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ព័ត៌មាននិងរឿងផ្សេងៗ

Conversion Growth in Akha Churches

A Write Up by Neel Roberts of the Findings of a Survey Conducted by Asholi Akamu and Kitsada Chahae

This paper about the ongoing work among Akha people in Northern Thailand interact with a survey that was recently conducted. Its findings give both church planters and others reason to ask deeper questions of people in their settings about how God worked among them in the past and continues to work today. It includes an Interview with Akha leaders.

 

 

Asholi Akamu has worked among the Akha for eighteen years. An Indian (Mao) from Manipur, he has a BA from North-Eastern Hill University (NEHU) in Shillong and a BDiv from Union Biblical Seminary in Pune, India.

 

 

 

 

 

Kitsada Chahae has been working with Akha Radio since 2011 and has been a pastor for three years. A Thai Akha, he graduated with a BTh from Master’s College of Theology in Andra Pradesh, India.

 

 

 

 

 

Neel Roberts graduated from Gordon Conwell Theological Seminary in 1986. He works in the Mekong Region where he is involved in training emerging leaders from various ethnic backgrounds in cross-cultural service.

 

Conversion Growth in Akha Churches

Mission Round Table Vol. 16 No. 1 (Jan-Apr 2021): 38-47

The reason for the study

In his 2008 doctoral thesis, “Conversion Growth of Protestant Churches in Thailand,” Marten Visser explained the results of sending a one-page questionnaire to a random sample of ninety-four ethnic Thai churches that all worshipers were to complete.[1] Instead of looking at just local church growth, the research focused on conversion church growth. A conversion growth rate for each church was calculated based upon the percentage of respondents who had become Christians in that church within the previous decade. After analyzing the data from the ninety-four churches and over three thousand respondents from throughout Thailand representing various Protestant traditions, he was able to give clear answers to the questions, “What kind of people become Christians?” and “What kind of churches attract non-believers?”[2] The answers he discovered can be found in his thesis.

Recognizing the value of his quantitative study of ethnic Thai churches in Thailand, in April 2015, OMF International decided to use Visser’s model to research the growth of the church among other groups in East Asia. The Akha were among the groups selected for the survey.

The following report begins with the briefest background information about the Akha and then moves on to the method used to carry out the survey. The main body of the text consists of some of the findings of the survey, interspersed with some of Visser’s initial speculations on the implications of those findings. In many cases, the survey researchers have added their insights to Visser’s suggestions, usually with an introductory phrase like, “the reason for this is…” This led naturally to many new questions and we were privileged to be granted an interview with three Akha men who have spent decades serving as evangelists. Some of the informants’ comments are included below.[3]

Background of Akha Christians

The Akha people originated in Yunnan Province of southwest China. They appear to have been, in some way, a breakaway group of the Hani people.[4] Over the last century, they have migrated southward. A total population of perhaps 700,000 Akha are now spread throughout eastern Myanmar, northern Thailand, northern Laos, northwest Vietnam, and Yunnan province.[5]

History

The Akha did not begin their migration into northern Thailand until the beginning of the twentieth century. The first Akha village there was established around 1903, and the second not until 1925.[6] Most of the Akha living in Thailand today are immigrants or children of people who fled from Myanmar (Burma) when the eastern hills became engulfed in the civil war that broke out in the middle of the twentieth century between the Burmese and the Shan people. A few, however, came from Laos.

Beliefs

Traditional Akha religion is a combination of animism and ancestor worship. A strong animistic ideology permeates their worldview. Fear of displeasing spirits is real. The dzoema (priest) plays a great role in performing rituals, including sacrificing animals to appease the evil spirits. The cultivation of rice is bound up with myths and rituals, and must be done in the “Akha Way”. In addition, they maintain the belief that there is a great world-creating deity.[7]

The Akha people have a great sense of interest in and a remarkable knowledge of their ancestors. Many are able to recite over sixty names of their male ancestors.[8] They keep an ancestral altar in their homes upon which food and wine are offered up on important occasions, such as the Akha New Year—which generally occurs in November—and after a rice harvest.

Akha culture and Christianity

The Akha have been moving south for more than one hundred years. As the first Akha encountered Christianity in Burma, it is necessary to give a brief summary of how they reacted to Christianity there before we consider the conversion growth of Akha churches in Thailand.

The Burma Baptist Chronicle gives a valuable sketch of the early work of the American Baptist missionaries among the Akha in the Eastern Shan State of Burma (present-day Myanmar). Marcus Young, the famous missionary to the Lahu, visited Akha villages near Kengtung in 1907. By 1909, there were a number of Christians among them. The first Akha Baptist church was founded at Pang Hki Het. As Zan and Sowards record:

The first Akha Baptist church was organized in 1936 as a result of ten years of persistent effort by Thra Tun Gyaw and his wife in spite of difficulties and discouragement. Scores of Karen workers from Lower Burma whose names have not been recorded have left their homes and served in distant places among strange peoples of different customs and language, and have helped to build the church of Christ in the far places of Burma.[9]

Two points should be noted here. The first is that this Marcus Young was involved in the great awakening among the Lahu which began in 1906 and resulted in tens of thousands of converts. These Lahu lived cheek and jowl with the Akha. Even so, the ethnic groups are quite different. The other important point is that most of the actual pioneer evangelism among both groups was carried out by Sgaw Karen Christians who were sent out by their own churches. Catholic missionary activities were occurring at the same time, albeit with different methodology and different results.[10] While the work among the Akha was relatively slow in comparison with what was occurring among their Lahu neighbors, there was progress. A key American Baptist couple in the history of the Akha church in both Burma and Thailand was Paul and Elaine Lewis, who began work in China in the late 1940s, worked with Lahu and Akha in Burma until the 1960s, and served in Thailand for several more decades. Paul’s work on the Akha Bible is perhaps one of the links that has kept the Akha in Burma and Thailand connected over the decades.

