How a Major Database Tracked Thailand’s Church-Planting Revival

Dwight Martin can tell you the exact number of churches in Thailand. At the start of 2019, his site reported 5,805. By the next week, the number would be different.

While missionaries overseas, and even Western churches, often rely on broad estimates, he can calculate exactly how many subdistricts in the Buddhist kingdom have no churches at all (5,509) and how many people live in communities without any Christian neighbors (62.5 million).

The American missionary-kid-turned-IT-guru oversees the most comprehensive national church database in the world, with corresponding maps indicating exactly which corners of the colorful Southeast Asian country are most desperate for the gospel.

Fluent in Thai from his childhood, Martin had presented his findings dozens of times to church leaders and missionaries over more than a decade serving as the official research coordinator for the Thai church.

When he initially shared the data with the founders of a growing Thai church-planting movement, they balked, wondering why a white man was trying to make them feel bad about the outlook for the church in their country.

But the Free in Jesus Christ Church Association (FJCCA) eventually invited Martin to give his presentation to 60 of their top leaders, a third of whom had converted to Christianity less than a year before. Once they saw Martin’s maps, with data drilled down to the village level, they realized just how unreached their own nation remained.

After 190 years of Protestant ministry in Thailand, 95 percent of 80,000 villages in the country still didn’t have a church. While their humble house church movement had begun to multiply across their province in Central Thailand, provinces all over the region—and to the east and to the south—had no growing gospel movement at all, many with a Christian population around 0.1 percent. So after Martin’s report, they did something the researcher had never seen before: Each church pledged, on the spot, how many people they’d lead to Christ before his next visit in about two months.

By the time Martin made his way back from Chiang Mai, where he lives in Northern Thailand, to the Phetchabun province, the FJCCA leaders had far exceeded their goals, starting 74 house churches and converting 782 people in just 54 days.

In 2018, FJCCA continued to bring in numbers that would confound most projections, statisticians, and historical trends. Then in January, the group baptized 520 new Christians in an outdoor service in Chon Daen. In the largest baptism national church leaders had ever seen, crowds waded chest-deep in a public reservoir with lush hills behind them.

In village after village, Thai people who had never before heard the name Jesus responded by the dozens to follow him. In a single day last December, 309 people began following Christ as FJCCA teams visited four villages for the first time.

Image: Wes Craft / Courtesy of Reach-a-Village

It’s is the fastest-growing church movement in the country’s history.

Founding pastor Somsak Rinnasak, a motorcycle mechanic and garage owner, has no seminary background or formal theological training. FJCCA converts start house churches in as little as six months and go on to plant “mother churches” in as little as a year.

Martin finally asked the pastors outright: “Who taught you how to do this?”

They didn’t understand the question. After a pause, Khun Rajirot, Rinnasak’s wife, responded, “We just read what Jesus and Paul did in the Gospels and Acts and do the same thing.”

The FJCCA’s church planting movement in Thailand represents a success story amid a shifting approach to global missions as Christians rely less on evangelism led by Western missionaries and instead trust the Spirit’s work among their own people.

Put simply, Martin said, “Thailand will be reached by the Thai.” FJCCA now plants more churches in two weeks than more than 300 evangelical missionaries with the Evangelical Fellowship of Thailand do in an entire year.

But while the growth itself may be a throwback to Acts, Martin’s use of data to track it is a distinctly 21st-century strategy that borders on disruptive—a reminder to Christians excited by the hype of mass evangelism events and urban missions that small-scale, off-the-grid evangelism can add up if you actually take the time to count it.

Reach A Village, a US-based ministry that supports Martin’s mapping work in Thailand and neighboring countries, promotes local Christians doing village-level outreach across Southeast Asia, where they’ve seen it lead to deeper discipleship and the gospel spread into communities with no previous Christian presence.

The goal is to see a church started in every village, just as Jesus himself went “to the nearby villages” to preach (Mark 1:38) and sent out his followers to do the same.

In Cambodia, churches have been planted in well over half of 14,000 villages, and Reach A Village founder Bob Craft believes they can reach every one within five years. Across Southeast Asia, the ministry’s partners have launched 6,500 new village churches over the past five years.

Shepherds Count Their Sheep

A software developer and former lay pastor under David Platt at The Church at Brook Hills, Martin returned in 2006 to the country where his parents were called to serve nearly 60 years before as the first Protestant missionaries to the Nakhon Phanom province in northeast Thailand.

His approach, in some ways, represents the literal next generation of missions. While his dad created paper maps by hand and his mother translated Scriptures from Greek to Thai, Martin built software that can populate searchable, color-coded maps dotted with every church in the country in a few clicks, and he runs a print-on-
demand shop to create custom resources for new converts.

