Although there is no unified organization that includes all the Protestant Christian groups in Thailand the basic form of worship for all of them is remarkably similar. The pattern of most gatherings for worship is to begin with music, either instrumental or choral, and singing by the whole assembly. It is significant that the two main aspects of worship are group singing and a spoken message. Thai congregations are aware that the main difference between the role of the laity in Buddhist and Christian worship is that Buddhists chant while Christians sing. Very likely a small group or two has prepared a song to sing and the entire assembly will also sing from two to six songs and responses. Larger churches have choirs that perform a song and help the congregation with the rest of the singing done together. A leader will also offer prayers addressed to God directly, signifying that God is presumed to be attentive to the worship going on and to the condition and concerns of the people.
A second major portion of Protestant worship in Thailand will generally consist of readings from the Christian Bible followed by a spoken message that is designed to explain how that set of readings applies to those present. The service ends either at that point with a closing prayer and group song or with one of a number of possible events in which all people or selected individuals are involved, symbolically presenting themselves for special roles or life passages.
In Thailand it is not assumed that a church group has life in common outside the context of church gatherings. Life for Christians throughout the week is scattered and Christian activity hardly ever involves an entire village. A Christian’s identity is derived from formal membership and actual participation in the assemblies for worship. However, it is also assumed that the church group will be sufficiently coherent to respond to crises and urgent needs that may involve member families and the wider community.
In Thai Protestant culture there is an unarticulated sense that the Church and Christian believers are outnumbered and potentially disadvantaged, so the weekly worship gathering is also for social encouragement and community building.
Nevertheless, every Protestant worship service is understood to be an indigenous, local, contextualized form of all Christian worship by Christian groups all over the world. Roman Catholic worship in Thailand reflects this global unity more emphatically through the use of costumes, rituals and formalities that conform to a narrower range of variations than Protestant have. The main difference between weekly Roman Catholic and Protestant worship services in Thailand is that a Catholic service is structured around a stylized re-enactment of a meal Jesus had with his disciples (with the sermon/spoken message being less central), whereas Protestant assemblies reserve that sacramental re-enactment for special occasions and tend to do it less dramatically.
The paradigm for Christian worship is a gathering of committed believers under the direction of trained leaders, to receive inspiration and to give praise to God who is “in their midst”. The service of worship is a divine-human encounter reflecting many such events in history and in Biblical narratives in which God was present in a significant way.
[Thanks to Second Church, Sam Yan, Bangkok, for the pictures that illustrate this article.]
Rev. Dr. Kenneth Dobson posts his weekly reflections on this blog.