The Akha in Thailand meet Christianity

According to our informants, the general belief when the Akha and missionaries first made contact was that foreign missionaries were ogres. When they invited families to send their children to boarding schools, it was naturally supposed that they intended to fatten them before eating them. Though these fears were unfounded, they decreased the Akha’s openness to Christianity, for a time.[11]

In Thailand, the first missionaries to begin work among the Akha in the 1950s were members of OMF. In 1954, the first villages were visited and in March 1955 the following announcement in the mimeographed North Thailand Roundup—the monthly OMF prayer letter for the missionaries working among the minority groups—was circulated.

FLASH Peter and Jean Nightingale occupied White-Well-Village, a Christian Thai village… Long prayed over they are now actually planting the flag of His righteousness in the hearts of the Aka who have never had a witness of the cross among them in this country. Pray much.[12]

Ahka children listening to the gospel recording played by Peter Nightingale, East Asia Millions, British edition (March 1971): 22.

Peter and Jean Nightingale remained for six years in that Tai Ya Christian village at the foot of Doi Tung mountain where the largest concentration of Akha in Thailand was to be found.[13] Christians could not live permanently in a traditional Akha village due to the fact that all who lived within the village gate were required to participate in the worship of the spirits. Thus, the role of the Tai Ya Christian village as a base for the missionaries was of great importance during those pioneering years. Of similar importance was the arrival of Akha believers from Burma. The first were Ya Ju and his wife Mee Chu (Mi Chu) who came to Thailand in 1957.[14] As Christians, they lived near, but not in, an Akha village for several years until at last several families became Christians. Then, all the Akha Christians with the Nightingales were able to establish their own small Christian village.[15]

The forces that kept the Akha from becoming Christians were related to their desire to maintain the traditions of the ancestors in keeping the Akha Way (Zahv). In each village, there were spirit mediums, village headmen, and a dzoema—the priest who taught the rules that the people must follow. It was inconceivable that a person could live in a village and not be subject to the rules set out by the dzoema. As sacrifices to spirits were part and parcel of village life, it was impossible for someone to become a Christian and live in a non-Christian village. The dzoema benefited from the sacrificial system and thus may have had some material, as well as spiritual, reasons to oppose any alternate belief system. The people were afraid of offending the spirits while they simultaneously found the sacrificial system extremely burdensome. Thus, a growing number of people saw Christianity as a way to be freed from obligations to the spirits who could harm them and be freed from the sacrificial system which cost so much.

While it was theoretically possible to live just outside the village gate and maintain relations with one’s community, it proved increasingly difficult. Christians were accused of offending the spirits and endangering not only themselves and their families but the whole neighboring village. As long as they lived near the village, they would still be liable for any misfortune that happened to the villagers. It thus became the norm for Christians to move far off and start their own Christian villages. As these villages prospered, more Akha became convinced that they could safely leave the old way, and the Christian movement picked up steam.[16] Eventually, as the Akha Way in Thailand broke down for a number of reasons, it became possible for Akha to become Christians while remaining in their original villages. Thus, the openness to the gospel and the way in which communities responded to the gospel message varied greatly over the decades.[17]

1. Survey of Akha Churches

Having given the briefest historical background about the beginnings of the Akha churches we will now look at the survey itself.

1.1. The number of Christians in 2017

When the survey of the Akha churches was begun in 2017, it was estimated that 80,000 Akha lived in Thailand.[18] The database of Thai churches underlying Thaichurches.org listed almost 27,000 members in Akha churches. This meant that approximately one third of all Akha in Thailand were identified as Christians.[19]

1.2. Distribution

Of 214 Akha churches in Thailand, 185 were in Chiang Rai Province, with all but a handful of the remainder in Chiang Mai Province. Only four of the churches were in Chiang Rai city, almost all the others were in Akha villages in the hills or mountains.

1.3. Denominations

Seventy percent of all Akha Christians are members of one of three denominations:

  • Church of Christ in Thailand (CCT) District 2 (Presbyterian)[20]
  • Akha Churches in Thailand (ACT), the result of a united effort by Akha Christians who migrated from Burma, working with OMF and American Baptist missionaries
  • CCT District 12 (Baptist, started from Maitrichit Church in Bangkok)[21]

Table 1 shows the total picture.

Table 1 Number of Christians by denomination

Denomination

No. of Churches

Members

CCT District 2

34

7613

Akha Churches in Thailand

50

6150

CCT District 12

27

5160

Akha Evangelical Church in Thailand

18

1880

Akha Outreach Services Church Association

14

945

Others

71

5192

Total

214

26940

 

2. Methodology of survey

Thirty churches participated in the survey. These churches were all part of the Akha Churches in Thailand denomination. It is unclear whether other Akha churches would present a different picture from the findings of this survey.