Despite being armed with modern technology and an array of data points, the motivation behind bringing “big data” into missions is a timeless one: to make disciples.

Martin and Craft see similar impulses in the accounts of Jesus’ ministry and the first apostles. New Testament authors care about place. They prioritize where events occurred, name-dropping the various cities and towns and villages where crowds gathered to hear the Good News.

Certain passages also provide numbers—that someone must have counted up to have on record—for significant moments in the life of the church. The Gospels tell of the feeding of the 5,000, who were gathered in groups of hundreds and fifties, then the feeding of the 4,000. Acts offers some data points on church growth, from the initial 120 followers to the 3,000 added at Pentecost and the 5,000 who heard Peter and John preach.

Such details show the significance of both the big picture and the personal; though Paul visits nearly 50 places in the New Testament, in his epistles he greets individual leaders and members. As Craft put it, “Shepherds count their sheep, and they know them by name.”

Martin’s database, called Harvest, has been adopted by national church councils in Vietnam, Myanmar, and Laos, but is posted publicly in Cambodia and Thailand, where the threat of persecution isn’t high. The Church of Christ in Thailand, Evangelical Fellowship of Thailand, and the Thailand Baptist Convention—together representing more than 80 percent of Thai Protestants—use the findings to work together to reach their country, which is almost entirely Buddhist (94%).

Reach A Village founder Bob Craft believes Cambodia could become the first country where they will see a church planted in every village. “A healthy church within walking distance of everyone on earth should be our ultimate goal.”

Image: Wes Craft / Courtesy of Reach-a-Village

Reach A Village founder Bob Craft believes Cambodia could become the first country where they will see a church planted in every village. “A healthy church within walking distance of everyone on earth should be our ultimate goal.”

“We feel that this is the gift from the Lord for the national plan of Thailand because [Martin] came at our time of need,” said the late Enoch Yuttasak Sirikul, who served as chair of the Thailand Evangelism and Church Growth Committee, the group formed by all three major councils, prior to his death in 2016. “It’s helped us to progress in doing evangelism and church planting.”

Denominational leaders and pastors access the Harvest database online to input information about their churches, which then appear as dots on a map, searchable by tradition, worship language, and province. The dots overlap in a huge clump at the top of the country around Chiang Mai, home to over half the country’s Christians but just 5 percent of the population—a carryover from concentrated missions efforts aimed at unreached minority people groups in the region. Another map, shaded green and tan, indicates the percentage of Christians in each province.

Besides the maps and directory publicly available at ThaiChurches.org, church leaders with the FJCCA track more detailed information in another system Martin set up, First Fruits. Using an Android app, they can record each new member’s gender, age, the dates of their profession of faith and baptism, their level of discipleship, and a photo.

These data points bring a human element to the big-picture trends in the numbers—the average convert in Thailand is a woman in her 50s, for example—and provide a sense of accountability over what happens to a new believer after they come to faith. Last year, over 10 percent of the 7,000 new believers in Thailand completed a second level of discipleship training.

“The focus needs to be back on finding these people and training them,” said Craft, who drills local partners for details on long-term discipleship plans and resources for converts (you can’t just grab a Bible, or anything close, when you live in places with no Christians at all). “If it’s just hands raised in a crowd, I don’t listen.”

The system has built momentum around the Thai church’s national plan for evangelism focused on unreached villages and has incentivized churches to accurately and regularly self-report.

Real-Time Results

The Thai research is the “most robust and ongoing” national Christian database in the world, according to Todd Johnson, director of the Center for the Study of Global Christianity at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary.

And though it would be difficult to replicate such a comprehensive setup in countries that already have sizable Protestant populations, ministries around the world are similarly looking to use their own real-time metrics to direct missions.

Today’s technology allows Christians to collect more information about where the gospel is going forth, and rather than waiting to report the news in a letter, like the apostles, or in printed resources, which take longer to compile and publish, they can share it with the body of Christ instantaneously.

An online database for Bible translators that launched three years ago, for example, lets organizations share progress on individual projects, languages, and locations, right down to the chapter and verse they’re working on.

“Bringing together information about plans, projects, and translated materials and then giving you the tools to dig deeper using maps, charts, and search, Progress.Bible provides a single point of reference to help you make sense of what’s going on,” declares a promotional video for the translation hub, created in partnership with Wycliffe Global Alliance, Every Tribe Every Nation, and United Bible Societies.

The information aggregated on Progress.Bible has already led to translation ministries partnering together on projects and training, sharing facilities, and working more effectively toward the goal of having a Bible project underway in every language by 2025.

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Source: Christianity Today