Drawing on findings of a focus group discussion, Cherlyn Oh discusses what Thai university students perceived to be key forces at work in the popular culture that they are a part of. The five university students, who were active in Christian groups in universities in Bangkok, also shared their views on whether the gospel is related to these key areas of popular culture.
Popular Culture and the Gospel amongst University Students in Bangkok
Mission Round Table 16:3 (September–December 2021): 16–21
Cherlyn is a Singaporean missionary serving with the Bangkok team in the OMF Thailand Field. For the last five years, she has been partnering with Thai Christian Students (TCS), a local organization under the umbrella of International Fellowship of Evangelical Students (IFES), to serve university students in Bangkok. One aspect of student ministry she enjoys is exchanging stories with students over food and snacks. She recently found out that her personal optimum spice level for papaya salad is having exactly six chillies in one serving.
If you were asked to guess what Generation Z (born 1997–2012) university students in Bangkok would consider as popular culture, what would you say? Would you think that Korean drama or idol groups like Blackpink and BTS would be top on the list? How about Netflix or Disney+ movies and series?
Those would probably make it into the top twenty, but imagine my surprise to find out that they were not listed as the top five according to my recent focus group discussion with five Thai university students.
Gordon Lynch, in his book Understanding Theology and Popular Culture, defines popular culture simply as “the shared environment, practices and resources of everyday life in a given society.” Common categories for pop culture would include entertainment, sports, news, politics, fashion, and technology, amongst others.
In this write-up, the “given society” that we will be looking at is that of the university students studying in the bustling city of Bangkok, Thailand.
Understanding what young people see as common and shared in their environment, the practices that go along with it, and the resources that they perceive as available to them is very important in our ministry to bring the gospel to this generation. This is because understanding how they think and what they view as important issues will help ministry workers know the questions that they are asking. This will help us craft biblical answers and address issues that they are concerned about. Not understanding the needs and worldviews of our target group before we come up with outreach and discipleship strategies is akin to embarking on a trip without knowing where the destination is.
To satisfy my curiosity, I gathered a group of five university students who were active in the Christian groups from four universities in Bangkok. One student is majoring in English language, two in economics, one in journalism, and one in education. In August 2021, we had a focus group discussion via Zoom for about one and a half hours to talk about what they perceived to be the popular culture amongst their peers and their views on whether the gospel is related to it. The interview was conducted by me asking questions and the students taking turns to share their views. At various points in the interview, I asked the students if they agreed with what another student was saying. I was the learner, there to listen and observe the interaction of the students. The students shared in the Thai language and what they shared was consolidated and translated into English for this piece.
Four of the five students knew each other and their videos were turned on during the interview. The fifth student was less familiar with the others and his video was turned off. He shared a lot and even expressed disagreement cordially at certain points; he told me later that he could have shared even more, but sometimes held back because he didn’t know the others that well. There is a possibility of confirmation bias for the other four students, but it was probably not significant based on my observations. While they generally agreed, disagreement was expressed at times and the student who disagreed shared why briefly. Most of the time, they did not elaborate or get into a discussion as to why they did or did not agree with another, possibly because of time constraints.
I acknowledge that a focus group discussion with only five university students is very limited, but one conversation can still bring insights that can help us understand this generation a little more so that we can consider what else we need to find out and begin to generate ideas about how we can adapt our methods to reach the young people in a new era.
The following five points are summaries drawn from the opinions of the student participants of the focus group discussion.
Politics was the first thing that came up in the focus group discussion. This is not surprising considering that, since the year 2020 till the time of writing, this new generation of young people in Thailand, especially in Bangkok, have been protesting against the government, demanding for the parliament to be dissolved, for the constitution to be rewritten, and for authorities to stop clamping down on critics. The people sought creative ways to protest, such as the widely used three-finger salute from The Hunger Games movie series as a protest gesture to represent the three demands that the students were making. During a phase of the protests, a phrase adapted from the video game “Bioshock” was used to express the discontent of the protesters towards local institutions. It was used as a hashtag and trended on Twitter and Instagram for a period of time.