Most churches provided exactly ten respondents who were selected by the individual pastors. It is likely that more questionnaires were filled out by leaders than other members. A truly random sample would undoubtedly have led to more women and youth taking part. The findings therefore should not be taken as representative of the churches as a whole.[22]

The survey form was produced by Marten Visser. When used to survey national churches, a random sample was selected from a database of churches. Church leaders were then asked to pass out the survey forms to be filled in after a Sunday service. In the case of the Akha survey, the form was translated into Akha by Rev. Asholi Akamu, a missionary who worked with the Akha for over a decade, and Kitsada Chahae, an Akha pastor, who is fluent in Akha, Thai, and English. Though strict research methods in line with those used elsewhere were desired, it was not possible to stick to them for several reasons.

1. Many Akha are functionally illiterate. While they may be able to read from their Bibles and sing from a hymnbook, that is not the same as answering a questionnaire. For this reason, the questions needed to be asked orally and then the interviewer needed to record the information. The time-consuming nature of this task, and the fact that village churches are often hard to access, meant that a relatively small and select sample of interviewees were chosen in place of the large and more random number that would have been preferable.

2. While filling in survey forms may appear harmless, most of the Akha contacted are descended from families that migrated into Siam/Thailand in the twentieth century. Their experience of filling in forms is generally associated with interactions with governments, and most people are cautious about revealing too much in writing.

3. It would be culturally unacceptable for an outsider to question Akha church members without the expressed consent of the church leader. The way to gain that consent was to have the leader choose who would be interviewed.

After the data from the thirty churches had been collected, the answers had to be translated back for the English language spreadsheets. As some questions required a written answer, those answers had to be translated into English as well. When this was all done, Visser was able to use computer software to analyze the data and compare it to results obtained in other surveys—primarily national ones. He was then able to make some initial conclusions and recommendations based on the results of the survey. He recognized that data might be open to other interpretations, especially if those who interpreted it were familiar with the distinctive Akha culture and the history of their churches. His original conclusions and suggestions were thus sent back to Asholi Akamu and Kitsada Chahae for them to complete the final report. What follows are some notable points that emerged from the survey as well as the tentative conclusions derived from it. In some cases, we show the statistical results, but to save space, we often provide just summary statements.

What did the data say?

3. Profile of Christians

3.1. Growth

Because of the non-random nature of the survey, it is impossible to calculate the conversion growth of the Akha church. Among the respondents, only 14% were born into Protestant families, and another 7% into Roman-Catholic families. Thus, four in five respondents were born in non-Christian families. If the survey had included more young people, the percentage of converts would probably be lower. Even so, the overall picture is of a church that grew very rapidly. A church with just 14% people born in Protestant families has a yearly conversion growth rate of about 8% over several decades.

3.2. Sex

Forty-nine percent of respondents were men, and 51% were women. If a random sample was taken during a typical service, almost two thirds of the respondents would be female. That this finding is different may be because many leaders—who tend to be male—took part in the survey. Another possibility is that because Akha convert in family groups (see below), there are fewer women with non-Christian husbands than would be found in other Asian contexts.

3.3. Age

The average age of those surveyed was 52, and the average age of those born in a Protestant family was ten years younger. This high average age shows that the sample in this survey in all likelihood is not random, but skewed towards older people. One reason for this is that many younger people now live in towns or cities for work or studies, and some are in other countries.

3.4. Level of education

The level of education among (these older) Akha Christians is very low, with only 10% having finished secondary education. There are several reasons for this. (1) Until fifty years ago there were almost no opportunities for Akha, who practiced slash and burn agriculture, to receive any schooling. (2) Younger, well educated people are underrepresented in the sample because the surveys occurred in villages, while many educated Akha have left their villages to earn a living and therefore are not part of the churches surveyed.

Table 2 Level of education

Level of education

Percentage

Below Primary

80

Primary

9

Secondary

9

Vocational

2

Bachelors

1

Masters or higher

0

 

3.5. Ethnicity

All respondents, without exception, said they were ethnically Akha and were Thai nationals. However, 68% said they were born in Myanmar. This signifies that the sample studied was a product of a major social upheaval which demanded that they address issues of self-identity at a number of levels.

3.6. Birth religion

The large majority of Akha grew up following the traditional Akha religion—Zahv—which was a life-defining belief system. Because this was not listed as a separate option, respondents struggled to choose between “other”, “atheist”, and “no religion”.

Table 3 What was the most important religion in the home you grew up in?

Religion

Percentage

Buddhism

1

Islam

0

Protestantism

14

Roman Catholicism

7

Other

43

Atheist

20

No religion

15

 

3.7. Marriage

The Akha tend to marry fairly young. Half of the women surveyed married at 18–22 years of age. Half of all men married when aged 20–27. Another feature of Akha culture is that marriage is universal. Only one from 290 respondents did not answer any question about his or her spouse. Not a single respondent stated that their spouse was not a Christian. It seems mixed marriages were non-existent among the Akha church members. This is because decisions on religion tend to be taken by the whole family, with 75% of respondents saying that husband and wife became Christians at the same time. Thus, the Akha church has the opportunity of building strong Christian families, with little or no influence from the traditional religion on the homes of Christians.

