Life in Thailand

What is life like in Thailand? My Thai teacher asked me to write about this for homework the other night. I thought that you might be interested also, so I am rewriting (and expanding a little bit) in English.

In case you don’t know, we live in a megacity, Bangkok, Thailand. It is a city swarming with people coming and going: from work, visiting family, and hanging out with friends. With all of those people, food is easily accessible and cheap. Also, there is public transportation, but only to parts of the city; therefore, traffic is a way of life. I want to explore each of these aspects of life in Bangkok in this post.

View from our condo

First, people are everywhere. To fit everyone in the city, you have to build up. We live on the 21st floor of a high-rise condo building. The view is gorgeous as we look out on other high-rise buildings intermingled with small homes and businesses. Even though we live in a big city, there is plenty of greenery from the view off our condo. It is a hidden beauty that can only be seen when in high-rise buildings (privacy comes from planting trees in yards all around us). By American standards, our condo is pretty small at about 1000 square feet. But with two bedrooms, two bathrooms, a living room, and a kitchen area, people all think we have a nice sized condo, and I have to agree. As I already said, people are everywhere. The city never completely stops moving. As I write this at 10:30 at night, I can hear live music from a restaurant down the street as if it was next door and watch some cars zooming by while others sit in traffic.

With somewhere between 13-15 million people living in Bangkok, traffic is a daily annoyance, at least to us Americans. The Thais simply accept it as a way of life. If we are going somewhere close, like the Super Wal-Mart equivalent or the local mall, it is often easier for us to walk. Walk we do, with a baby strapped to us as the sidewalks make it nearly impossible to traverse with a stroller. Buses and boat buses never fully stop as you get on and off, so we have gotten adept at jumping on and off slowly moving vehicles. At least they are more patient when we have Ellie with us and have to fully stop.

We love eating Thai food, but I have yet to master the art of cooking it. That doesn’t matter though, as food is as easy to get as walking down the street. You can buy fresh fruit for $0.35, and a whole plate of Thai food for just over $1.We eat out quite a bit, either with friends or just to grab some food on our way out or back home. I love cooking, so I usually make one meal at home every day. Rice is a staple in our home, as is fresh fruit and vegetables. Fresh food is fresher in Thailand, so we have to buy it like the locals do. There is a little market across the street from our house twice a week. Ellie and I walk over and pick out our fruits and veggies of choice for the next few days. If you try to buy for more than a few days, it will spoil. People in the market love fawning all over Ellie, and she just eats up all the attention.

We love living and serving in this wonderful city. Will we live here forever, no, but for now, it has become home to us. (Well, I guess I expanded my paragraph a bit more than I expected…)

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Missional Vs. Attractional 2

Last week, I began unpacking my musings on this ongoing conversation of mission or attraction. Hmm, the more I read scripture, the more I see both sides modeled.

Beyond the false dichotomy of Missional v. Atractional really being about the missing element, I see several other things I want to bring out in this series as I have spent a lot of time pondering this question. I love the missional guys for asking good questions and pressing the church to move. They just sometimes overstate their case. Either way, let’s get out there and let people see Jesus in us.

I see a second principle that I want to draw out over the next several weeks in upcoming posts. I’ll call this the both/and principle. This idea doesn’t often sell as many books as the either/or principle. Nonetheless, we often get caught up in the church looking for formulas and ways to do things better. This is where the church growth movement most errored as they crystallized the teachings to become a quick and easy way to grow the church. People took the teachings and began to find ways to make their ministry bigger and better. We even got to a place where people didn’t ask questions about how they got big, but essentially said, they are big, and so they must be doing something right. In the past decade, we have seen the move expand to include not only building a mega ministry, but onto franchising one’s brand with multi-site churches. The CEO Pastor has melded corporate abilities with Ray Crock’s ability to take two brothers named McDonald  and branding their quick and easy burger into a fast food movement, Times brief history of McDonald’s. The principles of church growth have morphed from the missiology to begin church planting movements and bring the kingdom of God with us everywhere we go into a way of building our own kingdom. Now we have consumerist churches fighting to get the transfer growth and out churching one another.

The missional movement rightly brings a critique, but has oversimplified the argument and set up a subtext that one way is inherently better than the other.

