by Sam Lim.
Ton, a Northern Thai young adult is a leading food reviewer and part-time musician in Chiang Rai, North Thailand. Ton grew up with a difficult childhood. At a challenging time as a teenager, he found Christ, because his mum told him to attend weekend English classes at a nearby church for free food and care. Ton had to grow up faster than many his age, having had to leave school and start work at 14 to support himself. He waited on tables at restaurants, trained as a coffee barista, tried to open his own restaurant with friends and failed. He picked up music to play at pubs and night events to support himself. He can recall days and weeks with no roof over his head and no money for food and had to rely on the generous hospitality of a Christian friend who housed him.
The first time I met Ton in a cafe, we chatted and at the end of our conversation he said to me, “I am also a Christian but I haven’t been going to church for many years now.” Ton struggled to belong in church because of his irregular work schedules on Sundays and the veiled disapproval he felt from the church with his job in the entertainment industry. He wanted to serve with his gifts, but the church never fitted him in.
“I have never left God, but I felt that the church has left me.” That sentence in our first conversation left a heaviness in my heart. If there is someone like Ton, there must be many more like him in this city.
That drove me to rethink Church by pursuing this question, “What is Church?”
Research Our City
In rethinking church, we also have to recognise our city. The Church can only be salt and light if it stays relevant by understanding the soil she is planted in. Relevance is not simply being “on trend” or following the ways of the world. At the heart of being relevant is to have answers to the questions that are being asked, sometimes by people like Ton.
Do we know what questions our city is asking?
In understanding the city, we need to analyze trends and their impact on society. This helps us identify needs where the Church can help to meet. The largest demographic in Thai society is that in the age group between 30-44. With an ageing society, the pressure on this group of working adults will become greater as they support dependents both older and younger then them. Coupled with expanding cities absorbing rural migrants, it is hard not to expect modernisation among this segment of adults, to increase their burdens.
How does being Church in the city look like?
We are faced with a growing unengaged segment of modernised Thai young adults asking questions that most Thai churches are not yet answering: the integration of faith to lifestyle, work, family and money.
North Thailand has seen more than 150 years of missionary work. Still, only 0.4% are Christians. This offensive statistic gives us pause to rethink how “church” is being done. Many Northern Thai churches are caught in cycles of tradition that hinder them from effectively speaking to a rapidly changing society and to a growing unengaged segment of young adults in urban settings. By rethinking church, we are committed to discipling the heart of what a church is: ‘ekklesia’, a people called out to a purpose. If Church equals people, to build a Church is to first build people to live out the calling they have received. If discipleship is at the center of what it means to be Church, then we can be biblically creative with how Church is done. And this is the vision of The Living Room Church Movement.
The Living Room Church Movement
It all started 4 years ago with 3 Northern Thai young adults (Ton was one), coming together with my wife and I to pray and think creatively on how we can present Christ as the answer to questions society is asking today. We now have 3 different church gatherings – on Wednesday and Thursday evenings and still another on Sunday mornings. The 3 different Living Room churches gather in a fitness gym, a living room and a cafe respectively. The Living Room Church Movement is driven by the desire to catalyse a Christ-centered simple multiplying church movement. Some people call us house churches, some call us cell groups and still others see us as prayer meetings. It is a model that does not easily fit into the regular picture of one’s understanding of Church. But whatever the name, it doesn’t change our heart for catalysing a movement for Christ in the city of Chiang Rai.
We want to see Thai young adults confess Jesus Christ as Lord of all, transforming every aspect of their lives and redeeming every sphere of influence in society. With that, we hope to bridge the gap between the false dichotomy of ‘Sacred vs. Secular’, empowering followers of Christ to boldly live out the power of the Gospel wherever they are, sharing the good news of Jesus Christ in all its fullness. For this to happen, discipleship is key.
We want to lower the bar for what it takes to enter into a church gathering but raise the bar for what it means to be a disciple of Christ. We work hard to curate space and culture that is intimate yet not intimidating. We use any location appropriate and available for us to meet weekly. We prioritise resources towards growing people rather than starting with land and buildings. We eat together, worship together and we study the Bible together with a storytelling format, where any one at any time is allowed to raise questions, discuss or clarify terms they are unfamiliar with. Simple but not simplistic, so church becomes doable, which then empowers believers to step up and serve and perhaps, grow another gathering elsewhere. The reality faced by many churches is that, we become so professional that only 20% of the church is serving the other 80%. How do we flip that percentage around? By keeping church simple.
Multiplying Church Movement
Petrol companies don’t just enter into a market and build only one petrol station and grow it to be a mega-station. Instead they plant multiple stations, having researched to find where the need is. This is an analogy of what it means for The Living Room church to be a multiplying church movement. Just like petrol stations, churches are pit-stops, not the final destination. Wherever there is need for people to be recharged and re-purposed to continue their journey in life, we want to be there. It is not because the early churches met in houses, that we are also replicating that ‘house church’ model. It is the realisation of what drives that model of early church is central. Church was always called to be a movement for Gospel change from the early church till today. For movements to multiply, we need to keep the model simple (i.e. starting from homes) so disciples feel, “Hey I can do it too! I can lead another gathering in my house. I can effect a change where God has put me.” The simple model for gatherings in the early church days is to facilitate the vision of catalysing a Christ-Centered movement of many similar spontaneous gatherings. It doesn’t stop with one house, it doesn’t stop at one church.
If you have a similar vision for what we are doing and a heart for young adults, do connect with SNO to explore different learning opportunities among young adults. We are also looking for people willing to use their vocational experience (media, marketing, startups etc.) to be on a marketplace discipleship journey with this largely unengaged segment of Thai young adults