One student in the focus group explained that, in the days before Thailand was an official country, three pillars were set up to be the foundation of the people—the king, religion, and the nation. It was taught for hundreds of years that if any one of these pillars were destroyed, then Thailand as a country would disappear from the world. He added that this belief has been deeply entrenched in Thai education and upbringing, but is now being threatened by a new generation of young people who are not simply conforming to what they are being told by institutions and old media. The student also said that young people are asking critical questions and are interested in finding out more on their own. He pointed out that they are able to both read up to find information—such as foreign philosophies and worldviews—as they have access to it on the internet, as well as easily share them and exchange opinions on social media.
Students in the focus group all agreed that politics was a hot topic amongst young people. Although they do not actively participate in student protests, they agreed with the movement in general and shared posts on their social media about what’s happening in Thai politics. They added that they were also personally interested to find out more about politics and read up about the history and background on their own, and they checked the credibility of news sources and influencers before following them on social media or sharing their posts.
2. Social media
Another big area seen as popular culture that was shared by all students is the use of social media, namely, Instagram and Twitter. It has a significant part to play in many aspects of their lives as students consume and engage with the content on these platforms.
One student elaborated on what draws them to use social media: (1) It has helped to create spaces for people according to their different needs, interests, and perspectives. (2) They can group together on social media to find their “tribe.” (3) It can have a very large reach and encourages users to engage because they can express their opinions easily and boldly, since they have the choice to post from anonymity. (4) They are exposed to content that is diverse and may be different from so-called “mainstream” thinking. The student felt that, in some way, this promotes critical thinking because people need to take a stand amidst a vast array of opinions and perspectives that they have access to. She added that these platforms may, at the same time, hinder critical thinking because users may end up following individuals or groups that agree with their existing beliefs due to algorithms on social media set to show users content that is related to what they search for. In her opinion, this can cause users to think that their belief or attitude is the only right one to subscribe to.
The student who is in the faculty of journalism and mass media explained how the spaces in social media have allowed people on the ground to decide what the news of the time should be. In the past, “old media” like newspapers, radio, and television were run by instituted news stations. The backers of these institutions were the ones who decided the headlines and the direction of the content. Journalists and newscasters could not be a hundred percent upfront with their reporting and had to adhere to preferences or directions of the powers and businesses behind them. However, with “new” media today, people on the ground can immediately upload on Twitter the videos and photos that they took with their phone cameras and update the masses on what is happening in real time before their very eyes. When people decide that uploaded media is important news, they share it on their Twitter or Instagram accounts and, thus, headlines are made on the social media space and can go viral within an hour. The other students in the group agreed that Thai young people get their news and updates mostly from Twitter as they feel that it is “reliable, real, and fast.”
One student shared that there is pressure to use these spaces to advocate for issues that the majority of their generation have deemed to be important. She gave the following example in the area of politics. Many university students agree that there is a lot of corruption happening in the government and are calling for change. As a result, whenever there are students protesting, those present at the scene would take photos and videos, share these on Twitter and Instagram, and urge other students to pass the message on, especially if there had been violence. If someone does not pass the message on for whatever reason, there is fear that others may view him as being pro-government or apathetic, which is viewed negatively. She observed that people may sometimes share political posts out of obligation or pressure from society and not because they truly want to.
3. Everything “online”
With the onset of the pandemic, online activities that were already rampant were further pushed to invade almost all areas of life. Celebrations like Loi Krathong—which usually saw people meeting by the river in the moonlight and releasing lanterns, made from segments of a banana trunk, onto the water—were even taken online. Almost every activity that students used to do before the pandemic could now be done “online.” They are at home a lot and have had to study online and this means that they have the choice and freedom to learn on their own even more, as many things they are interested in are accessible online as well.
One student shared that there has been increasing interest, among young people, in learning about crypto currency, online trading, and e-commerce on their own because they wanted to learn how to make money on the side. She added that she has observed several changes. The financial literacy of the students is higher than before and they take more initiative to invest. Students realize that they can learn and find out how to earn more money rather than depend on luck and buying lottery tickets, a thing that the older generation may have been more likely do. A lot of them are also less likely to want to be government officials, an occupation that used to be seen as stable and desirable. With their access to learning online and finding resources on their own, they are able to discover and learn in depth the areas that they want to develop in.
