Christianity in Southeast Asia

Faith without boundaries

John Roxborogh

About "Christianity in Southeast Asia"

This is based on the website for the course, "Faith without boundaries" History and Mission in Southeast Asia, offered in Malaysia, 16-19 August 2006. It is being developed as a source of information for studies on Christianity in Southeast Asia in an Asian and global context.


Regional studies within the geographical and cultural territory between India, East Asia and the Pacific are important to people within the region and to those beyond seeking to understand the global dynamics of post-Western Christianity.

As awareness of global Christianity has increased there has been a tendency to wish to replace one cultural centre by another as the locus of norms of faith and practice. The first strong voice of the "South" was Latin American Liberation Theology. Now Africa is providing a strong articulation of an alternative set of Christian theology and mission.

The challenge for all of us is to deal with a multi-centred faith that maintains coherence and recognises the common voice that emerges through it all.

Southeast Asia is a voice that needs to be heard as part of this global reality.

Christian identity will always have many layers, some quite personal and local, others to a movement or set of theological convictions or spiritual practices. However Christians also take strength from national and regional characteristics. Awareness of the history and expression of the faith provides language which enables people to talk about what is going on, to explore in every generation what it means to be true to the Gospel of Jesus Christ and relevant to the societies where God has placed us.

  1. For the countries near the centre of SEA, SEA studies will continue to provide a context above the national which helps explain the national in terms of regional culture and history which has impacted and continues to impact on the churches and what it means to be Christian. This includes the interplay of Chinese and Indian cultures and religions, the experiences of colonialism, and the presence of Islam and of primal religion. There are also commonalities in national responses to global economic forces.
  2. Regional Christian bodies, some of them Asia wide rather than Southeast Asian often tend to have a South Asian or East Asian weighting. Either way Southeast Asians can relate to these groups.
  3. There are other external groupings which are also relevant in different parts of Southeast Asia. Although the major boundary issues of any region are acknowledged in this case by the Chinese, Japanese and Indian influence being stated as part of the Southeast Asian story, there are also cross boundary issues in relation to Melanesia to the East and Australia and New Zealand to the South. The immediate cross-border countries are always of special relevance: India China and Thailand to Myanmar Thailand, Kampuchea and Vietnam to Laos; Indonesian Borneo and the Philippines to East Malaysia; China, Kampuchea and Thailand to Vietnam; Papua New Guinea, Malaysia, Singapore and Australia to Indonesia.
  4. Regional studies may be criticised by the apparent arbitrariness or colonial origin of their areas, yet people within as well as outside these regions find it necessary to make use of such designations. Like the existential bias of any historian or commentator, such perspectives of location need to be acknowledged. The reminders of the role of imagination and the accidents of history of course apply not only to contemporary political identities; they apply equally to geographical groupings in general. Awareness that concern has shifted from the national to the global in terms of cultural sensitivity, does not negate the importance of regional studies.
  5. The historiographical tools may sometimes be regional rather than national. In situations of variable religious freedom it can be an advantage to have a regional neighbour provide tools of historical analysis, biography and other resources. If the alternative is to be lost in global narratives which are dominated by other concerns, the risk of loss of identity is reduced, though not eliminated, by scholarship which is nearer to hand.
  6. Some international themes, perhaps those particularly connected with gender, land, sensitive political and ethical issues, and with ethnic or sexual minorities may need the special care of concerned international groups which may not be well represented locally. Of course there is the risk of fresh imperialism, but that may be the nature of the case. Women’s studies are an urgent issue, though some work is beginning to come to light.