Does Thailand still need missionaries?
In recent years, there has been a trend for some missions supporters and churches in the West to move away from sending their own missionaries in favor of supporting “native missionaries” (sometimes called “indigenous missionaries”). The logic goes something like this: “Why pay $60,000/year or more to support a family of foreign missionaries who will struggle to learn language and culture when you can support a native missionary who knows the language and culture already for $50/month?” At first glance this seems like a great idea. And in some places it might be.
The historical, cultural, religious, and economic situation varies greatly from country to county and not all non-Western nations can be lumped together when evaluating whether foreign missionaries are still needed. In this series of posts, I want to look at several questions that can help us evaluate whether missionaries are really needed (or wanted) in a given location. I will use Thailand as a case study since it is the context that I am most familiar with.
1) Can the local church(es) carry on without missionaries?
A rule of thumb for foreign missionaries is that if there are local people who can do the job, then it is time for the missionary to move on to someplace else. In the case of Thailand, if all the foreign missionaries went home tomorrow, would the churches in Thailand be able to carry on by themselves? Absolutely, they would. As of February 2016, there are more than 400,000 Thai or tribal Protestant believers in Thailand, and over 5,000 churches (see stats). There are numerous viable Thai-led, largely Thai-funded Protestant denominations. So in one sense, foreign missionaries are not needed anymore in Thailand. If they all left, the church would go on without them. In any location where the church(es) are able to take care of their own finances, train their own leaders, and evangelize their own people, there may be a good case for phasing out foreign missionaries or finding a new role for them.
2) Are there enough local evangelists and leaders?
While it may be that churches are growing and taking care of themselves in a given country or people group, Christians might still only make up a tiny percentage of the overall population. In Thailand, Protestants only make up 0.7% of the entire population of 64 million people. Thailand is divided into 77 provinces, which are then divided into districts and sub-districts. 62% of all the sub-districts in Thailand have no church of any kind. Those churchless subdistricts have a population of about 38 million people (more stats). That is 38 million people without any local church to check out and learn about the Gospel. So how are we going to reach those people with the Gospel?
It is sometimes claimed that “native missionaries” are the solution. The era of foreign missionaries is over, it is said, and (mostly Western) missions supporters should make the financially and strategically sound decision to support so-called native missionaries instead of expensive Westerners. So where are all those “native missionaries” for us to fund and send out? Maybe other places are different, but Thailand has no army of native Thai evangelists and church planters sitting around, waiting to receive Westerner dollars so that they can go out there and plant churches. Only about half of the existing 5000 or so churches in Thailand have a full-time Christian worker of any sort, and it is hard to find anybody (Thai, tribal, or foreign) to go plant churches in all the places that need them. Therefore, when there are not enough local people to get the job done in the places where work is needed, a strong case can be made for foreign workers to come and help.