One thing that new or not so new missionaries find themselves spending a lot of time on, is language study. The Thai language is very difficult and has no similarities to English whatsoever. On top of that, the thought patterns underlying the language are very different to from what most missionaries are familiar with. Language learners are not only learning the language, they also need to get a grip on how people think and why they express themselves the way they do. This is important because if you have no clue about people’s thought patterns, then it is very hard to communicate the Gospel in a way that makes sense.
In order to help the missionaries get the language, we have a good language learning system in place. It involves studying language modules and then having checks with a native Thai speaker and a more experienced missionary. I happen to be the slightly more experienced missionary who is present with some of these language checks.
Recently, we had a very interesting conversation during a language check. The missionary had studied a bible study handbook that he uses with the new believers in his church to build them up in the faith. When he was asked which topics in the book he liked best, he answered: the one about God, and the one about praying. A conversation ensued during which everybody present (including the missionary who should have stayed quiet) agreed how very important these two topics are. Yes, Thai people are very religious. But they have not been brought up with the notion of a God who is personally interested in them and with whom they can communicate. The missionary explained that he uses the metaphor of phoning someone, and that there is sometimes no signal in remote parts of the countryside. But with God there is always a signal and our prayers are always heard.
This metaphor was very much appreciated by the Thai language checker. She thought it would be easily understood. Then she and the missionary continued to discuss how to explain about God. The Thai lady suggested that the missionary put Jesus central when he tries to explain who God is. When Christians talk about ‘God’ to a buddhist audience, they and their audience are not thinking of the same thing. For Thai buddhist people, ‘God’ can refer to the Buddha or to the king. But in the Bible, Jesus is central. ‘For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell’, Colossians 1:19. The Thai lady explained that learning about Jesus had helped her immensely to understand who God is. Getting to know him also took away a lot of fear that she had in her life, because in the person of Jesus, God became very real to her.
Her words lifted my heart, because I realised that even though thought patterns may vary between cultures, eventually Jesus should be in the center of the picture. No matter what culture or language we are dealing with.