4. Gender issues and equality
One student raised the point that LGBTQ+ issues have been “booming” in the last couple of years. He said that people are more accepting and space is given for people who identify with this community to speak and express their views. I was surprised to hear this as I had thought that it was generally acceptable, in Thailand, for people to identify themselves as LGBTQ+. The student responded that although it may be normal to see people from the LGBTQ+ community in the media and in Thai society, they have often been the brunt of jokes, have been bullied, and have not been truly accepted by people in the community. The student, who is in his second year, shared that since entering university, he has had the opportunity to know a few people from the LGBTQ+ community and have become good friends with them. He also observed that more and more young people are speaking up and sharing on social media that people from the LGBTQ+ community are human beings, too, and deserve to be treated with respect. He added that many people who are LGBTQ+ are very talented and produce very good content on social media and are popular in the entertainment industry as well. They are thus able to speak up for the LGBTQ+ community to gain respect and be seen as fellow human beings.
Another student shared that there are more conversations taking place regarding gender equality and the need to show respect to women. She felt that this could be due to the influence of the #MeToo movement from the United States. This student said that sexual harassment used to be a normal thing in Thailand and sexual jokes were prevalent. She observed that people are now more careful about this and many orientation programs in universities have reduced or cut out games that have sexual connotations.
5. How does the gospel relate to popular culture in Bangkok?
All the students agreed that the gospel is very much related to the aspects of popular culture they had discussed.
Regarding politics, one student expressed strongly that the gospel is very much related to politics. He lamented that many Thai Christians are content with being saved by believing in Jesus, but do not continue to study the whole Bible to understand God’s message fully. He said that the Bible is very clear that God is not pleased with corruption and injustice and that Christians have a role in fighting for justice in the country. To him, one way to do that is to speak up about the corruption and injustice happening in society. He added that although God gave leaders power and authority to lead and run a country, he is not pleased when they do evil. He mentioned that in the past, a few Thai preachers used to talk about politics and social justice in their sermons, but they are now silent. He questions why this is so and expressed disappointment that Thai Christians are not doing enough. Another student added that if we can respond biblically to the various issues surrounding politics, it would be a great chance to share Christian values and perspectives with non-believers, because politics is a very big thing amongst young people in Thailand right now. He said that it is a great opportunity to let people see how Christians view things in the light of biblical teaching and to share the gospel of Jesus with them. When asked how this could be done, the students in the focus group said it is difficult and very challenging.
Regarding LGBTQ+ gaining more acceptance, students agreed that the gospel is very much related to it. One student commented that Christians need to share the gospel and tell people in the LGBTQ+ community about Jesus. He acknowledged that it is a sensitive issue and the Bible says some things about it, too. To him, it is clear that homosexuality is a sin, but at the same time, Christians have often not been understanding or accepting of the person when talking about this area. He added that homosexuality is not more wrong than other sins because everyone is sinful, but homosexuality is sometimes seen as an extra big sin when pastors preach about it on the pulpit. The student continued saying that as LGBTQ+ is gaining more acceptance in the society, the church also needs to be more understanding of the community. He said he believes strongly that Christians need to hold on to the truth, but also need to try to understand LGBTQ+ people more—to find out who they really are, what they think, and how they feel—instead of giving them the impression that Christians are always condemning them. The student acknowledged that it may be difficult to share the gospel with the LGBTQ+ community without causing them to feel judged or put down, but he sees that there is a need to think more about it and try.
As for social media, students saw it more as a tool and felt that it is very useful, especially in sharing the gospel. One student said that there is probably Christian material somewhere in every form of social media right now. He observed that there may not be a lot of content and it may not be very popular or trending, yet it does exist. Another student shared that tools like these are very helpful for Christian students who may not have the time or confidence to slowly explain the gospel to their friends. But, with these tools available on social media, they could simply show a gospel video clip to their friends or share a Christian post directly with them.
One student said it is likely that most of the viewers of such Christian content are Christians and there are probably very few non-Christians who view them unless these are being shared directly with them by a Christian friend.
Another student raised the point that while there is truth shared in a lot of the Christian content on social media, there are also cults that use social media widely and these groups are increasingly present in local universities. He shared the concern that these appear very legitimate and so, false teaching can spread quickly and widely as well.