3.8. Friends

When asked about their friends, two-thirds of the Akha Christians said their five closest friends were all Christians. In part, this is due to the fact that in the past, Akha who became Christians had to leave their home villages and form Christian villages. There are now a number of villages where people have become Christians and been allowed to remain in their villages. But as this survey focused on the more established churches, the separation between Christians and non-Christians is very evident.

3.9. Core of faith

The question on the core of faith was an open question. In Table 4, the results for the Akha are compared with a previous study of Thai-speaking churches throughout Thailand.

Table 4 What is the core of your faith?

Core of faith

% of Akha

% of ethnic Thai Christians

Salvation / eternal life

14

30

God / Jesus

72

16

God’s help

6

13

A feeling

1

2

How to live your life well

4

5

God’s or Jesus’ love

1

16

A religious activity

0

6

Other

3

16

 

The Akha answers to what constitutes the core of their faith clearly distinguishes them from ethnic Thai Christians. Akha Christians overwhelmingly mention the existence of God (either God, Jesus, or the Trinity) as the core of their faith. When thinking about what their faith is all about, Akha Christians’ first thought is: God exists! This seems to indicate that the Christian faith is confessed very consciously over and against the ancestral religion.

3.10. Theology

The numbers in Table 5 indicate the percentage of right answers for each doctrinal statement. The “correct” answer to each question is given in parentheses.

Table 5 Doctrinal correctness

Doctrinal statement

Heterodox answer %

Orthodox answer %

We get saved by keeping God’s law (no)

10

90

Jesus never sinned (yes)

1

99

If you have enough faith, God will heal you (no)

99

1

Everything the Bible teaches is true (yes)

1

99

If you don’t believe in Christ you are eternally lost (yes)

1

99

 

The answers given by the Akha are more uniform than any other group surveyed. Almost without exception, they affirm the orthodox, evangelical positions that Jesus never sinned, that everything the Bible teaches is true, and that those that don’t believe in Christ are eternally lost. Ninety percent correctly deny that we are saved by keeping God’s law. This is higher than in any other group, and indicated that the Akha church has a good grasp on the importance of grace. On the other hand, the Akha church also almost unanimously states that enough faith will lead to God’s healing.[23]

4. Conversion

4.1. Conversion process

How long did it take from when you first heard the gospel until you believed?

Three in ten converts became Christians within a year after first hearing the gospel. Most others were converted within five years of first hearing the gospel. However, over time, the chance that people would respond positively diminished dramatically. So, if people did not respond to the gospel within a few years of hearing it, then the likelihood was that they would never respond.

In evangelism among the Akha, two true statements need to be held in tension. 1. It is rare for people to convert immediately, so one needs to go back to present the gospel time and again. 2. It is rare for people to become Christians many years after first hearing the gospel, so there should be an urgency in presenting the gospel and asking for a decision to follow Christ. The researchers have noted that Akha people wait for one another to turn to Christ for fear of persecution if they make an individual decision. An individual might have heard the gospel and may have wished to become a Christian for several years but did not dare to declare himself or herself in public. Thus, it might appear that they took several years to believe when in fact they took several years to find several others who were prepared to join them in publicly following Jesus.

4.2. Age of becoming Christian

A large number of Akha Christians born into Protestant families consider themselves Christians from birth (see Table 6). This number is higher than that among ethnic Thai Christians. Akha place more emphasis on the community and less on the personal decision to follow Christ. The most common age for Akha to convert to Christianity was in the late twenties, with lower numbers converting in their (late) teens and thirties. Akha were most likely to convert after they left their parents’ home to start their own family or after their parents died. According to our informants, the death of parents especially impacted sons who had a duty to perform the last rites when their unbelieving parents died. To prevent potential difficulties, they waited.

Table 6 Age of conversion

Age

% of those born in Protestant families

% of converts

% All

0

40

1

7

0–9

34

3

8

10–19

11

19

18

20–29

8

36

32

30–39

8

27

24

40–49

0

11

10

50–59

0

2

2

60–69

0

1

1

70+

0

0

0

Mean

8.5

27.6

25.0

Median

6

27

26

 

 

4.3. Who had the most influence on you becoming a Christian?

Among Christians born in Protestant families, the influence of parents dwarfed that of all others. Among converts, a little over half mentioned someone in the family or another relative as the main influence. Next to relatives, friends played an important role, with about a quarter of converts mentioning a friend as most important influence. Pastors and church workers together accounted for only 6% of conversions, even fewer than missionaries at 9%. The reason for this is that churches did not have pastors when most of the respondents were converted in the 1980s and 1990s. Whatever the situation might be now, 85% of all converts mentioned a lay Christian as main influence. However, that influential person may have been a local lay leader selected by the members in the village.

4.4. What medium had influence in you becoming a Christian?

As in all surveyed groups, printed media had more impact among the Akha than other media. The historic reality is that literacy almost always followed conversion in Akha communities. For this reason, most references to Bibles, books, and tracts probably refer to what the evangelists used when they came to share the gospel.