The missional argument puts it this way in following Jesus example. The church should always be on mission and moving out to where the people are. Jesus went to the homes of tax-collectors, walked the alleys, ventured through Samaria to meet the woman at the well, and so on. As the church, we need to get out of the building and take the church to the people. In other words, God sent Jesus who in turn sent us into the world.

First, I want to say that this is a good corrective to have us thinking more on terms of mercy, compassion and mission as a church. However, this view neglects the both/and nature of Jesus’ ministry. As I unpack the principle in future posts, I will look at Jesus, the cross cultural worker, who used both methods depending on the situation.

So often in the church we become divisive and pit one side against the other creating heated discussions and arguments. Rather than calling the church back to mission through refining who we are as the church, we end up witnessing to the world our great ability to feud. When Jesus said the world will know us by our love in John 13:34-35, that began with how we love one another.

Instead of infighting, let’s embrace one another and push each church to be on mission and attracting people to Jesus. Let’s not worry so much about the methods, but about making disciples and multiplying churches.

Defining Maturity

If you ever overheard a girl talking about what she wants in a man, you probably have heard one thing above all others. She says she wants a man and not a boy. To which in my single years I would respond, how can you call an alligator a lizard?

This thing of maturity long has been an ambiguous and difficult term to nail down. What exactly does maturity mean, and how do you know when you see ‘maturity’?

Let’s take a look back to see when we might have said we were no longer a new Christian.

The concept of a new Christian has haunted me recently as my Thai friends refer to being a new Christian for two or three years. One of my friends helping us with the church plant wanted us to meet his good friend and a professor at the university we reach out to. In the words of our friend, “he is a new Christian who has only known God for two years.”

Another similar example sprung to mind during Thai class when our Thai teacher shared a story of when she was new Christian, only about three years. Her story gave insight into how Thai people see Jesus. She was so angry at Jesus for being mean. As a gentle and kind hearted Thai, she couldn’t understand why Jesus was so mean and destroyed that fig tree (Mark 11:12-14)

I gained insight for how we see Jesus through our cultural lens and often miss the bigger picture as we get stuck on who Jesus is or is not. Now she went on to explain that her pastor explained that Jesus was not mean, but fig trees were common in his country. Moreover, he was showing his disciples that if they do not bear fruit, they are worthless.

Coming back to the idea of maturity, I am struck by the fact Americans are never prone to say they are a baby Christian or new Christian after two or three years. After a few years, we are often seen as potential leaders or council members at our church. We become influential as we are seen as mature.

In Thailand, and much of the world, the idea of maturity differs drastically. The idea of being mature in one’s faith comes back to the Thai understanding of coming to faith. As seen above, the young Christian who teaches at university has known God only two years. You see, when a Thai person comes to faith, they say I know God.

This understanding coupled with the collectivist culture concept of a shared history helps me understand maturity in a whole new light. Let me explain. Shared history is the idea that you are not a part of the community until you have walked together through many seasons and situations. When you begin to have a set of shared experiences and memories that you can hold onto together, you then are welcomed into the community as an insider.

With this in mind, a Thai person will not say they are a mature Christian until they have shared many experiences with God. They want a shared history as they journey in faith together with their God.

In this context, here is a verse that deals with maturity that might now hold deeper meaning to us. “Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness. And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing” (James 1:2 ESV). Perfect and complete carry the same connotation as mature, so other translations use mature in this verse.

Now we cannot apply cultural definitions of maturity into different contexts. Just as it might be dangerous for us to impose understandings of maturity from our American context into the church we plant in Bangkok, we cannot expect Americans to slow down their understanding of maturity. However, it makes me wonder, what is the right pace for calling someone mature?

When do you think someone in your context is no longer a baby Christian? 

Missional vs. Attractional

I want to jump in with both feet to a common, recent debate about how the church should be/function. Some say that the church should go out into the world to the people –they call themselves missional. Others say that even though we are all out in the world, the church needs to draw, or attract, people inside their walls so that they can taste and see God firsthand before accepting him. I don’t know why it needs to be one way or the other, why is there a dichotomy pitting missional against attractional?

