“The Church of Christ in Thailand: Turning Into Its Own Idea”
The beginning of the Church of Christ in Thailand can be traced back to the missionary work of American Baptists and the Presbyterian Church in the USA, in the 1830s. The goal of both mission groups was to establish a church organization composed of local church congregations. The strategy was to identify and develop clusters of Christians with the potential of growing into self-sustaining, self-governing churches responding to critical needs for spiritual, educational and medical support. Projects to provide sustained economic assistance were added after the Second World War (and will be discussed in a later essay). In general, the Baptists concentrated on immigrant and ethnic minority groups while the Presbyterians tried to develop mission work with Siamese and Lao populations.
Mission centers were built by the Presbyterians in larger towns including Bangkok, Petchaburi, Nakhon Sri Thammarat, Lampang, Chiang Mai, Chiang Rai, Prae and Nan. By the end of the first missionary century, celebrated in 1928-29, there were Christian churches, hospitals and schools in each of those centers with satellite churches surrounding the larger centers.
1930-1980 was a half-century of refinement, expansion and transition. Mission work of the Christian Churches (Disciples of Christ), located largely in Nakhon Pathom and Ratchaburi provinces West of Bangkok, joined the CCT as District 11. Three types of entities developed separate missions: churches, institutions and organizations. These moved into various forms of autonomy or semi-independence. Churches tended to be self-supporting to the extent that they built and maintained their own buildings and larger churches hired clergy. The national Church of Christ in Thailand was formed. Schools and hospitals operated with fewer and fewer missionaries on staff and gradually none had missionaries as administrators. A couple of hospitals were closed as Thai government medical services expanded, but schools tended to keep going with new schools added from time to time either spearheaded by key leaders or as satellites or offshoots. Seminaries and other higher education institutions were established or “came into their own” during this era, including the Bangkok Student Christian Center and the Center for the Uplift of the Hill Tribes (now called the Siloam Center), followed by Payap University in Chiang Mai and Christian University of Thailand in Bangkok and Nakhon Pathom. Organizations that were neither churches nor institutions tended to be thought of as extraneous to the main mission of the CCT. They were treated in various ways. The Thai Student Christian Movement was tolerated rather than supported. Baptists developed a program in Chiang Mai for women (particularly women escaping from or avoiding prostitution) that, like the Bangkok Christian Guest House, is only loosely connected to the CCT. Sampantakit Farm cooperative in Chiang Rai “completed its mission” and dissolved, dividing assets among coop members. Free Burma Rangers never received CCT endorsement and is solely independent. The Voice of Peace chose not to join with the CCT. Whereas, the Klong Toey mission is fully integrated in the CCT but is required to operate as if it is not. These are examples. The list of organizations is extensive.
Since 1980 (to pick an arbitrary date) the CCT has undergone major changes of perspective and operation. Although I am avoiding mentioning names in this essay, I need to mention two with regard to the way by which the CCT “turned into its own idea.” Khun Wibul Pattarathamat was a Thai-Chinese business man (some would say “tycoon”) when he was elected to a single term as Moderator of the CCT at the beginning of this third era. He installed a vision of financial independence that was controversial and daring at the time. His concept was that the CCT could operate on a business model utilizing resources at its disposal to make a great deal of money with which to run the church. Church real estate was one immense resource the church was underutilizing. Using vast property of the Foundation of the Church of Christ in Thailand Foundation as collateral, he pushed a plan to build a new church headquarters building on a piece of land behind the Bangkok Christian Hospital which included several floors of office rental space to produce income to pay off the loan and continue generating income for the church. He also implemented a self-development plan in 1979 for churches to use funds from the central church organization to pay pastor’s salaries in decreasing amounts over 10 years so that the congregations, with full-time pastors, would be able to grow large enough to be self-supporting from then on. This plan has been modified, but was the beginning of a major expansion of pastoral services across the denomination. The Rev. Dr. Boonratna Boayen served the CCT for about 30 years as Moderator or General Secretary. His vision was for the CCT to move from a level of chaotic decentralization and chronic dysfunction into a more centralized and tightly controlled national organization. Highly representative government was modified into a much more hierarchical form with power increasingly vested in top leadership, but units became more accountable and functioned more effectively according to stated plans than ever before. Revisions of the CCT constitution and book of regulations reduced the authority of boards of institutions and of church district councils (formerly called “presbyteries” then “districts”). Funding became centralized to the extent that the CCT top leadership team (the 9-member Executive Committee including the 4 full-time national church leaders) have the authority to intervene in any church or institution to review finances and replace board members and institutional heads, or even close institutions.
The CCT has developed a very Thai way of operating, but has thrived at its main mission, which is maintenance of the CCT as an organization with functioning congregations. During this era virtually all 800 local churches have acquired full-time pastors (up from barely 20% in 1980), a majority of churches have built new church buildings or refurbished older ones to retain historical appearance.
Since 1980 three large groups have been incorporated into the CCT: Christian churches in the Isan region (provinces in the NE section of the country), formerly established by the Christian and Missionary Alliance, joined the CCT as District 13. Karen Baptist and Lahu Baptist groups joined en masse, more than doubling the membership of the CCT. This influx motivated the second constitutional revision to insure that ethnic Thai and Thai-Chinese would retain control of the CCT. Major building programs since 1980 are beyond counting, but mention should be made of the CCT headquarters building in the commercial heart of Bangkok on the campus of the Student Christian Center, the Mae Kao Campus of Payap University, and the Nakhon Pathom campus of Christian University of Thailand, as well as 2 high-rise additions to Bangkok Christian Hospital.
The CCT is no longer Presbyterian or Baptist. Some congregations retain aspects of their rites and heritage, but the whole church is more Thai than anything. There are no foreigners in the CCT administration or on national committees. The CCT has become what it sought to become, even as it grows on to become something else that is its own idea.
Rev. Dr. Kenneth Dobson posts his weekly reflections on this blog.