|Theology / Church
The Kingdom of Thailand is well known for its sunny beaches, jungle hideouts, elephants and smiling faces. At the heart and crossroads of Southeast Asia, it is a relatively prosperous nation with a population of about 63 million.
Considered to be one of the most beautiful and diverse countries in Asia, it is a kingdom of vibrant culture and commercial activity, of potential and challenge, of variety, contrast, colour and light. Yet under that veneer many needs draw followers of Christ to serve here, seeking out opportunities to bring His hope and compassion to the diverse peoples of this land.
At the beginning of 2008 my husband, Peter, and I moved from Hamilton, New Zealand, to take on the role of Associate Pastors at Chiang Mai Community Church in northern Thailand. Chiang Mai is located more than 700km northwest of Bangkok, and is surprisingly small and pleasant by Asian standards, not at all an urban megalopolis. Dynamic and multicultural – many tourists and expats from Asia and the West base themselves here – Chiang Mai has successfully managed to combine its rich cultural history and traditions with its progressively more modern character. However, as a result of this rapid development, a huge increase in traffic and pollution makes going outside from February to April very unpleasant and unhealthy.
Chiang Mai Community Church has been serving the international community here for more than 40 years. Although Thailand is one of the most devoutly Buddhist countries in the world (more than 95% of all Thais are practising Buddhists), the law provides for freedom of religion. There has historically been an openness to the good news of Jesus among the hill tribe people, though not so much among mainstream Thais. The evangelical churches here are committed to working together in reaching out to the unreached.
While Peter was serving as a pastor in New Zealand before we left, I was working as a family doctor. I have discovered, however, that the skills required in a general medical practice, such as listening and problem solving, are central to my new life here, and that life as a pastor is varied, interesting, challenging and unpredictable!
Our church community is ethnically and culturally very mixed, and because many attend Thai or tribal group churches in the morning, we meet in the late afternoon – a great time for church, in our opinion! Although some have been with the church from its inception, on the whole the church ‘boundaries’ are fairly fluid, with many comings and goings. Chiang Mai is a resource centre for physical, emotional and spiritual renewal, and mission workers from near and far come here for medical and dental care, to have their babies, for rest and respite, and for member care. Others visit from physically isolated workplaces in order to enjoy some Christian community and church life. Many of those who live here also have responsibilities in neighbouring countries, which require them to travel frequently.
In our church we have a good number of young adults: some are with us for only a short time, while others are based in Thailand long-term. They come and go from many countries. We host a young adults’ group on Sunday evenings, and very much enjoy listening to their stories and challenges, and seeing them connecting with each other and building friendships. They are involved in a wide variety of ministries, such as teaching, media and journalism, mission through sport, and working in orphanages. Some work in relief agencies and with immigrants and refugees — approximately 130,000 Burmese refugees live in Thailand, having entered through the long, mountainous border Thailand shares with Myanmar. Others minister to women and children who have HIV. Although prostitution is illegal in Thailand, since the Vietnam War the country has gained international notoriety as a sex tourism destination, and this has led to the prevalence of HIV/AIDS, especially among sex workers.
Short-term mission teams also frequently come through Chiang Mai, and we recently had the privilege of hosting a medical team which included our youngest son, Tim. He and seven third-year medical student friends, from Auckland University Medical School, were inspired by their involvement with the Christian Medical Fellowship to gain some experience of medical needs outside of NZ. They were a great group of high quality young Kiwis, and we had such fun interacting with them, experiencing their energy, seeing their potential for the future and their heart for God and mission.
From short-term teams to those who have formed the core of this church for 40 years now, from visitors coming through to those working in remote locations or neighbouring nations sharing their faith in word and deed, the people we are privileged to serve in our role as pastors here have many, many interesting stories of life and challenge, heartache and joy, reflecting the grace and mercy of our God. Our call as we listen and teach, counsel and support is to encourage each one on their way, pointing them to the never-changing truth that will undergird each of their journeys. Our investment is into those who make a difference, often amongst the most vulnerable, and in the hard places, bringing the Kingdom of God into the midst of the Kingdom of Thailand – to Him be the glory!
Annette, and her husband Peter, are Kiwi partners. They have three adult children, located in Japan, Australia and NZ, and are very grateful for Skype and webcams.