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Partnering with the Thai Church in Leadership Development and Theological Education

In this article, David Chang gives personal account of his ministry journey to the point that Thai church leaders recognized what he could do and invited him to partner with them in leadership development and theological education. David’s testimony provides an excellent model that both young and older missionaries should pay attention to.


 David D. Chang

David served as an apprentice with OMF Thailand from 1996 to 1999. In 2003, he and his wife Gladys became OMF members. He was previously the Regional Leader of Bangkok and now teaches at Bangkok Bible Seminary. He holds a DMin from Fuller Theological Seminary.

 

 

 

Partnering with the Thai Church in Leadership Development and Theological Education 

Mission Round Table Vol. 17 No. 2 (May-Dec 2022): 26–31

To download a PDF of this edition, visit this post on Mission Round Table 17:2.

 

I confess to daydreaming when I was a theological student at Singapore Bible College over twenty years ago. My mind drifted in and out of my surroundings, not because the afternoon sun in Singapore was blazing hot or the blasting air-conditioner somehow affected my concentration. I remember receiving handouts after handouts from a lecturer who had plenty of information to pass on to all the Master of Divinity students. But as I looked around the room filled with sleepy-eyed and unengaged pastors, church elders, or future-missionaries who looked equally-bored, I knew that there was a glaring gap in that particular class. While there was an honest attempt to transmit knowledge from the professor to the students, there was no energy or enthusiasm. Our time together was not impactful because there was no sharing of deep life-experiences from this teacher or passion to communicate how truths can be lived out or worked out in our ministry context. Not too long after graduation, all the handouts went into the recycling basket.

Thankfully, this class was the exception and not the norm. Many professors from the seminary shared with us not only their knowledge of the Scriptures, but their lives and lessons learned from ministry as well. Their teaching inspired and impacted us for many years to come.

Does the above scenario sound familiar? Have we sat at the feet of some professors who touched our hearts and equipped us for effective ministry, while others made us wish we were somewhere else or doing something more meaningful? This paper is not an attempt to point out the methods of effective teaching or training, but mainly a testimony of my own journey into leadership development and theological training. However, within my story, you will see that theological training is not only strategic, but also an invitation sounded out by national leaders in Thailand and many other Asian countries. You will also see how God prepares his servants to become a teacher, coach, and trainer, which is a process that cannot be rushed. In the end, I will conclude with a few lessons learned in the journey towards real partnership.

The journey towards genuine partnership

At first, I was not interested in teaching in a seminary. I wanted to be a pioneer church planter and share the gospel with the poor. As a single missionary apprentice, I was sent to Uthai Thani, the poorest province in Central Thailand, to minister among farmers, youth, and children. I had studied Thai for six months at the OMF Lopburi Learning Center, but that was nothing compared with learning language and culture by immersion. Church planting under Thai leaders meant eating Thai food three meals a day, listening to Thai conversations all day long, sleeping on the floor with a thin mattress, and dreaming in Thai.

The first three years were by no means easy. It was very challenging physically and emotionally. I lost a lot of weight due to diarrhea and dengue fever. I often felt lonely and culturally distant even though I was surrounded by Thai brothers and sisters. The best thing that came out of that time period was slowly gaining acceptance by Thais. I learned to laugh at Thai jokes and spent quality time with people. Thai church leaders said to me, “David is now a Thai!” Some even wanted me to marry their daughter! This period of my life was a key piece of the puzzle to my long-term calling, or a foundational stage in my journey towards true partnership. Without learning the language and immersion in the culture, I would not be able to relate effectively and deeply with Thais. And without deep relationships, there can be no real discipleship and leadership training in the Asian context.