Making sense of the findings
The students shared many insightful observations and allowed me to take a peek into their world and their views on popular culture. But what do the findings tell us about engaging young people? The following are some thoughts drawn from the discussion.
1. Short, raw, and in real-time
The students’ responses clearly show that social media usage is something that pervades all areas of life for young people. It is worth noting that Facebook was not mentioned as one of the popular platforms for the younger generation. It could be because their parents and guardians are on Facebook and young people want to be able to express themselves without the scrutiny of the older generation. Facebook may have also become too congested with people they did not know and information they did not want. We can see, from the findings, that the students use social media for entertainment, to learn, to get news, to spread messages of social justice, and to participate in politics, amongst others. However, it is interesting that they do not use all available platforms. As highlighted in the findings, the students observed that Thai young people get their news from Twitter because it is perceived to be “reliable, real, and fast.” Social media platforms like Twitter are popular because users can get information they are interested in within seconds. It is seen as reliable because “people on the ground” are the ones filming these videos and posting it in real-time. This is information that is raw—not redacted, refined, edited, censored, or sophisticated. It is now more common to see live videos on Instagram, too, where young people video themselves walking and talking on the spot, or even turning on the video to study together and share their lives with the online world. This shows that young people opt to watch what is raw, authentic, and not rehearsed. Then, there are also updates that are short and concise. They come in a bite-sized, summarized, and easy-to-consume format. For example, Twitter currently has a character limit of 280. Instagram is mainly used to share videos and images. The findings suggest that content that is short, raw, and in real-time are more likely to engage the new generation and get them hooked. Perhaps we can incorporate these characteristics as we think further about how to engage young people for the gospel, too.
2. Independent and discussion-based learning
As highlighted by the students, young people are able to find information on anything they want to learn, whether it is regarding cryptocurrency, trading and stocks, gardening, yoga, or other areas. The young generation have all kinds of information at their fingertips. They are IT savvy and are in touch with the latest apps and gadgets. It’s a matter of being guided to where the best, most accurate, and reliable content can be found, since there is so much available on the internet. They can also pick and choose the topics that most interest them or are most relevant for them at any one time. This means that students are more able to study independently and are likely to have access to content that a teacher may use to prepare his or her lessons. Thus, the usual method of one-way lecturing and preaching is probably not so helpful for students anymore. They would get bored if they already know part of the content or feel that what is being presented does not relate to their lives. Students don’t come to the table with a blank slate that calls for pastors, preachers, or ministry workers to teach from scratch. What have they already read beforehand? Do they have opinions on the topic being taught? Where did these opinions come from? What do they want to know and what is most relevant to their lives now? If leaders in discipleship and Christian education can address these questions, they can work with the students’ existing ideas and perspectives and engage students from where they are at. They can offer direction as to where students can look further, guide them in evaluating the reliability of the sources they are looking at, and facilitate sharing of different perspectives of other students on the issue. Students have much to offer and everyone would benefit when they are learning together and are engaged in discussion.
3. Engage in what’s relevant (no matter how sensitive!)
From the topics raised by the focus group, it can be seen that the students are most concerned about politics and social issues like gender equality and showing respect to minority groups. They are more outspoken about what used to be sensitive topics in Thai society, including the church, and they are keen to address difficult and important questions. It is surprising to see how Thai people latched on to a phrase from a video game and how that, as explained by one student, revealed the cracks and fragility of a set of beliefs firmly built over so many generations of Thai people. The findings also suggest that the relative anonymity of social media makes it possible for students to be outspoken in a country where communication is largely dictated by social hierarchy. Students can speak their mind behind a pseudo username and share their opinions and perspectives with the masses. From their social media posts, we can gain insight into what students are really thinking and we need to recognize that it is difficult to convince this generation based on traditions alone or expect them to subscribe to things just because “it’s been done like this all along.” The findings indicate that Thai young people are asking questions that matter to them. Must everything be black and white? Aren’t human beings and the issues surrounding society more complex than the way things are presented?