4.5. Experience: What was the most important for you in coming to faith?

Among converts in most East Asian settings, a direct experience with God, hearing the gospel, seeing the love in Christians’ lives, and attending church meetings are all important experiences in coming to faith. The situation with the Akha Christians was different: a direct experience with God was by far the most important experience that influenced them to become Christians. Two thirds of all Christians mentioned this. Most of them referred to a healing. This probably contributed to the universal thought among Akha Christians that God always heals if one has enough faith. Few converts mentioned any kind of Christian meeting as contributing to their conversion. This confirms the view that religious tension existed between Christians and non-Christians. A person or group of people who became Christians were usually persecuted and driven away from their original village. In a Christian village, all are considered to be Christian so that no non-believers would live there. Thus, for the first generations of Christians, at any rate, attendance at meetings only followed conversion.

4.6. Motivation

From a list of ten possible motivations to become Christian, respondents could choose three (see Table 7). Two thirds selected “to know the truth”. This corresponds with the finding that the existence of God is recognized to be at the core of the faith (see 3.10). This is another unique feature of the Akha church. It probably shows that there was a sense that the old worldview did not explain their world anymore, and that a new paradigm to make sense of the world was needed. This is an indication that the church could potentially grow in places where social upheaval is leading to the need for a new worldview. Interestingly, while almost half of all converts reported that a healing played a role in their conversion, only 3% mentioned seeking healing as a motivation to become Christian. The healings seem to be a sign that convinced people of God’s power but was not the focal point of their faith.

Table 7 What motivated you to become a Christian?*

Motivation% of those born in Protestant family

% of converts

% All

To know the truth

83

62

65

To go to heaven

12

15

15

To get healing

2

3

3

To get God’s help in my life

0

9

8

To get forgiveness of sins

0

1

1

To get freedom from fear of spirits

2

6

5

To get removal of shame

0

0

0

To be part of a loving church

0

2

1

To be accepted by a Christian person / group

0

0

0

Other

0

1

1

None

0

0

0

*Up to three answers were permitted per respondent.

4.7. Group influence

The data about marriage already strongly suggested the Akha make religious decisions as a family (see 3.7). The responses to the question about group influence affirm this. Not a single respondent claimed to have become a Christian alone. Everybody said he believed along with a group.

The most common group size was seven. This supports the view that group conversions are family conversions and that the average Akha family included father, mother, and five children. Four respondents mentioned group sizes of around fifty, and four a group size of one hundred. This is more likely a village or a part of a village deciding together to become Christians. It seems that we are observing the synthesis of family decisions combining with the decision of the headman along with village leaders.

4.8. Personal evangelism

The pattern of personal evangelism found in the survey is remarkable.

Table 8 Evangelism

No. of people evangelised

% of Akha Christians

% of Thai Christians

0

83*

24

1–5

7

63

6–49

6

13

50+

4

0

*The 83 include those who made no response. Because non-response was very low in other questions, it was assumed that “no answer” meant “no evangelism”.

Among ethnic Thai churches, three quarters of Thai Christians claimed that they actively shared their faith on a monthly basis.[24] Among the Akha, it is just 17%. There were, however, a small percentage of Akha “super evangelists” who shared the gospel with over fifty people (Table 8). One man who was interviewed has done this over the past fifty years and is still alive and active, though over 85 years old. Most Akha came to the Lord through relatives and friends. Yet five in six Akha Christians presently do not share their faith at all. Some may not have relatives and friends to share their faith with. The Akha church should be trained to share the gospel with the many Akha who don’t yet know the Lord Jesus and who most likely are found in other villages than their own.

5. The Akha church

Thirty Akha church leaders took part in the survey. The following data comes from their responses.

5.1. Age of churches

The age distribution of the churches in the survey is shown in Table 9.

The complete database of churches in Thailand with all fifty ACT churches has somewhat different data, with more uncertainty, as fifteen of the fifty churches do not seem to have reliable data regarding when they were founded. This data may be confusing partly due to village relocation programs that were implemented by the government to end the tradition of slash and burn agriculture on mountainsides. Even so, the picture is not dissimilar: a spike of church planting in the 1990s, and no new churches since 2010 (and actually a few years prior to that). Because of the way the sampling was done, no conclusion could be made about recent conversion growth. One explanation for this data is that after the 1990s, many new groups, organizations, and denominations arose. Each group did their own evangelism for their own group. In fact, some churches came out from the ACT to join other groups and/or form new groups. Furthermore, as there are now churches or at least groups of believers in every Akha village in Thailand, there is little need for more churches; rather the need is for more evangelism in villages where a group of believers has already been established.

Table 9 Age of churches

Decade founded

No. of churches established in that decade

1970s

6

1980s

6

1990s

14

2000s

4

2010s

0

 

5.2. Size of churches

The average size of the churches in the survey is 142 members. The average attendance in the surveyed churches is 57, ranging from 15 to 300. The median attendance is 50. The attendance rate—percentage of members worshiping in church on a given Sunday—was found to be independent of church size.

5.3. Church planters

According to the survey, most all churches were planted by an Akha “pastor”.