Fast-forward to being a married man. In 2004, Gladys and I started reaching out to people in the slums in the outskirts of Bangkok in partnership with a small Thai church. We had the joy of seeing some people come to Christ during that term, including university students and migrants from the working class. But we also felt the pain and sorrow of seeing new believers fall away or leave the church undiscipled. However, the biggest ministry challenge during those first two terms for me was working with Thai pastors. As a missionary, I had largely different expectations towards the work. In our team meetings, I often asked: “When is our next evangelistic outreach or visit to the lost?” But my Thai co-workers proposed: “Let’s plan the next fellowship time for our church members.” We also clashed over communication styles. I wanted to speak and receive information in a straight-forward way, while my Thai colleagues valued more subtle and round-about ways of discussing issues. I planned my days with multiple agendas, while Thais enjoyed hanging out and “wasting time” in my view. All these cultural differences compelled me to look for answers. I conducted research on the subject of partnership and explored effective ways for missionaries and Thais to work together. I shared some of my findings in a previous MRT article and will elaborate on this topic further.[1]

Along the journey, the Lord also blessed us with five children, including triplets! Our four younger kids were all born in Thailand. Having a large family was literally stretching, but it also opened tremendous doors for us to witness to our Thai neighbors and friends. Parents from our community often visited us and asked questions, such as: “How do you make your children sit still and eat?” or “How do you manage a home with so many kids?” Keep in mind that most of the time we not only had our own children at home, but half a dozen Thai kids going in and out of our house as well. Our response to their inquiry was along the lines of: “God is our help, by his grace alone!” We shared simple testimonies to Thais who were interested and open because we had opened our lives to them. Many Thais also come from broken backgrounds and are in need of healthy models or mentoring. We developed credibility and trust because we lived, struggled, and grew alongside the locals. We were in no way perfect role models. At times, our neighbors could hear our kids throw a tantrum, or hear us as parents shouting loudly back at our kids. This was perhaps our way of doing holistic missions, not just an exchange of information, but sharing of lives in all its messiness while trusting in Christ. I believe that this aspect of our journey was also necessary and non-negotiable if we are to impact Thai leaders for long-term fruitful ministry. Leadership training starts from the home according to the Apostle Paul: “for if someone does not know how to manage his own household, how will he care for God’s church” (1 Tim 3:5).[2]

While I was pursuing part-time studies for a ThM in missiology from Fuller Seminary around 2009, Bangkok Bible Seminary actually invited me to consider joining the faculty. After praying about this offer, I told them, “Please give me a few more years.” I felt strongly that more on-the-ground experience in the Thai church context was needed if I should one day teach in a seminary. So from 2007 to 2017, I accepted the role of OMF Regional Leader in Bangkok. Part of my ministry was to help strengthen a handful of new church plants, and mentor OMF missionaries to work alongside of churches under the Association of Churches in Thailand Bangkok (ACTB).

As I partnered, networked, and labored alongside of many church leaders in the city, I grew in experience and understanding of the bigger picture. Because Bangkok is the center of cultural and religious influence in Thailand, it is also a place of intense spiritual warfare. Too many new missionaries underestimate the power of darkness and the dependency upon God required to establish God’s work and equip leaders in the city. Harvie Conn, a scholar in urban missions from an earlier generation, wrote:

In cities where urban power is overtly religious in orientation and strongly institutionalized, it may be very difficult to see strong church growth or a change of faith. With major religious symbolic significance, such a city does not easily open its doors to theological outsiders.[3]

I also realized that there is a common phenomenon of many Thais being willing to pray the sinner’s prayer, but few are discipled properly and grow steadfastly in the local church.[4] In many cases, the back door of the church was wider than the front door.[5] After decades of evangelism, the great majority of local churches were stagnant. This, I observed, was also due to the problem of pastoral leadership. The lack of vision, management skills, as well as godly character among some Thai leaders have hindered the expansion of the Thai church.

The desire to see Thai churches truly flourish and glorify God compelled me to study further and consider how to help pastors lead more biblically, spiritually, and missionally. From 2014 to 2018, Fuller Seminary offered a Doctorate of Ministry for a cohort in Chiang Mai, Thailand, specializing in Leadership in the Asian Context. It was advantageous that I did not need to put aside my ministry responsibilities, and the research and interactions with other leaders two weeks per year helped me to become more effective in my work. During this time period, I continued to observe first-hand the need for more Thai pastors to teach the Scriptures faithfully. Many preachers only made use of familiar passages but omitted large portions of the Bible from the pulpit. Typical sermons centered on what human beings need to do for God, rather than God’s attributes and what he has already done for us. Integrity and spirituality were also missing from the lives of some leaders, resulting in large-scale scandals and leading young believers to stumble in their faith. Moral failure or issues related to character were not only a problem for Thais, but impacted foreign missionaries as well. Extensive reading about the topic of missional churches shaped my thinking as I considered how the gospel has been planted for nearly two hundred years into Thai soil but has yielded fruit in less than one percent of its population. I started asking the question: “What is the most strategic thing for me to do?” The answer came in the form of a charge from 2 Timothy 2:2, “And what you have heard from me in the presence of many witnesses entrust to faithful men, who will be able to teach others also.”