If the church leaders and Christian mentors of university students are afraid to address such topics and are unwilling to look at the Bible together for a response to these issues, then we will risk losing the young people. It is clear that they are seeking answers and that they do want to discuss this with people they look up to in the church. They see that the gospel is relevant and is related to all these issues, but are not sure how to connect them.
So how can we bring these thoughts in as we consider how to adapt the way we do ministry amongst the new generation? I believe such conversations have started and are going on right now. Each ministry team probably has to adapt according to their context and the people they serve. But the thoughts gleaned from the focus group session provide some ideas to contribute to the ongoing discussions.
Firstly, can we rethink the way Christian education, such as Bible studies, sermons, and Bible school curriculum, is being done? How can we increase the impact of these sessions by incorporating their preferences for content that is short, raw, and in real-time? Is it possible for a church service to replace the one-way communication of typical sermons with short snippets of teaching, say fifteen minutes at a time, followed by a discussion of the presented content in small groups? Examples from current issues could help bring the content to life and let young people see that God’s word is still relevant in this day and age. How about a question and answer time so that there can be “raw” moments of sharing on the spot, whether by fellow learners or the facilitator, to get real with heartfelt sharing of thoughts and experiences. The idea that young people are attracted to what is “raw” could be a sign that they desire authenticity—real conversations without all the rehearsed speech, sermons, smoke machines, and lights. Conversations and dialogues don’t feel rehearsed. There is space for asking questions directly and for deeper relationships to be formed through authentic conversations. Tools could also be used in church to engage a big group of learners in real-time by allowing them to ask questions or express their opinions via platforms like Slido and Kahoot!. These questions can then be addressed by the speaker or the teacher, or raised for discussion in small groups. During the pandemic, groups that work with young people in Thailand, such as Thai Christian Students (TCS) and the youth committee for the Seventh District of the Churches of Christ in Thailand, conducted online camps that made effective use of various tools in their teaching sessions, workshops, and fellowship time. These tools have also been used for on-site camps and events for greater interaction in a big group.
In addition, considering that young people are more exposed to independent learning and have access to a wide range of information on the internet, it will be helpful to give them time for individual research and study, when possible, before coming together to present and discuss what they have found. It cannot be assumed that the pastor, teacher, or Bible study leader knows it all. Learning goes deeper when everyone has the opportunity to share and respond to each other’s findings and perspectives, sources of information are evaluated, and learners are given the platform to express their ideas, defend their stand, and even change their mind. The teacher then becomes more of a facilitator and moderator to make sure things do not stray from the purpose. This approach may be challenging right now for a society like Thailand that is strongly hierarchical. When a pastor or older leader sits down to join a group, people tend not to share or the leader is likely to dominate the discussion. However, the fact that the interview that provided the basis for this article could be conducted in a way that young people could share their views openly with a missionary like me, who is older than they by at least ten years, shows that change is possible and is starting to happen.
Another important thing to think about is how to address sensitive topics when we interact with young people. If we believe that our Lord is “one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all,” we exemplify that truth when we respond to all issues in society with God’s word and show that his word has the authority to speak to and transform all areas of life. It is true that discussing sensitive topics can be a very scary thing. In my work with students, I do tremble in fear at times when they bring up sensitive issues that I know have no clear, direct answer. Sometimes, there is a clear answer! The issue is that it can be very difficult to say. But, just like how God called the prophets in the Old Testament to speak his truth faithfully, we, as his servants, also need to seek wisdom and courage from God to speak his word into the issues of the day. For example, I am encouraged and glad that the students see that their friends from the LGBTQ+ community need to know Jesus, too. So the next question would be: how can they be equipped to share Jesus with them? I understand the “heat” that comes with bringing up Jesus to our LGBTQ+ friends. I myself have experienced that, too. But I realize that we need to be willing to step into the fire and begin engaging our friends from the LGBTQ+ community. Many of them are willing to discuss more when they see that we sincerely want to be friends with them. Perhaps God wants to address some other area of their lives first. Perhaps we can encourage them to approach God and ask him directly the questions that are upon their hearts. The thing is, we will never know until we engage them and it is not only in proclaiming Jesus, but also in demonstrating his love and living out our faith amongst them. As I encourage students to share Jesus with their LGBTQ+ friends and to love them, I, too, need to do it and we can embark on this journey together and cling to God for guidance!
