On one of my first days in Thailand, my colleague Ricardo Palacios took me on a tour of the Thailand Adventist Mission (TAM). He introduced me to several of the workers there and told me about the work in Thailand. At one point in our conversation, he mentioned that there were hundreds of Adventist Filipinos living and working in Thailand. I asked him if they were active in mission work. “No,” he replied.
“Why not?” I asked.
“I think they are a resource yet untapped by the church.”
Immediately it felt as though a fire began to burn inside me as I thought of all of that potential going to waste. I wanted to find a way to change that. Ricardo’s words have stayed with me to this day.
Compared to the church in Thailand, the church in the Philippines is thriving. The country is 80 to 90 percent Christian, compared to 1 to 5 percent in Thailand. Many of the Filipinos who come to work in Thailand have served as student missionaries and have grown up in active churches. They are willing to serve and enthusiastic to lead, but they are limited by the language barrier. Most Filipinos who work in Thailand are English teachers in international schools. However, because they work in English, they don’t tend to learn much Thai.
The Adventist churches in Thailand with a lot of Filipino members find it challenging to minister to both Filipinos and Thais. In some cases, the Filipino members outnumber the Thai members, so the worship services are held in English and translated into Thai. Also, most of the church leaders are Filipino. Because most Filipinos come from strong churches at home, they confidently take on leadership roles. But Thai people tend to be more deferential and lack an upbringing in the church, so they tend to shrink from leadership. Unfortunately, this means that the spiritual needs of Thai members are often neglected.
Our church in Khon Kaen has seen a steady growth in Filipino attendees. Four years ago, there were only a handful of Filipinos, but now we have about 25 to 30 coming regularly. Two and a half years ago we began holding separate services so that both our Thai members and our growing Filipino members hip would have their spiritual needs met. At least once a month, we have a joint worship service with a translator. We have worked to involve our Filipino members in various outreaches, such as teaching children in the village, singing and passing out literature at markets and parks and teaching English. Our Filipino members have made many valuable contributions to our ministry.
Recently, I preached for a joint worship service. While preparing the sermon, I felt God impressing me to make an appeal to our Filipino members to commit to learning the Thai language so they could minister more effectively. My mind returned to the conversation I’d had with Ricardo more than five years ago, and I felt the fire burning within me again. I knew God was calling me to tap into the untapped resources and make an appeal for missionaries. I prayed that God would give me the right words to say and that our members would feel His Spirit calling their hearts.
I preached on Acts 6 and talked about the challenges when different cultural groups worship together. The early church faced this problem. When we allow cultural differences to divide us, God’s spirit is quenched, and His work is hindered. I talked about the dynamics of our local church and the challenges of church growth. I said that often problems arise because of cultural misunderstandings, and rather than seeking to understand one another, we often become critical and frustrated. I talked about Thailand’s need for missionaries who are humble and willing to take an interest in Thai people, learn about their culture, become their friends and win them to the gospel.
Then I began to make my appeal. I did my best to show the need, inspire them to action and encourage them to commit. “Please stand up if you are willing to begin learning the Thai language.” I said. No one moved. I knew that God had impressed me to make this appeal, and I was sure He would draw people to respond. But I didn’t want to drag out the appeal, so I told them to pray about it.
While they prayed silently, I appealed to the Thai members to commit to helping our Filipino members learn Thai so they could become more effective missionaries to the Thai people. When I asked if anyone would be willing to teach Thai, two Thai members stood up. One of them, Pi Joon, was a recent convert.
Excited that they had caught the vision, I turned back to the Filipinos and appealed again for them to stand up if they felt God calling them to begin learning the Thai language. This time seven people rose to their feet! Before the day was done, Pi Joon told the internationals that Thai class would begin the following Sabbath. Praise God, 20 international members showed up for it!
I give God the glory for how He is tapping into untapped resources and calling our Filipino members to serve as missionaries for Him. Please pray that the momentum we have will not be lost, and that these precious Filipinos will persevere in learning this difficult language. Pray also that this movement will spread beyond Khon Kaen and that many more Filipinos will catch the vision of preparing themselves to minister to Thai people.