God of the City: Church planting in Bangkok
By Denise Poon | Thailand in Pacific Asia
Photo by Ryan Tang on Unsplash. Central Embassy, Bangkok, Thailand
It’s Sunday afternoon, and in a small lecture hall on the Kasetsart University campus, church is happening.
The churchgoers are a casually dressed yet carefully put together crowd – jeans paired with button-up shirts or blouses, stylish shoes. They clutch Starbucks iced coffees and smartphones in their hands as opposed to hard copies of Bibles and many came to Sunday service via the skytrain or taxi.
“Bangkokians” is the term for this group – and like their fellow city dwellers, they are well-versed in the urban pace of life in Thailand’s capital and most populous city.
“Bangkok is different from the rest of Thailand. It’s one of the major global cities and you have a greater influx of Western culture,” says Chris, a SIM cross-cultural worker involved with church-planting. “When we moved here from the Thai suburbs, I had to learn different things – like jeans were a huge no-no at the church I was at before, which was more traditional.”
The way that global and Western culture mingles with traditional Thai culture makes for a city of extremes. Ancient ways of life juxtaposed with modern living: monks in their orange robes on the BTS skytrain, and ornate Buddhist temples and skyscrapers coexisting in the cityscape. There is overwhelming wealth next to poverty, and the city’s stratified socioeconomic classes are more apparent than elsewhere in Thailand. And no description of Bangkok would be complete without mention of the traffic, literally the worst in the world (a quick Google search shows that Bangkok tops lists of the most traffic-jammed cities).
It takes getting used to – not just for foreigners like Chris, but everyone: most Bangkokians aren’t born and bred city people, but have come from other parts of Thailand for school or work and have become urbanized.
“They say that you can put a person from Bangkok and New York City together and they’ll have more in common than someone from Bangkok and Ayutthaya,” Rawee says (Ayutthaya,the ancient capital of Thailand, is a smaller city at the edge of Bangkok’s sprawl).
And so Bangkokians’ values and aspirations are more characteristic of a cosmopolitan lifestyle and, Rawee quips, include “money, sex, power.”
Chris and Rawee are pastors at Grace Community Church (GCC) in Bangkok, and while the people gathering for Sunday service are obviously Christian, most Bangkokians are not, making church planting in the city a venture in reaching the least reached.
Bangkok – with an estimated 9 million residents and 14 million living in the greater metropolitan area – is not what most people have in mind when they use the terms “unreached” or “least reached”.
Yet its people are still in great need of the gospel – in a city of millions and in a country where Christianity hovers at just 1% percent of the population – the average Bangkokian may never meet a Christian or hear about Jesus Christ. This includes everyone from a child living in the slums to the most “hi-so” (Thai slang for “high society) Thai ladies.
Reaching the city begins from within the church – building up and empowering Thai Christians in their relationships with God in the midst of an urban narrative that encourages fulfillment in career and materialism, while simultaneously fostering an environment where isolation and loneliness easily abound.
“There’s so much competition – you have to work so hard,” says Ed, who has been attending Grace Community Church for fourteen years. “You’re told that you should be someone, you have to look good, you have to be rich.”
On top of that, most Thai believers are the first in their families to accept Christ, and struggle to understand what it means to be “Thai and Christian” when the norm is to be “Thai and Buddhist” – and so church becomes an essential community that feels like family.
“Ninety percent of my friends are Buddhist. Sometimes it’s hard to talk about your beliefs,” says Ed, who is the first Christian in his family.
“In this urban context, Christianity isn’t necessarily about throwing everything away for the sake of the gospel,” says Rawee, who is Thai American and sees the cultural pull. “Thai Christians are often ostracized and there is this idea that you have to ‘run away’ from Thai culture. It’s about seeing that all of life can be serving God, not just coming to church on Sundays.”
“There’s a need for integration, this idea of Christian ‘doing’ versus ‘being.’Often in the church we think of serving God as doing ‘church stuff,'” Chris says. “In Thai it's rap chai prajaw – to serve God. When a pastor says that, it’s taken to mean setting up chairs for worship or leading Bible study.
“But to see your work as something that has value and that you can serve God through, that’s a new concept for many Thai Christians,” he says. “They know how to serve at church but when it comes to living out their lives in non-Christian settings, it’s not as easy.”
It’s not easy at all, even when a Thai Christian sincerely tries to live out their faith. For Ed, church and work are literally in the same place, but could not feel more different: he works at an NGO that is housed on the Kasetsart campus and in the same building where GCC meets.
“I have tried to share the gospel with my coworkers and no one has come to Christ. It has been five years since I started working here,” Ed says. “Do I think God can change this city? In my head, yes. And even though I know God can do it, in my heart...well, I will try to say yes.”
For despite being a least reached place, Bangkok’s inherent accessibility makes it a unique place for the church to bring God’s kingdom to the city. There is access not only in terms of geography and proximity (people of all backgrounds are gathered in one place), but also access in terms of the mindset of people who have become used to such diversity.
“The Muslim people I’ve met here are more open,” says Knot, a member of GCC and a Muslim background believer from the south of Thailand, which has the country’s highest concentration of Muslim communities and where the culture is less receptive to other religions like Christianity. “They’re more familiar with different kinds of people and communities because of the diversity in Bangkok.”
“Crowded,” “busy,” and “draining” Bangkokians lament. Yet this is still their city and there is love for a place so rich, so alive.
“In the Bible, it says, ‘Your kingdom come,’” Ed says. “The church is supposed to be the place on earth that is the image of heaven.”
It isn’t about bringing the city to church, per se, but about the church living their lives and being light and salt in the city.
“Tim Keller has this great quote about doing ministry in the city, something along the lines of, 'We don’t want to just come and build a great church, but to build a great city,'” Rawee says. "And that's what we want to do in Bangkok."
If you love cities or are interested at all in getting to know more about SIM's ministry in cities, contact us today. We need more people who want to see God's love in cities like Bangkok.