Training leaders non-formally in ACTB

Before accepting the invitation to teach full-time at Bangkok Bible Seminary, another component was needed in my ministry formation—gaining experience in coaching and training leaders non-formally. I learned how to coach and conduct seminars for Thais by watching senior missionaries. For example, our former Thailand Field Director involved us in Project Paul, a very interactive and practical seminar for equipping church planters. The Lord also gave me long-term friendships with dozens of Thai pastors in both rural and urban settings. Thousands of hours were spent listening to and understanding their struggles and praying for them. Without personal insight into the challenges of Thai pastoral ministry, such as family life, finances, relational conflicts, culture, and worldview, it would have been difficult to communicate theology in a relevant way. Some coaching seminars held by OMF and other organizations have also been very helpful in my ministry.[6]

In January 2016, I was invited by the Chairman of ACTB to start leadership training for a group of Thai leaders. During the first year, I divided the twenty-five churches into two regions. I asked local churches to volunteer hosting the training events, which were usually held on Saturday mornings for three hours. I focused on spiritual formation, personal development, avoiding pitfalls of leadership, and mentoring. The Baan Suk Kasem church in North Bangkok was the most enthusiastic. They hosted seminars regularly and a core group of lay leaders participated eagerly. The main challenge during the first year, however, was a lack of consistency in attendance from other churches. While those who came appeared excited and gave positive feedback, it was rare to see a pastor participate consistently in order to build on top of what had been taught. Causes of inconsistency have to do with distance of travel, conflicting programs on Saturdays—as most churches have other competing agendas, such as worship practice—and lack of deeper bonding in relationships.

The goal for the second year was to build momentum and gain wider recognition for the ACTB training events. Outside instructors were invited to complement my sessions; some were experienced missionaries and Thai leaders. Topics ranged from prayer counseling to the five levels of leadership by John Maxwell.[7] The seminars were longer, usually from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. on Saturdays, including a lunch break. At the end of the second year, more leaders showed interest. However, there was still a lack of consistency in attendance and content.

During this time period, I developed a training manual of twelve lessons in Thai and English based on what was taught, needs of the Thai church, feedback from participants, and my own further studies. This training manual was included in the final project of my DMin studies.[8] My point is that effective leadership training should not come from foreign resources downloaded from cyberspace, but cultivated from the grassroots. The content of my teaching was forged in the context of Thailand, OMF, and ACTB. Senior missionaries modeled leadership training for me, and Thai pastors gave me the opportunity to serve, make mistakes, learn, and grow. I am truly grateful for all these people and experiences from the Lord. The training skills, style of communication, and substance that I learned in non-formal settings have now become more impactful in a formal institution, but that does not mean I discontinue informal church-based theological training. The task of all theological educators should be “to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God” (Eph 4:12–13).

I would like to encourage new missionaries who may have a burden for theological education to take the long-range view and not rush the process of preparation. Consider the findings of Bobby Clinton’s research conducted among hundreds of contemporary leaders and from church history. In his classic book The Making of a Leader, Clinton lays out the five phases that are common to a leader’s development (see Figure 1).


