CHIANG MAI, Thailand (BP)–Students from Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary joined with their counterparts at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary to hit the streets of Chiang Mai, Thailand, this summer for three weeks of spreading the Gospel and learning about Buddhism and Islam.
The group was jointly led by Keith Eitel, professor of missions at Southwestern, and Bruce Ashford, assistant professor of philosophy and intercultural studies at Southeastern.
“The partnership between Southeastern and Southwestern seemed natural,” said Ashford, who also is the director of Southeastern’s Center for Great Commission Studies. “Our students and faculty worked together in seamless fashion.”
Actually being in a country like Thailand and learning about other religions in that context was an eye-opening experience for the students.
“I have taken classes where I’ve learned about other religions. I just thought I knew all there was to know about both religions, but … being able to go out in that culture and learn among the people -– that helped tremendously,” said one Southwestern Seminary student who asked that his name be withheld because he will take the Gospel to a closed country after seminary.
“I think many of our students realized, for the first time, that there are folks all over the globe who have little or no access to the Gospel,” Ashford said. “In fact, there are Muslims and Buddhists in Southeast Asia who could leave their houses and drive for hours and hours, and never find a church. That is a hard-hitting reality. As American Christians we have the means and the ability to share the Gospel with those who, otherwise, would have no opportunity.”
“We engaged literally hundreds of Buddhists and Muslims in various capacities,” Eitel added, “and dozens and dozens of times we shared our faith.”
Eitel, director of Southwestern’s World Mission Center, taught a session on Buddhism and Ashford taught a session on Islam. Following classes each day, students used their classroom discussions as the basis of interviews with people on Chiang Mai’s streets to gain a better understanding of what most Buddhists and Muslims actually believe.
“If we were discussing the origins of Buddhism, students would frame two or three questions regarding who Gautama Buddha was, and how Buddhism got started,” Eitel said. “What they quickly discovered is that most of the typical Buddhists on the street are fairly nominal in their understanding of Buddhism.”
This “folk Buddhism” is more about “generating good luck” than applying the full teachings of Buddhism, Eitel said.
“We picked this country because it’s one of the few places in the world where you have a sizable number of Buddhists living with a moderately good-sized number of Muslims,” Eitel said. He added that the people of Thailand are free to discuss religious beliefs.
The seminary students also mixed with local students at Chiang Mai University — a secular university in the city — as well as a Buddhist university. At the Buddhist school, they attended “Monk Chat,” a program created to help the monks practice their English. Cultural bridges were crossed among one group of monks because a Southeastern student came from their same non-Thai culture, Eitel said.
Similarly, Eitel reported a unique openness in one mosque that was used by a non-Thai population. This resulted, in part, because a seminary student was able to speak their language.
One of the goals of the June 29-July 27 program was to push the seminary students outside their comfort zones. That task fell to Josh Brown*, one of program’s leaders now on a ministry assignment in Asia.
“I was helping them get exposed where they were just a little uncertain of themselves, trying to take them into the little, back-alley restaurants where only a Muslim would go in the heat,” Brown said. He hoped to build up the students’ confidence in these cross-cultural experience so they would someday lead other groups through these settings.
“I think what was exciting to watch … was the transformation of the students going from scared and shy to bold and excited about their faith,” Brown said.
Brown also reported that interviews “almost instantly” opened up opportunities to share the Gospel, as the people of Chiang Mai often responded to their interviewers with questions about Christianity.
Eitel noted that a large Mormon influence in Chiang Mai has raised misunderstandings about Christianity. He encouraged students to give a “focused summary” at the end of each interview that compared and contrasted Christianity with the religion being discussed.
Eitel used this method in a discussion with a Buddhist monk whose view of Christianity was skewed by Mormonism.
“You could see there was conviction on the monk’s face at how the two religions were so different,” Eitel said. After their interaction, the monk asked for a Bible and some guidance as to what to read. Eitel pointed him to the Gospel of John.
“‘The gospel is the power of God unto salvation,’” Eitel said, quoting Romans 1:16-17. “We emphasized to the students that somehow, in spite of the potential for misunderstanding … the Spirit of God can and does break through and speak to the heart.”
*Name changed for security reasons.