Worship By Any Other Name


We are presently focusing on more explicit religious themes in our research. One area that we wanted to emphasize was “worship.” Our interest stems from the fact that there are numerous terms that seem to be related to worship, but we wanted to better understand the nuanced meaning of each term. Thus, we decided to do something called pile sorting. We gathered 21 words that have some connection to the idea of worship (giving honor, serving, praising, etc.) and interviewed multiple people about the words. We gave each person a stack of cards with the terms on them and asked them to put them into groups. We did not give them any criteria for doing this. We wanted to see how they associated the various terms. We then asked follow-up questions based upon their groupings. After reflecting upon how Thai people understand these various terms, I wanted to share with you one conclusion that seems to be extremely insightful for understanding how the gospel connects in Thai culture.

One reason we picked this topic is because we have been frustrated by the fact that we have not found a term that carries the same meaning and importance as “worship.” We thought that doing this exercise might point us to a word or phrase that closely correlates to what we mean by “worship.” The result is that there is not such a word. And, as we should have known, that makes perfect sense. Our understanding of worship, and all it entails, is directly dependent upon a monotheistic worldview. The meaning and significance of worship is funded by the idea of one God above all else.

Thus, when we try to find a word or phrase in Thai that has the same meaning and significance, we come up empty. This is due to the fact that the Thai worldview (I use this term loosely since there is no such thing as THE Thai worldview) does not have one supreme God. Why would there be a term that means “worship” when there is no such practice being done?

All this does not mean we cannot or will not use these terms. We have to because we are not in the business of inventing new words. However, this will hopefully make us more aware of what connotations come with using these terms.

But, more importantly than just knowing some vocabulary, this research has helped us see where people’s deepest feelings of honor, affection, and loyalty lie. What we discovered is that the terms that are more explicitly “religious” (except for one) do not carry the meaning of giving your whole life to something or of exalting something above all else. This should be obvious because the Thai religious world does not have a god or gods (at least not in the way most Westerners think). However, there are a few words that are explicitly about “lifting up,” “giving honor,” “praising,” and “offering your life.” The interesting thing is that these terms are used for powerful leaders, particularly royalty, and the nation.

Thus, the tendency to compare and contrast Buddhism and Christianity can often be misleading. The fact that Buddhism does not have a god or gods changes the entire conversation. I am not sure where all this will lead, but we are eager to find out.



  1. Wow – that’s really interesting. It seems like in that context, one could easily see the political ramifications of the gospel (like in the book of Luke) play out much more so than we do here in the US. That is, it seems like it would be much more difficult to “tame” the gospel in a political sense in the “Thai Context” than here.

  2. I discovered your weblog website on google and check a couple of of your early posts. Continue to maintain up the very good operate. I just extra up your RSS feed to my MSN Information Reader. Seeking forward to studying extra from you later on!…

    • Well, how often does one get the chance to be the first English-language coemmnt on a new blog?Welcome to the club, Ralf. I look forward to having you burn up a great deal of my time.

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