Phases I, II, and III are all part of God’s provision in helping a potential leader to establish a solid foundation before embarking on significant ministries. During these phases, which may take five to fifteen years, God is more interested in the leader’s personal growth than what he or she can accomplish for the kingdom. Clinton wrote that “God is quietly, often in unusual ways, trying to get the leader to see that one ministers out of what one is,” more than what one can do.[9]

If the emerging leader passes various trials and testing, they move into greater effectiveness and more impactful roles. Many, however, may give up on ministry or go through long periods of wilderness due to disobedience. Phase IV is when a leader’s life, experiences, and gifts are blended together to influence others for God’s glory. This usually does not happen in a missionary’s first term. From my observation, a cross-cultural missionary in Thailand can only begin to make lasting impact after eight to ten years of on-the-ground ministry. Sadly, very few missionaries these days persevere long enough to reach Phase V. Convergence is when God moves a missionary into a role that matches gift-mix, experience, temperament, and even calling into a geographical area or target group.[10] This phase is also when we recognize most clearly that our ministry is given by the Lord, and not something we strived for or achieved in our own strength. As God is the one who entrusted us with the work, he will empower and supply the grace for us to be truly fruitful.

Invitation to theological education and lessons learned

Two Thai leaders invited me to consider partnership through theological education. The first was Dr. Manote Jangmook, who is the current president of Bangkok Bible Seminary. As I sat in his office after being invited to preach at the BBS chapel, he said to me: “The time period for missionaries to pass out tracts on street corners is over! Instead, missionaries should focus on training Thais.” What he said reminded me of the different phases of missions, which consist of pioneering, parenting, partnering, and participating.[11] Missionaries pioneered many churches and schools in the past and were seen as parental figures, but what the Thai church needs today are those willing to partner or even work under national leadership as participants. Dr. Manote is a church historian who specializes in Thai church history. In his view, Thais should be doing most of the evangelism and pastoral ministries, while missionaries can still play a strategic role—not by leading from the front, but by coaching and training the Thais. He also said, “New missionaries must get some experiences in local churches before they start teaching.”[12]

The second person who influenced my decision to join BBS was Pastor Somchai Songthangtham, who is the current Dean of Students. I first met Pastor Somchai in a Christian coffee shop. We struck up a good conversation, and he said to me, “I really like OMF missionaries because they are samatha.” I asked him what this Thai word meant. He said it means they have a simpler life-style and are more down-to-earth. They don’t buy expensive cars or have too many material possessions. This, to him, is a strong value and appropriate for cross-cultural workers. Pastor Somchai first invited me to teach an Introduction to Missions class in 2016, since the previous missions professor had gone overseas to study. During the first two semesters of teaching this course, I had to take three different forms of public transportation to school, which included riding wildly against traffic on the back of motorcycle taxis in order to arrive on time. I did not mind the risk, because I was thrilled to have a part in training future Thai pastors and missionaries. Besides examining the biblical and historical basis for missions, I shared my personal journey, encounters with cultural conflicts, and church planting experiences to younger leaders who were eager to learn.

After teaching part-time for a few years, I was invited to teach two to three subjects per semester starting in 2019. Pastor Somchai also asked me to teach the Book of Acts because he wanted someone to teach it from a missionary perspective. Teaching Acts was really a “dream come true” for me, because I loved and read it more than any other book in Scripture from my early days in the ministry. I also studied Acts once a year with other OMF missionaries through Project Paul. The Walk through the Bible project inspired me to come up with my own hand motions for the twenty-eight chapters of Acts. I saw how students caught on to this more active form of learning, including masters level students in their forties, who memorized the hand motions and passed them onto others. One important lesson that I learned through this was how to engage Thais who were more oral learners. Most students did not read a whole lot, but they learned by doing, talking, and participating in classroom activities. I lowered my expectations for the number of pages of required reading, but focused on healthy classroom interactions, skits, debates, presentations, and activities that helped them to enjoy the process of learning.

However, after enjoying a short period of “success” in teaching various classes in person, we were hit by COVID-19. All teachers, myself included, went through a steep learning curve. We taught through Zoom and other online platforms, hoping things would eventually return to normal. During this time, I started a YouTube channel and learned to produce my own video clips to help students to review content and have more online resources to share with others, since access to physical libraries became difficult. However, as most of the world, including local churches, reopens, we find that many seminaries around the world are not returning to in-person education; some have even sold their campuses.[13]

The leadership of BBS decided to go with hybrid learning, giving students the option to study either in person or online. The result is that there has been an increase of online enrollment, because Thai students who are geographically far from Bangkok, including some who live overseas, can now earn even an MDiv degree online. The negative impact is that there are now fewer students coming to the institution physically, resulting in the loss of in-person community and doing life together. One of my great joys was meeting with students for informal mentoring on campus. There are obvious pros and cons to this current trend of online education, and I am still feeling uncertain about the future. A key lesson I am learning in this recent debate is trusting the Lord to guide our institution and submitting to Thai leadership. Personally, I would prefer to make it mandatory for MDiv students to learn in person for at least a few times per semester, and I actually stated my position respectfully in our faculty meetings. However, those who are in positions of authority have decided to keep the options open, and I can only entrust this matter to God and continue to serve under their direction.