Many times, we don’t have the answers, but we can invite students to journey alongside us to discover God’s truths in his word. It will also be helpful to show young people the reality that there can be many Christian responses and perspectives to one issue. For example, in our recent Christian student camp conducted online, one of the local staff conducted a workshop on politics. Many students attended it and had heated conversations about the topic. The staff then shared with students his tabulated summary on how different churches in history had taken a stand regarding politics in their own country. There was a spectrum from submitting to authorities, and thus being obedient to the leaders of the country, to acting justly and fighting for the oppressed by standing up against corrupt rulers. They each held on to God’s word and responded in a way they believed was obedient to God. The question was then posed to the students: “Where, in the spectrum, are you? Would you be able to sit and listen to a fellow brother or sister who thinks differently from you?” The students were challenged as they were faced with different perspectives of people who also loved God wholeheartedly. They had to think more critically about where they stood, what God had called them to do in response to this issue in this season of their lives, and the possibility that God may have called others to respond differently.
This is relevant not only in discipleship, but also in evangelism. As the students have shared, non-believers can be engaged and become interested when we show them that perspectives and values from the Bible are relevant to real issues in the society and in their lives. When we listen to the young people and find out that they are concerned about gender equality and justice for the minority groups, we can point them to God’s word and show them God’s heart for the oppressed and God’s command for his people to take care of them and love them. His heart for the oppressed is the same loving heart that desires each person to know him and give their lives to him.
Before the interview, I assumed that popular culture, to the students, would be related to entertainment and gadget fads, but when I sat down to listen to their voices and try to understand their world a little more, I realized that they were passionate and concerned about other things. I learnt that we must never assume we know the needs of the people we serve. We need to seek to listen to and understand them. We need to know the questions they are asking before we think about how we can respond to their needs and show them how the gospel is relevant to their lives.
There are probably many more questions that will be raised after reading this article. For example, how can we balance online and offline activities? Can church really be fully online? Can sermons from the pulpit really be done in a discussion style? How can we differentiate between real and fake news based on the summarized short tweets on Twitter? Don’t young people need to learn how to sit through long sermons and read books more than 100 pages long?
Like I said earlier, the discussion in this article is based on the observations of a very small group of university students and the study is limited in scope. Perhaps you can do a focus group discussion with the young people in the area you serve to understand what they are interested in and what questions they have. Perhaps answering those questions would be more pertinent! Nonetheless, I hope that this paper can kick-start some brainstorming for you as your team serves the new generation. May God empower us to be authentic servant leaders to point more young people to Jesus Christ.
 Michael Dimock, “Defining Generations: Where Millennials End and Generation Z Begins,” Pew Research Centre, 17 January 2019, https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2019/01/17/where-millennials-end-and-generation-z-begins/ (accessed 6 November 2021).
 Yvette Tan, “Why a new generation of Thais are protesting against the government,” BBC News, 1 August 2020, https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-53589899 (accessed 8 November 2021).
 Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer and other sexual orientations or gender identities.
 Ann Wylie, “What’s the Ideal Length of a Tweet?,” PR News, 14 January 2020, https://www.prnewsonline.com/whats-the-ideal-length-of-a-tweet/ (accessed 8 November 2021).
 See the Slido website, https://www.sli.do/ (accessed 8 November 2021).
 See the Kahoot! website, https://kahoot.com/schools-u/ (accessed 8 November 2021).
 See Thai Christian Students website, https://www.tcs.or.th/ (accessed 8 November 2021).
 Some other tools to explore further include Gather, Discord, Miro, and Jamboard.
 Ephesians 4:6 (ESV)
 Romans 13
 Micah 6:8
 Psalm 14:6; Psalm 72:12–14; Luke 4:16–19; Job 5:15; 1 Samuel 2:8
 Leviticus 19:9–10; Leviticus 25:1–5; Isaiah 1:17; Proverbs 31:8–9; Proverbs 22:22–23; Jeremiah 22:3; Zechariah 7:10; Luke 12:32–34; Deuteronomy 15:11; 1 John 3:17
 John 3:16