“You seem to have a big problem,” observed one of the pastors as I struggled to grasp the raw meat, “—with chopsticks!”
I smiled a sheepish smile. You’d think that chopstick brandishing would be easier by now, given my earlier run-in with raw squid in Japan. Maybe after another couple of weeks in Thailand, I could master these utensils before moving on in my mission to backpack 360° around the world in 180 days, documenting Christian students’ university experiences.
But meanwhile, I had a job to do—besides trying to wrangle this recalcitrant bit of meat onto the communal grill. The pastors I was staying with had invited several other ministers together for this barbeque, so it seemed like the perfect opportunity to ask them about challenges Christian students face in Thailand.
“You should interview this guy,” suggested a pastor across the grill from me, pointing to a young man who had just joined us. “He’s a student.”
“What do you study?” I asked.
“Filmmaking,” he replied. Then, with the pastors translating, he began to explain how Christian students usually face the most pressure in Thailand when their families are from Buddhist backgrounds.
A Little Cultural Context
As my last article mentioned, Buddhism1 is a worldview which, like the secular humanism of Western countries, denies the existence of a Creator God, rejects God’s Word as the foundation for human thinking, and makes human word the ultimate authority. So, Christian students in both Buddhist Thailand and the secular West encounter challenges inherent to basing their thinking on a different foundation (God’s Word) than their culture’s (man’s word).
In Thailand, however, Christian students from Buddhist backgrounds face additional challenges because Thailand, like Japan, is mostly a collectivist culture centred around the concepts of in-groups, status differences, and the importance of “saving face.” Because of the shame associated with abandoning Buddhism, students who convert to Christianity may cause their entire families to “lose face”—one of the worst things someone in a collectivist culture can do.
Compounding the scandal of converting to a “foreign religion,” students who become Christians can also drop a cultural bombshell apparently by having to rebel against their families’ expectations.
“In Thai culture,” one of the pastors at the barbeque explained, “families expect at least one of their sons to become a monk so that the family can go to ‘heaven.’2 If a son wants to convert, his family will say, ‘at least become a monk for a few days first.’” Here, he jabbed one thumb toward another pastor. “Even he was a monk!”
“For 15 days,” the former monk nodded, “But that was before I became a Christian.”
This cultural expectation of becoming a Buddhist monk placed the filmmaking student under extra pressure, as his only brother had also converted to Christianity. Despite the relational strain of leaving his family “monkless,” the student reported that he didn’t feel lonely because he had friends in the same situation, and because his church supported him like a family would. This, I realized, showed yet again why Christian students need strong interpersonal foundations—a godly support network of like-minded peers, mentors, and a biblically-grounded local church.
Bowing to Statues at University
Curiously, another example of the importance of interpersonal foundations came up when a political science student told me about some other challenges of following Christ in Thailand.
“In some Thai universities,” he explained, “students have to bow down to statues or go through certain ceremonial practices. In my university, there’s nothing like that, but in the city where my brother is studying, every new student is supposed to pay ceremonial respect to the founder’s statue. At that campus, Christian and Muslim students don’t have to attend the ceremony. But in some places, where 95% of people are Buddhist, it would be hard not to participate.”
“So, if you had younger Christian siblings coming to campus,” I replied, “what advice would you give to help them face these challenges?”
“I’d say, ‘Find a Christian group you’re comfortable with, which has the right teaching,’” he said, echoing the themes which I’d heard in almost every other country, “and make Christian friends since Christians are the minority here.”
He also emphasized the importance of church attendance, saying that his church featured one-on-one mentoring.
“Spiritual mentors at church help the young people through all their questions and do personal Bible studies with them,” he said. “I think that is the most efficient way for youth to keep their faith and grow in Christ. I’ve seen so many people drift away because no one took care of them; no one spent time with them; no one was praying with them.”
Foundations Christian Youth and Students Need
RReflecting on this student’s insights, I realized his suggestions tied together with the three types of foundations that I believe Christian students need to navigate a secular university. By way of a quick recap, these include:
Spiritual foundations: a close personal walk with God fueled through Scripture and prayer.
Intellectual foundations: training in critical thinking and apologetics, the intellectual defense of the Christian worldview.
Interpersonal foundations: a Christian support network, including family, peers, and mentors.
The importance of spiritual foundations, for example, showed up in the student’s emphasis on personal Bible studies and finding a group with the “right teaching.” Through frequent Scripture study, Students need to develop a foundational familiarity with God’s Word to recognize right teaching—but run from false doctrine—when they see it.
Being able to recognize and respond to false doctrines also brings up students’ need for the intellectual foundation of critical thinking. Similarly, this student’s comment that mentors can support youth by helping them through their questions highlights the intellectual foundation of apologetics. Students living in a culture founded on man’s word, whether Buddhist Thailand or the secular West, will encounter arguments, messages, and questions which challenge the foundation for their own thinking, God’s Word. But older adults can equip students with apologetics resources to answer these challenges, like my own mentor, biblical creationist, and PhD biologist Dr. Margaret Helder, did for me when I had questions as a student. Importantly, then, older adults themselves need to become equipped with apologetics answers for mentoring youth!
All of this raises an interesting point. Whenever the student mentioned intellectual and spiritual foundations, he did so in the context of interpersonal foundations. In other words, he talked about how peers, mentors, and churches (interpersonal foundations) can support students by teaching, praying and studying the Bible with them (spiritual foundations) or answering their questions (intellectual foundations). Ultimately, meaningful Christian relationships are essential for helping youth develop all the other types of foundations they need to keep their faith in university. Perhaps that’s why the significance of interpersonal foundations had been a central theme I’d heard Christians emphasize in cultures that found their worldviews on man’s word, whether Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Japan, or now, Thailand.
The Moral of the Story
So far, my 360° in 180 mission had shown me some pretty diverse challenges that Christian students encounter in some pretty diverse cultures—and Thailand was no exception. While Christian students in Thailand and Western cultures both face difficulties from grounding their thinking on a different foundation (God’s Word) than their culture’s (man’s word), Thai students face the extra challenges of being nonconformists in a collectivist society. These challenges, in turn, adopt some forms which may seem particularly unheard of to Westerners, like cultural expectations to become monks or bow to statues. But even though Christian students in the East and West encounter such different challenges, the solutions students suggest for overcoming those challenges are the same across cultures. They all come down to developing spiritual, intellectual, and interpersonal foundations.
Now, maybe I should go build interpersonal foundations by making more Thai friends show me how to overcome some challenges of my own—like using chopsticks!
(Stay tuned for part 13!)