tribes such as the Lahu, Karen, Akha and Hmong who come to Sanpranet to seek economic opportunities in the capital city (which, like the province, is also called Chiang Mai).

The church we are attached to here is the first church in Thailand adopted by MMT.

This church was planted by a pastor from the Lahu tribe. Before our arrival, he had made a request to come under the umbrella of MMT. It is a very common practice in Thailand for pastors who plant independent churches to do this in order to attain a form of legitimacy.

On our first Sunday, we can see it is a vibrant church, but all its 80-odd members are from the minority Lahu tribe and all activities are conducted exclusively in their own dialect. This dialect, foreign to the Lan Na Thai and people from other hill tribes, is clearly a barrier to outreach. Neither does the church offer any activities to attract the community at large. Having identified what is lacking, we must now find solutions.

Most Sanpranet inhabitants are in the lower-middle income group, but there are some very poor families trying to make ends meet because jobs are scarce. We find out later that several of our first converts are employed in a big pig farm not too far away.

After discussing with me, my wife Sungwan, a trained teacher, sets off to visit an elementary school operated by a local Buddhist temple. It is highly common in Thailand for schools to be founded and supported by a temple or be located on temple grounds.

She comes back to report that many of the students need help after school with their homework assignments. But quite a few of them are being raised by single mothers or come from families which are broken. In many cases, both parents will be at work for long hours daily, six days a week, leaving their children home alone after school to fend for themselves. And even when parents are at home, many are not educated enough, or are too tired, to help their children.

Sungwan wants to minister to the children by starting an After-School Programme for them. Much to her delight (and mine), it attracts almost all the children at the small school, particularly the older ones studying in Grades 4-6 who have considerably more homework assignments. After spending some time observing the students, Sungwan categorises them according to their abilities and begins to tutor the weaker ones.

When she has time, she goes out to visit the parents of the children. During these informal “parent-teacher meetings”, besides discussing the children’s progress, she looks for an opportunity to talk about God and to pray with the parents. As time passes, it’s obvious that many of them are grateful for the After-School Programme and trust her. However, while they appreciate what she is doing for their children, they are not yet open to receiving Christ as their Saviour.

We remind each other that God is the Lord of the harvest and we are here simply to sow the seed. Three weeks into the After- School Programme, Sungwan announces to the children that if they come to the church on Saturday mornings, she will teach them songs and stories from the Bible. It is gratifying to see the response to her invitation. More than 80 children are turning up every Saturday!

Child-care ministry-3
Teaching children action songs during child care

Remarkably, even though most of the parents are not willing to accept Christ or to attend church themselves, they readily allow and  even encourage their children to attend our Saturday morning activities. This situation really boosts our boldness and vision.

1999

In August 1999, Sungwan takes the lead in organising a one-day evangelistic outreach to the children. We are greatly helped by a missionary couple from the United States who are here to aid us for two weeks. We had first met them in Bangkok in 1994 when I was pastoring a church there, and where they were instrumental in Sungwan’s conversion to Christianity. About 80 children attend and at the end of the day, at least 40 of them pray to receive Christ. A few months later, most of the converts are joyfully baptised at a nearby swimming pool by Bishop Wong Kiam Thau of the Chinese Annual Conference of The Methodist Church in Singapore.

Sungwan neither has a degree in theology nor has she received any training to be a missionary. I’m grateful she has accompanied me into this mission field which, as God ordained, happens to be her home country. She says she’s simply doing what she feels is needed for the community, especially in the areas of the children’s education and welfare.

2000

Year 2000 brings a big change! In October 2000, Sungwan starts a child-care centre as many parents need a place for their children to be looked after while they’re at work. Some people have expressed their wish for an adult worship service on Sunday for non-Lahu speakers. Sungwan and I can speak the so-called “Central Thai” language but we’re not proficient in the Lan Na Thai dialect which is slightly different. We have invited a pastor who is a Lan Na Thai and able to speak both languages to help shepherd this newly-formed congregation. Eventually this congregation will become the Sanpranet Methodist Church, while the Lahu congregation re-locates to another city in Chiang Mai.

2002

It’s 2002 and a new four-lane highway is being built. While this brings about many advantages, it will unfortunately separate Sanpranet from another community nearby, where some of those who attend our church come from. The highway will not only inconvenience them, but it will also be an unsafe crossing for the children. This is why we set up our second church, Shineforth Methodist Church.

2005

In 2005, we are able to tap on the Student Sponsorship Scheme (SSS) which will help some of the poorer families supplement the cost of their children’s schooling. Although tuition is heavily subsidised by the Thai government from Grades 1 to 12, there are other expenses like school uniforms, books and stationery which can be a heavy burden.

Meanwhile, we are constantly looking for ways to meet the needs of the adults in Sanpranet MC. Making disciples is difficult, to say the least. For example, a pre-believing elderly woman went to an evangelistic healing crusade and accepted Christ after she was healed of pain in her arm. A cell group was formed which met at her home, as her children forbade her to attend church with us. However, one day she requested the cell group to stop meeting at her home as her children opposed it. While Sungwan and I continue to visit her, she won’t allow us to even pray for her. She feels obliged to obey her children as she’s dependent on them financially. Sadly, such overpowering resistance of family members is not uncommon in Thailand.

The similarity in the church planting model for Sanpranet MC and Shineforth MC is that they both started off with ministries for children. Eventually the parents and other adults are drawn in. It’s our experience that fewer Lan Na Thai people (richer, as they generally own the houses they live in) will accept Christ, as compared to people from the hill tribes who mostly stay in rented housing.

I’m reading up on the history of Chiang Mai to better understand our mission field. Chiang Mai is the birthplace and a stronghold of Theravada Buddhism, a branch of Buddhism with the most adherents in Thailand. Some tribal communities won’t allow churches to be built and in rare instances, churches have been burned down. Although this sort of physical opposition is rare, Christians encounter very subtle verbal opposition of various forms. The city itself has so many temples; no wonder it is referred to as the Buddhism capital in Northern Thailand.

In a short time, I’ve learnt that societal pressure is a very strong deterrent for Thai people to become Christians. In their culture, individualism is seen as selfishness and arrogance, and in a country where the popular saying goes, “To be a Thai is to be a Buddhist”, converting is as serious as renouncing your national identity. How do we present the gospel in this context?

 

Part Two of this story will be published in the next issue of Methodist Message.

Rev Henry Yeo is the Country Director for Thailand, Methodist Missions Society. / Photos courtesy of Rev Henry Yeo.

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