Should we think of evangelism as happening solely outside of church walls? Or should people observe Christians worshipping God and in community as a way to start their journey of faith? A common saying thrown around today is this statement on attraction. It goes something like this…

“What you win them with, you win them to.” That is if you entertain them to get them in the door, you have won a disciple to entertainment. Perhaps this over simplifies everything…

Donald McGavran, who gets unfairly Caricaturized and blamed for beginning this attractional method with his books and teachings, studied to show the ultimate way churches keep people has nothing to do with how they win them. McGavran may not have had a complete answer to mission, the homogeneous principle has come under great scrutiny, especially for Missiologists who want to apply the scriptures to what he is saying. However, McGavran set out to research the key to churches that grew and found out no matter how people got in, the only way they remained a part of the church came through follow up. No matter how people became Christian, the only way they stuck with the movement came through intentional follow up. This research caused Billy Graham to reevaluate and work hard to get the grass roots churches involved with his campaigns in order to have intentional follow up on his campaigns and those who came forward to meet Jesus.

The bottom line is that it doesn’t matter what you win them with. One might come because a cute girl with a short skirt, high heels and a pretty smile caught their attention, or a hot guy with a six pack and cool hair stood just inside the door. Another might come for the ripping music, or the speaker, maybe a fun day at the park, or a service project in the streets of Chicago, perhaps a friend sat with them through a crisis moment, or a different friend said come with me, I am getting baptized. No matter what draws someone to a relationship with Jesus, the only way to root someone into the community as a belonging participant is through discipleship.

Perhaps it is not missional or attractional, a false dichotomy, but the missing element–discipleship.

God Rushes in with Mercy

The more I pay attention to the story of God in the Old Testament, I see God constantly rushing in with mercy at the slightest evidence of a turn in our heart.

Let me explain from the story of Saul and David. First some context.

Remember, Saul, a guy’s guy. He’s the guy you would see at the sports bar recanting stories of heroism. The guy with all the other guys circled around him wanting to be a part of the cool crowd. A guy a head taller than the rest of Israel, strong, tough and God’s choice to be the first king of Israel.

Yet Saul lost everything. His life became a tragic tale of missed opportunities and wasted potential.

And that is where David comes in. A poor shepherd boy elevated to the highest seat in the nation. As David began his ascent upward (killing Goliath and leading troops on raids against the Philistines), Saul (sliding down from his former glory) became jealous and looked for ways to put away the challenger to his throne. Saul’s fury kindled hot when he heard the top songs of the day include lyrics of how David killed his 10 thousands compared to Saul only getting credit for his thousands.

David, the wily young general, knew he best get out of town and avoid the assassination attempts from the king. He went and hid out with Samuel in Naioth of Ramah.

When Saul’s spies tweeted to Saul where David was laying low, he sent messengers to bring David back to his courtyard. Here is where the mercy bit on God’s side starts to become evident. As the messengers approached Samuel and came upon the company of prophets, the spirit of God fell on them causing them to prophecy. They stayed in a state of spiritual engagement so long that Saul sent a second delegation of henchmen to grab the boy with kingly aspirations and drag him back to face Saul. These messengers too experienced the Spirit of God fall on them causing them to prophecy. Both groups remained with Samuel and the company of prophets in the presence of God so long that Saul, fed up with this unending drama, took matters into his own hand.

Now, Saul fuming mad, with smoke coming out of his ears, marches out to confront David. I could only imagine the twitter feed from the royal twitter account during this whole political debacle. Saul, deadest to eliminate his competition for the throne, came upon the prophets, and he too was struck by the presence of God. Adding in a bit of my own thoughts to fill in the blanks. As he came into the presence of God with Samuel and Samuel’s disciples, he was reminded of what it was like when he walked with God. At that point, the Spirit of God fell on him as well. I am not sure what to do with the part of Saul stripping off his clothes and staying there naked with the other prophets.

My take home from this story and what has stuck with me since I read it in devotions the other day is how God constantly shows up with mercy even with the most unlikely of characters. Saul did nothing to deserve God’s presence, but God, the Holy One, was there waiting, looking for an opportunity, and offering mercy freely.