Another interesting opportunity that BBS has also given to me was to teach the Book of Revelation. I never had even a side interest in eschatological debates, nor was I in any way an expert on the subject. But during the world-wide pandemic, many Thais became interested in this book and there was an explosion of online teaching on the end times. I was pushed to study the word and sought to present a more biblical and balanced view to students. Surprisingly, the class was well received, and I have been invited to teach Revelation almost every semester since then, in response to the growing interest of the Thai church. In one semester, I had 175 Thai lay leaders enrolled in the evening sessions. The key lesson I learned was to be willing to accept a challenging task and do something outside of my comfort zone. This was certainly true for me as a missionary more familiar with subjects like missiology and leadership development. I am learning to partner with the Thai church, not solely focused on my own specializations, but responding to the needs of the current context.

In conclusion, I am deeply thankful to God for leading me into theological education for his own glory. He is the Lord of the times and seasons. I have been placed in a strategic role, not because of my abilities, but because of his grace and gifts. I am learning to hold these gifts with an open hand, knowing that Christ can give them for a season and take them away or use me elsewhere as he sees fit. The OMF missionary that modeled this attitude and perspective for me was Henry Breidenthal, the founder and first president of Bangkok Bible Seminary. He reminded the faculty many times, “Don’t forget that BBS is a story written in heaven.” What he meant was that the school originated from God and is still being orchestrated by him. Missionaries and teachers are only invited to join this wonderful narrative through humble participation and service. We can also trust that God will complete the good work that he has started.

 


[1] David D. Chang, “Growing in Partnership with Thai Church Leaders,” Mission Round Table 10, no.1 (January 2015): 26–31.

[2] All Scriptures in this paper are quoted from the English Standard Version.

[3] Harvie M. Conn and Manuel Ortiz, Urban Ministry: The Kingdom, the City and the People of

God (Downers Grove: IVP, 2001), 199.

[4] For an examination of some of the issues involved, see Karl Dahlfred, “The Sinner’s Prayer in Animistic Cultures: Problems and Solutions,” Mission Round Table 15, no. 1 (January–April 2020): 4–11.

[5] For a similar phenomenon in a different context and some suggested solutions, see Allen J. Swanson, The Church in Taiwan : Profile 1980 (Pasadena: William Carey, 1981) and Mending the Nets: Taiwan Church Growth and Loss in the 1980s (Pasadena: William Carey, 1986).

[6] I recommend attending the Coaching Course held by the OMF Training and Development Department and the Leadership Development Team.

[7] John Maxwell, The 5 Levels of Leadership: Proven Steps to Maximise Your Potential (New York: Center Street, 2013).

[8] David D. Chang, “Developing Thai Leaders for Long-term Fruitfulness within the Association of Churches Bangkok” (DMin Training Manual Final Project, Fuller Theological Seminary, 2018).

[9] J. Robert Clinton, The Making of a Leader (Singapore: Navigators, 1988), 30–34.

[10] Clinton, The Making of a Leader, 34.

[11] Four stages of missions are part of Lesson 7 in the Perspectives on the World Christian Movement course.

[12] The quotes come from personal conversations with Dr. Manote Jangmook.

[13] Matt Ayars, “The Future is Campus-Free,” Christianity Today (3 October 2022), 32–33, https://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2022/october/virtual-online-seminary-is-future.html (accessed 17 October 2022), and Kirsten Sanders, “How Seminary Downsizing Cuts into Community,” Christianity Today (19 May 2022), https://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2022/may-web-only/gordon-conwell-teds-evangelical-seminary-closure-financial.html (accessed 17 October 2022).

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