Table 10 Planting churches

Church planted by:

No. of churches

Pastor

25

Missionary

1

Group of believers

1

Other

1

 

The researchers take issue with this finding. In their review of the survey report, they responded:

This sentence creates a sense that missionaries were not involved in church planting programs. This contradicts the Akha church history where many missionaries labored tirelessly to proclaim the gospel and plant churches among the Akha people. Therefore, in a true sense, missionaries were the main backbone in the church planting initiative… Without them it would be hard to imagine seeing Akha churches being planted. …

Akha people do not differentiate evangelists and pastors, they call them all “Sala”. The evangelists, with the help and assistance of the missionaries, did the church planting. Though some pastors may have been involved in church planting, in most cases pastors were appointed after the church was planted.

Thus, perhaps, the survey questions might not have been relevant and understood well by Akha people, to some extent resulting in a contradiction between the history and the survey findings.[25]


Rev. Asholi Akuma and Akha villagers at their house fellowship

5.4. Home groups

Home groups are not a part of Akha church life. Nineteen churches said they do not have home groups. Ten churches said they have one home group, and one church said it has two home groups. The groups range in size from 15 to 80. Both the size and the fact that a church normally has no or just one home group, shows that home groups, as small gatherings of part of the church, are not an important part of the Akha churches.

The Thailand church database shows that over the last decade, the number of Akha churches has hardly grown, but the size of churches has. The need for cell groups or house church meetings to supplement the regular church activities may now be worth considering.

5.5. Baptism

The amount of time between conversion and baptism is hard to explain from the data received from the church leaders. Possibly some responded with the number of months while others responded with the number of years. For this reason, the data is essentially useless. However, the fact that the range of answers can vary from a matter of months to many years is explainable from the culture and historic setting of the Akha movement to Christ. The research team explained it thus:

The mother of an Akha girl may tell her to put off baptism by saying, “You don’t know the future. You may end up marrying a non-believer, so wait.” Similarly, sons are often told to delay baptism, as it is seen as the final departure from the old religion that makes it impossible for him to perform the funeral rites for his parents. Fear of persecution, the need to have a place to move to after conversion, the shortage of ordained ministers, and the distance between villages could all be factors that increase the time between conversion and baptism. Twenty-five years ago, baptisms may have been delayed as it may have required a several-day trek for a pastor to reach an Akha village to perform the rites.[26]

5.6. Leader training

Twenty-seven of the thirty churches surveyed indicated there is no leadership training program in their local church. There are, however, training programs for church leaders at the district and association level.

5.7. Theology and traditions

In this section, the pastors were asked about issues that have been seen as creating distinctives or divisions in some church groups. However, since the survey was only carried out in one church “denomination,” it is not surprising that answers were fairly uniform.

Table 11 Issues creating distinctives or divisions

Issue

No. of churches

“Yes”

No. of churches

“No”

Infant baptism

0

30

Speaking in tongues in church

1

29

Women in church board

27

3

Women preaching

24

6

Always sermon in the service

30

0

 

Table 12 Regularity of the Lord’s Supper

Frequency of Lord’s Supper

No. of churches

Weekly

1

Monthly

4

Every 3 months

12

Yearly or less

13

 

Table 13 Use of musical instruments in church services

Musical instrument

No. of churches

Organ/piano

0

Band

11

Local instruments

16

No instruments

3

 

On most issues, the ACT churches are very similar (see Table 11). None of them practice infant baptism, all include a sermon in every service, and, with one exception, none practice speaking in tongues in church. Most churches accept women as members of the church board and preachers.

Differences are found in the celebration of the Lord’s Supper (see Table 12). The celebration of the Lord’s Supper is held weekly in one church, but is very infrequent in many churches. Almost half of all churches say they celebrate it once a year or less. Here, geographical and theological issues are involved. The churches are agreed that marriage, baptism, and communion are only to be performed by an ordained minister. The few ordained ministers perform communion when they visit various villages and some villages are rarely visited.

5.8. Organization

The question here is aimed at determining who initiated and established a church. It is open to question whether a process that generally took a period of months and years can be described by ticking a single box.

Table 14 Who initiated or established a church

Church plant initiated by

No. of churches out of 30

Denomination

1

Mission

4

Local church

2

Individuals

22

 

According to the data, most churches were planted because of personal initiative. This agrees with the finding stated above (Table 10) that pastors are the main church planters. However, we noted that the early churches were formed by a group of believers who left a traditional Akha village. Who sent the evangelists to those traditional villages? This question deserves further attention.[27]

Table 15 Leadership structure

Leadership structure

No. of churches

Pastor submits to board

27

Board submits to pastor

3

 

The Akha Churches in Thailand came into being, in part, through missionary work by the OMF, which places a strong emphasis on plural leadership. It is not surprising to find, then, that church boards take the lead.

Table 16 Full-time church staff

No. of full-time staff

No. of churches

0

7

1

15

2+

8

 

The survey showed that most churches have a full-time pastor. However, the researchers noted that almost all of them have fields or fish ponds that they attend to, while they are always available for weddings, funerals, house dedications, or visitation of the sick. So it is a full-time job, but not in the modern, urban sense of the term. The churches with two or more full-time staff may indicate that married couples serve together.

5.9. Church ministry

The number of churches with separate budget available for social work, evangelism, church planting, and missions can be seen in Table 17.

