Conversion Growth of Protestant Churches in Thailand

by Marten Visser

Visser brings clarity to a statistical “mess” with what is surely the most comprehensive and rigorous statistical study of the Thai Church ever.

Uitgeverij Boekencentrum, Goudstraat 50, 2718 RC Zoetermeer; Postbus 29, 2700 AA Zoetermeer, The Netherlands, 2008, 312 pages, 27,50.

Reviewed by Christopher Flanders, assistant professor; advisor for the masters of arts in missions, Abilene Christian University, Abilene, Texas.

Many know the famous quip, “There are three kinds of lies: lies, outrageous lies, and statistics.” Marten Visser’s important work demonstrates this popular notion is indeed sometimes the case. Recent government statistics put the Christian population in Thailand at over one million, with approximately 500,000 Protestants. However, Visser reveals how unclear sources and factual errors make these official statistics suspect. Visser also examines information from the World Christian Encyclopedia (WCE) and Operation World (OW). These data (WCE estimates more than one million Christians and 750,000 Protestants; OW assumes 536,132 Protestants) fare no better than the government figures. Imprecision (groups listed as having over 185,000 in reality have merely a few hundred members), redundancy (listing numbers for both associations and denominations within those same associations), use of erroneous sources, and other serious methodological flaws all contribute to significant problems. Visser demonstrates that, for Thailand, neither government statistics nor the WCE nor OW are accurate.

He brings clarity to this statistical “mess” with what is surely the most comprehensive and rigorous statistical study of the Thai Church ever, concluding that 323,048 Protestant Christians exist in 4,061 churches. When separated from tribal Christians (42% of Thailand’s Christian population), the number of ethnic Thai Protestants is 185,741 (0.31% of the national population).

Visser also tests several hypotheses, many of which he derives from church growth theory (e.g., Schwartz , Garrison). Although he demonstrates the likely validity of many commonly accepted assumptions, many results are unexpected: the growth rate among charismatics is only slightly greater than non-charismatics; the amount of prayer for evangelism, the level of spiritual maturity of members, and the frequency of member attendance at church activities do not correlate with higher growth; small churches do not grow more than large churches; those who have Christian relatives are seven hundred times more likely to become believers; churches with a missionary grow considerably more than those without. Despite some methodological limitations (something Visser acknowledges), these results hold significant implications for mission strategy and future research.

Visser’s research demonstrates that we should be cautious about statistics, even from putatively reliable sources. Also, several of his hypotheses resist generally accepted notions regarding conversion and church growth. Anyone interested in missiometrics, conversion theory, and church growth should read this book. We should all be grateful to Visser for his helpful and provocative research.

Check these titles:
Garrison, David. 2003. Church Planting Movements: How God Is Redeeming a Lost World. Midlothian, Va.: WIGTake Resources

Lambert, Tony. 2003. “Counting Christians in China: A Cautionary Report.” International Bulletin of Missionary Research 27(1):6-8, 10.

McIntosh, Gary and Paul Engle, eds. 2004. Evaluating the Church Growth Movement: Five Views. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan.

Schwartz, Christian. 1996. Natural Church Development: A Guide to Eight Essential Qualities of Healthy Churches. St. Charles, Ill.: ChurchSmart Resources.

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