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By Jeff Gross
Thai Buddhism is a mix of pure
Buddhism and local animistic beliefs
in spirits, omens, relics, sacred
objects, fortune telling, astrology,
and sorcery. This syncretism forms
an important part of the worldview
and belief system of Thai people. It
is this understanding of spiritual
reality that Thai people bring to the
table when they come to church for
the first time, go to an evangelistic
rally, or hear a Gospel presentation.

This article will look at the Sinner’s
Prayer from a fundamentally
animistic worldview. While the
Sinner’s Prayer is designed to help
people become Christians, here in
Thailand (as in other similar places)
it many times has the opposite effect.

At its core, animism believes it can use religious rituals and
ceremonies to manipulate the spirit world into doing what
the animist wants it to do, whether that be warding off evil
or inviting blessing. Animism is not a heart religion where
it is important that one really believes something from
the depth of his being. Animism is not about devotion or
love for a particular deity or spirit. Animism is not about
a relationship with his Creator. Animism is not about
conforming one’s life to a moral standard that has come
down from heaven through God’s Word. Animism does
not require one to repent of his sins (critical for salvation).

All it requires is the performance of some religious rituals
in order to cause the spiritual powers that be to bring about
the desired blessings in one’s life. It is about external things
done in order to get what one wants.

However, the Gospel of Jesus Christ is about a change in
heart that recognizes that one not only does sin but that one
is sin. It is a change of priorities from one’s own priorities
to God’s priorities. It is about God’s plan for what one’s
life should be like, not about using religious ceremonies
to manipulate a god into helping accomplish one’s own
ideas of what a happy life should be like. Animism at its
core is all about self. Whatever gets the job done to help the
animist achieve his idea of the good life is what he will do.

What happens when Thai folk Buddhists
are invited to say the Sinner’s Prayer?
How would people from a primarily animistic worldview,
such as Thai folk Buddhists, understand an invitation to
say the Sinner’s Prayer? Why does the Sinner’s Prayer, as
commonly practiced, fail to bring about understanding
and conversion among Thai Buddhists and other animistic
believers? 10
Number 1, 2019

1) The Sinner’s Prayer is just another religious ritual
that might help get what one wants.

When Thai people hear an invitation to say the
Sinner’s Prayer, they may reason like this: “Perhaps
this Christian ceremony will help bring me into
good graces with the spirits. What is there to lose?
Why not say this prayer that the Christian teacher
seems so eager to have me pray? There might be
something to this foreign religion after all. I can
try out this foreign Jesus ceremony for a while and
see if I get something from it. If it works, great. If
Jesus does not work, I will just move on. Nothing
lost, nothing gained.” Many Thais think Christianity
is a Western foreign religion. Therefore, it is fine for
foreigners but it is not for the Thai. Consequently, it
takes time for some barriers to come down before a
Sinner’s Prayer will have meaning.

2) The Sinner’s Prayer is viewed as a magical
incantation. In animism, it is not important to understand the
actual words said in a prayer or spell since the
power of the prayer is in the sacredness of the words
themselves, not in understanding them. Chanting
at the Buddhist temple is in the ancient language of
Pali that the common person does not understand.

However, as long as they hear the monks chanting
or say the words themselves, merit is gained. When
asked to say the Sinner’s Prayer, a person will more
likely than not think the words of the Sinner’s Prayer
itself are powerful, magical words that will bring
about blessings. What the words mean are largely
secondary and inconsequential. Going through
the motions or ceremony is all that matters. The
ceremony itself is viewed as important. However, the
words are not from the heart but rather from their
own lusts and desires.

3) The words in the Sinner’s Prayer are
automatically redefined by the listener to fit with
their animistic worldview.

Christian evangelists use words like God, sin,
heaven, hell, and eternal life with the assumption
that their listeners will pour into those words the
same meaning the Christian is pouring into them.

However, when the listeners come from a radically
different worldview and belief system,
that is a poor assumption. Although the
words of the Sinner’s Prayer indicate (in
the mind of the evangelist) commitment
to Christ, the Thai Buddhist hears and
interprets those words based on what he
has been taught at home, at school, and at
the Buddhist temple. The thinking may go
like this: “There could be some kind of god
or another spirit out there, and maybe he
can help me. At the very least, maybe this
Jesus can help lessen the suffering in my
life, which can be hell on earth. I can invite
Jesus to be my savior from my problems
and difficulties; I have asked all sorts of
other spirits to help me, so why not this
one?” Many times evangelism only goes
skin deep and does not reach the heart.

This leaves all the misunderstandings of
the Gospel untouched and the conversion
is superficial.

I am sure the majority of Christians who
lead Thai Buddhists to say the Sinner’s
Prayer are genuinely trying to help them,
but it is a misguided effort. It takes a long
time for people from a completely non-
Christian background to understand the
true nature of the Gospel and to come to
the point where they can truly put their
faith in Jesus Christ, the true God for
eternal life. W
Number 1, 2019