Table 17 Budget for church ministries

Separate budget for:

No. of churches

Social work

19

Evangelism

18

Church planting

13

Missions

12

Most churches have a budget for social work and evangelism, and almost half have a budget for church planting and for missions. We do not know how these budgets are used, as no new churches were included in the survey but they are apparently contributing to effective evangelistic efforts. The Thai church database shows a similar phenomenon for all Akha churches. From 2009 to 2018, the number of Akha churches grew from 205 to 222 (8% growth), while the total membership grew from 16,000 to 27,000, which is 64% growth. The 64% growth over nine years translates to a yearly growth of 5.5%. Conceivably, up to half of this could be biological growth, but it is clear there is also significant conversion growth.

The explanation for the fact that the number of churches is not increasing anymore is that by now, almost all Akha villages already have a church. The 222 churches for 80,000 people reflect one church for every 360 people. Saturation church planting has been accomplished. The aim now is to enlarge the existing churches so that larger percentages in each village confess Christ as Lord. This would especially be the case in villages where the traditional religion once held sway but Christians are now permitted to live and practice their faith.


Christmas feast

5.10. Building/Meeting place (Out of 30 churches surveyed)

Table 18 Meeting place

Where the church meetsNo. of churches
Rented facility21
Owned facility8

 

The fact that twenty-one churches responded that they rent facilities indicates that they misunderstood the question. The churches all had their own meeting places. However, it is possible that the issue is one of who legally owns the title to the property on which the church is built. For those living in the hills of Thailand, land ownership is a complex matter. Most land is held under the Forestry Department, and though the land may be legally possessed by the villagers, it may not actually be owned by them.

5.11. Ministry time in hours per week

Unpaid church leaders, part-time pastors, and full-time pastors spend, on average, ten hours a week fulfilling their core pastoral responsibilities. Terms like paid and unpaid, part-time and full-time do not mean much in places still governed by an agricultural economy. The time spent in ministry is, on average, divided as follows:

  • Prayer:                   2.3 hours
  • Evangelism:           2.6 hours
  • Pastoral care:        1.8 hours
  • Preparing service: 1.7 hours
  • House groups:       1.7 hours
  • Training:                 1.2 hours

Lessons from this study

1. Akha churches are distinctly Akha. The fact that interviews had to be carried out in the Akha language in thirty villages shows that these Akha churches are maintaining their language and culture albeit in a Christian form. Furthermore, churches surveyed have stood the test of sustainability. They all remained functional under Akha leadership for at least a decade and, in some cases, for several decades. The survey was not designed to provide information about indigeneity and sustainability, but it nevertheless does reveal these qualities.

2. According to the survey, Akha were substantially reached by Akha. The role of the missionary is not very evident. The survey format precluded the sort of interviews whereby the role of missionaries would have been revealed. Still, the survey shows that the Akha Christians perceive that their churches were established and sustained by Akha Christians.

3. Some questions that were asked in the survey provided answers that required further interpretation. Questions 3.6, on Birth Religion, and 5.11, on Building/Meeting Place, provide examples of how the wrong questions being asked will lead to wrong answers being provided. We can only learn how to ask good questions by trial and error.

Where to go from here?

As noted above, the role of the missionary appears nebulous. From a historic perspective, it seems impossible to imagine an Akha church emerging if not for the work of missionaries, but from the survey data, we might surmise that the Akha church was primarily the result of an indigenous movement. It would be well worth finding out what exactly the missionaries contributed to that movement.

Studies should also be made of the extent to which Christianity influences Akha Christians who move away from their village church to a city or large town or go to work in a factory in a foreign land. Do they take their faith with them or leave it behind? If they carry it with them, do they privatize it or share it with the non-Akha whom they meet beyond the village? Such questions were not considered in this study, but the results of the study should lead us to ask and to seek answers to the questions of where Akha churches and Akha believers will go from here.

 


[1] Marten Visser, “Conversion Growth of Protestant Churches in Thailand” (PhD thesis, University of Utrecht, 2008), https://www.academia.edu/4482635/Conversion_growth_of_Protestant_churches_in_Thailand (accessed 27 April 2021).

[2] Marten Visser, “Conversion Research: The Future of Church Growth Research,” Evangelical Missions Quarterly 46, no. 2 (April 2010): 200–204, https://missionexus.org/conversion-research-the-future-of-church-growth-research/ (accessed 23 April 2021).

[3] Interview with Sl. Jati Chahae, Sl. Ahchong Chermer, and Sl. Somsit Mayoe in Chiang Rai, Thailand, 9 October 2020. Sl., Sala, means “teacher”.

[4] “Considering the closeness of the Hani and Akha languages, it is likely that they were one language some 1,000 to 1,200 years ago. The term ‘Akha’ was evidently only used by those ‘Zani’ who moved south across the Mekong (Lancang) River.” Paul W. Lewis and Bai Bibo, eds., Hani-English/English-Hani Dictionary (London and New York: Kegan Paul International, 1996), 1.

[5] The Ethnologue states, “Total users in all countries: 616,600.” Ethnologue, “Akha,” https://www.ethnologue.com/language/ahk (accessed 23 April 2021). See also: David Bradley, “East and Southeast Asia,” in Christopher Moseley, ed., Encyclopedia of the World’s Endangered Languages (London: Routledge, 2007), 360, 364.

