By Kristy Etheridge , Billy Graham Evangelistic Association On November 19, 2013
In the lush mountains of northern Thailand, 400 miles north of Bangkok, the bustling city of Chiang Mai houses close to 200,000 people, with an urban sprawl of more than one million.
With its green mountaintops, white waterfalls and colorful tribal villages, Chiang Mai-and the surrounding province of the same name-can't help but declare the majesty of God's creation.
Nov.22-24, in this beautiful and ancient locale, thousands of people will gather together to hear the Gospel at the Abundant Life Festival with Franklin Graham.
The Festival will be a chance for a growing group of Thai Christians to share their faith with friends and family who may not have a good understanding of who Jesus is and why He matters.
"I'd say there's an indifference to Christianity," said Chad Hammond, director of Asian affairs for the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association. "They don't view it as a threat in Thailand. In India and some other places, Christianity is viewed as a threat. Here, I think there's just an indifference. A lot of people are Buddhist because their parents are Buddhist, and it's just part of the culture."
Although a lot of Thai people haven't had much exposure to Christianity, Franklin Graham's name is recognizable in many parts of Thailand. Franklin is president and CEO of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association (BGEA), named after his father. He is also the head of the international relief organization, Samaritan's Purse.
"There is an appreciation [in Thailand] for humanitarian relief," Hammond said. "Franklin is known for Samaritan's Purse and humanitarian aid. They had major flooding in Bangkok and other areas a few years ago. I think there's a respect for Franklin because of that help. That then gives him a platform to share the Gospel."
Thailand is one of the few countries where Billy Graham never preached at a Crusade, but the BGEA has been active in Thailand for more than 30 years. In 1978, a BGEA representative took part in evangelistic meetings in Bangkok. Additional visits to the country occurred in 1980 and 1987.
In 1993, the BGEA held its first Crusade in Thailand, led by associate evangelist Robert Cunville, in Chiang Mai. Four more Crusades followed in Udonthani (1998), Meg Pun-Lon Village (1999), Huay Pa Pao Village (2002) and Trang (2002).
The Abundant Life Festival this month will mark the first time Franklin Graham has preached in Thailand.
For months, the BGEA has been working with church leaders in Chiang Mai to train believers to share their faith, invite neighbors to the Festival and counsel new believers who respond to the invitation to accept Christ.
Local leaders have recruited popular musical groups from all over Asia, including Boy Peacemaker, Bee, Doe and Korean pop (K-pop) artists Lim and 3rd Wave, who will all perform at the Festival. The BGEA has even had support from Australian evangelist and motivational speaker Nick Vujicic, who is well known in Thailand and is helping spread the word about the upcoming Festival.
I appeal to you, brothers, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree, and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same judgment. -1 Corinthians 1:10 (ESV)
In a country where just one percent of the population is Christian, you might expect the small group of Christ followers who live there to stick together. But that hasn't always been the case in Thailand.
In fact, two of the most influential Christian groups in the country-Church of Christ Thailand (CCT) and Evangelical Fellowship of Thailand (EFT)-have a long history of division.
Over the last few years, however, the bond between the two groups has been strengthening, and the upcoming Festival has led to new opportunities for unification.
"The unity and the partnership that they have is something that they've never had before," Hammond said.
The leaders of the two groups are actually co-chairing the Festival together.
This past summer, during a large training event to prepare counselors for the Festival, the leaders of CCT and EFT approached the BGEA and asked to hold a joint communion service. The meaning and symbolism of breaking bread together in the name of Jesus deeply moved the 150 Christians who were gathered there.
"The two of them did communion together, and it was so powerful that people were weeping," Hammond said. "The division between these two groups had been so strong over the years. It just kind of amazed us, just watching the Holy Spirit work in these leaders."
If the communion service is any indication of what to expect during the Festival, Hammond believes great things are in store.
"People are talking about what happened in Chiang Mai when the leaders came together," Hammond said. "We're just giving all the glory to the Lord with that. God is working in their hearts and continues to do that."
How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of him who brings good news, who publishes peace, who brings good news of happiness, who publishes salvation, who says to Zion, "Your God reigns." -Isaiah 52:7 (ESV)
During the three-night Festival, which will be held at Chiang Mai's 700th Year Anniversary Sports Complex, believers will be praying that many of their fellow Thai will hear the Gospel and allow it to change their lives.
Those who respond to Franklin Graham's invitation will have immediate support from their new brothers and sisters in Christ. But when they go home to their families, they may not be greeted with enthusiasm.
"In the United States and in the West, often times when someone becomes a Christian, their parents are Christians. They throw a party," Hammond said. "Over here, they are not met with approval but often disapproval. You can be disowned from your family."
Knowing that cultural ties to Buddhism run deep, the Christian community in Chiang Mai has plans to embrace the new believers and help them in their new walk with God.
"One of the things we're doing is working with the churches to prepare them for new Christians, so they can assimilate them and take care of them," Hammond said. "And we won't leave right after the Festival. We'll be here in January, February and March."
The Festival is happening at a critical time for the Thailand, when there are a number of concerns on the minds of the Thai people.
Poverty is rampant in many areas, and its effects reach from the largest cities to the smallest villages.
"Sex trafficking is a big issue here," Hammond said. "And one of the main causes is poverty. Girls will leave their villages and move to the bigger cities to provide for their families. They'll get involved in the sex trade. There are families that actually encourage their daughters to move to the city and get into the sex trade in order to provide money for the family."
There are also concerns about the future political situation in Thailand. But in the midst of these uncertain times, Thai Christians are praying the Abundant Life Festival will give their fellow citizens a purpose and a hope like never before, as they encounter the living God of hope, Jesus Christ.