If you are reading this and think you have done something too bad to ever be with God again, let me say no you haven’t. No matter where you stand with God right now, you are only millimeters away from God’s grace coming around you and holding you close. More than that, God is at your side tapping you on the shoulder daring to get your attention and draw you back into relationship with him. We see in the life of Saul how God stood by him as he worked tenaciously to stamp out the life of his enemy, David.  God kept him from having his life totally come undone, waiting, hoping, pushing to see Saul turn around.

All we need to do is remember that God wants to be with us way more than we ever give him credit for. God’s mercy, when I reflect on it, is a wonderful and precious commodity that he freely gives out.

It’s Good to be Back in Bangkok

My welcome back to Bangkok moment came the other day while shopping at Tesco Lotus (a Wal-Mart type store) in Thailand to restock our shelves with food. We were back for just over a day, and out among the crowds in Bangkok once again. The smells and sounds rushed back reminding us that we were smack dab in the middle of urbanization in SE Asia once again. Yet my moment didn’t come until I was standing at the checkout line.

I guarded the cart of groceries and household supplies while carrying our 5-month old on my chest as Tina ran off to grab one more thing she had forgotten earlier. I was standing still, oblivious to the fact that I could start loading my cart full of wares onto the conveyor belt in front of the cashier. The person in front of me still had a ways to go, but if I wanted to be efficient, I could get started, and a Thai lady noticed me looking a bit helpless. She came and walked around me in line, and I figured she just wanted to know if I was in that line. Little did I know she had an ulterior motive to checking out my line?

She wanted to be hospitable. She was too shy to talk to a foreigner, not knowing my skills in the Thai language, and she couldn’t communicate nonverbally to this blind guy. Nonetheless, I hurriedly moved to the front of my cart communicating that I was in that very line. That’s when I realized I could start putting my goods on the cashier’s counter. As I started unloading the cart, she quickly began helping me. As Tina returned with our last item, she saw the generous spirit of the Thai people at work yet again. We both smiled at each other and said it is good to be back in Thailand.

As I stop to write this story and reflect on the kind-hearted Thai people, I am convinced that serving opens the door into one’s heart.

When did you last stop to help someone?

Collectivism and the Church

Thai culture moves in many ways on the other end of the spectrum from Western culture, and I discovered many ways to articulate this in my recent class on Intercultural Communication with Dr. Scott Moreau at Wheaton College this summer.

I will intermittently share some of the insights I am gaining upon reflection.

Red: Collectivist/ Yellow: Individualistic

I am struck by the difference between my culture and Thai culture in the area of collectivism. I come from a society built on individualism. We have sayings like “follow your heart” and “where there is a will, there is a way.”

Thailand on the other hand sticks together in a more collectivist way. Community and family are held as strong values. When I say family, I don’t just mean the nuclear family, but a collection of extended family that may or may not live in the same home. Within collectivism, there is a sense of an in group and out-group. Those on the inside fight for one another and work to protect each other from shame. Those outside the in-group get little preferential treatment. Those on the inside get offered jobs, promotions and opportunities in contrast to the Western considerations of merit and ability.

As I reflected on the concept of a collectivist culture, I pondered some implications for the church as we plant a church in Bangkok.

First, I want to touch on a point of the relation between the church and a collectivist society. In a collectivist culture, one will see themselves as a lifelong member of a church. Once they join a church, they remain a part of that family. The more collectivist a society, the stronger and longer the bonds of membership within the church will be.

I wonder how this may play a role in the slow conversion of people from Thailand, but also stands out to me as enlightening why it is important to journey with someone as they come to know Jesus.

As I pondered this idea, I remembered one student who is interested in God. She lives almost two hours from where we live in Bangkok, but we have a great relationship with her.

As we communicated about God with her and found her open to Christianity, our Thai teacher gave us some sage advice as she tends to do. I am still wrestling with how this works out in our situation. Our Thai teacher wanted us to not recommend her a church until after we lead her to know Jesus. As she journeys with us toward a relationship with God, we can be the one who leads her to Jesus rather than sending her to a church to meet new Thai Christians. She won’t know them or have a connection with them enough to desire the effort necessary to invest in relationship with the new church. She went on to say that the student would remain with whichever community led her to know Jesus. I understood that to be normative for Thai culture, but now I see why.