[6] The 1903 date is found on many websites, but I cannot find when or where it was first recorded. The best support for an early twentieth century arrival date of the Akha in Thailand is in Makio Katsura, “An Outline of the Structure of the Akha Language (Part 1): Introduction and Phonemics,” Tonan Ajia Kenkyu (The Southeast Asian Studies) 8, no. 1 (June 1970): 18–19, http://hdl.handle.net/2433/55609 (accessed 23 April 2021).

[7] A former OMF missionary to the Akha wrote: “The name of God is ‘A poe Mi yeh.’ They already have this idea in their stories, they knew that He is the Creator God.” Private correspondence from Lathanzauva, 28 October 2005.

[8] This is a truism which may no longer be quite so true. Those who are now learning Thai, English, and Chinese in schools and universities may not have much time for memorizing genealogies.

[9] U Zan and Erville Sowards, “Baptist Work Among Karens,” in Genevieve Sowards and Erville Sowards, eds., Burma Baptist Chronicle, Book II (Rangoon: Board of Publications, Burma Baptist Convention, 1963), 318, https://archive.org/details/BurmaBaptistChronicle (accessed 27 April 2021). For further details about the work of the Baptists among the Akha in Burma, see Saw Aung Din and Erville Sowards, “Work Among Lahus, Was, Akhas,” in Burma Baptist Chronicle, Book II, 411, 415, 419; Erville Sowards, “The Unfinished Task,” in Burma Baptist Chronicle, Book II, 426.

[10] For some thought-provoking observations on the different methods of Catholics and Baptists, see Hugo Adolf Bernatzik, Akha and Miao: Problems of Applied Ethnography in Farther India, trans. Alois Nagler (New Haven: Human Relations Area Files, 1970), 680–89.

[11]Interview with Chahae, Chermer, and Mayoe. This belief is also mentioned in Jean Nightingale, Without a Gate (Singapore: OMF, 1990), 153.

[12] “North Thailand Roundup,” March 1955, OMF Thailand Archives at Payap University Library, Chiang Mai.

[13] Isobel Kuhn, Ascent to the Tribes: Pioneering in North Thailand (London: OMF, 1956, reprinted with revisions 1968), 263.

[14] Kuhn, Ascent to the Tribes, 264.

[15] This story is described briefly by Peter Nightingale in the appendix of the 1968 revision of Ascent to the Tribes and in much greater detail in Nightingale, Without a Gate.

[16] Interview with Chahae, Chermer, and Mayoe.

[17] Cornelia Ann Kammerer, “Discarding the Basket: Reinterpretation of Tradition by Akha Christians of Northern Thailand,” Journal of Southeast Asian Studies 27, no. 2 (September 1996): 320–33. Dr. Kammerer was the right person at the right place at the right time to record and analyze the great changes that occurred among the Akha of North Thailand in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

[18] Once again, it appears that we are looking at an extrapolation from Bradley, “East and Southeast Asia,” 360, 364.

[19] In 2021, the number of churches that identify themselves as worshiping primarily in the Akha language is 221. Tuthai, “Churches in Akha,” https://thaichurches.org/directory/language/Akha (accessed 23 April 2021).

[20] The Church of Christ in Thailand (CCT) was established primarily by Presbyterians in Siam in the 1930s. District 2 represents their churches in Chiang Rai Province. To understand the nature and background of the CCT, see the upcoming article by Karl Dahlfred, “A Bumpy Road to Indigenization: The American Presbyterian Mission and the Church of Christ in Thailand,” Journal of Presbyterian History (Spring/Summer 2021).

[21] The CCT 12th District Maitrichit Baptist Churches were originally Chinese but now have many congregations of various ethnicities. For more background information, see Dick Worley, “History of Baptist Ministries in Thailand,” 2017, unpublished paper, https://ia801800.us.archive.org/35/items/bwa-2017-worley-thailand/bwa-2017-worley-thailand.pdf (accessed 27 April 2021). The latter portions may be somewhat controversial.

[22] A truly random sample would not have been humanly possible. An argument might be made that while the sample was not truly representative of Akha Christians, the methodology was representative of a method of gathering information that Akha leaders would approve of.

[23] The survey question was not wholly fair for respondents who overwhelmingly had no more than a primary school education. James 5:15 states: “the prayer of faith shall save the sick, and the Lord shall raise him up.” As none of the respondents had studied Aristotelian logic, they were probably unaware that even a single case of a person who had faith but was not healed would make the whole statement false.

[24] Dwight Martin and Marten Visser, “Conversion Growth of Protestant Churches in Thailand,” October 2018, unpublished paper, 16.

[25] Email correspondence with Akamu and Chahae, 2 May 2021.

[26] Only an ordained minister or a licensed person can baptize among the ACT Churches. Even so, it is the unordained village pastor who prepares believers for baptism and decides who is ready to receive it. From the interview with Chahae, Chermer, and Mayoe.

[27] In 2004, I, Neel, was personally involved with the phasing out of an OMF policy of providing funds to the Akha Churches of Thailand which had been going on for many years in order to assist the denomination financially support the evangelists who were working in villages far from their own homes and fields. This fact may well have been unknown or forgotten by those who filled out the survey. Furthermore, the format of the questionnaire precluded the possibility of providing complex responses.

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