A Focus on Southeast Asia: 663 Least-Reached People Groups Remain

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Overview
Did you know that many peoples in the eleven nations of Southeast Asia were once Hindus, later Buddhists and today Muslim? Most peoples in this region of color and diversity are either Buddhist or Muslim and over six hundred people groups remain least-reached. The gospel is making small inroads; however, except for a few tribes in northern Thailand and Myanmar, few people groups have embraced Jesus. Five countries have least-reached populations of over fifty percent; some, like Cambodia, are still 95.2% least-reached! Indonesia is a huge challenge with over two hundred least-reached people groups which include over 130 million people. We need to pray that spiritual obstacles will be removed.

Prayer Points

  • Expatriate and Indigenous Workers. Pray for God to send out workers and provide creative means of access to the least-reached peoples throughout Southeast Asia for the gospel.

  • Storying. Pray for God to show workers how to tell his story effectively and accurately and for him to confirm his word with signs and wonders.
  • Multiplication. Pray for God to inspire new believers to share throughout their natural relational networks what Jesus has done and is doing in their lives. Pray for many to come to faith.
  • Fellowships. Pray for believers to understand that where two or three gather in Jesus' name, there he is in their midst; pray that they would focus on living fellowships to encourage one another to love and good deeds.
  • Contextual Evangelism. Pray that believers would remain involved in community activities and actively seek friendship with local leaders as indications of good citizenship. Pray for God to help believers creatively communicate the gospel and his truth through familiar means with an eternal message of hope and salvation.

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Links
Resources to pray and mobilize prayer and outreach. 

Discover Southeast Asia.  

Pray for the peoples of the Southeast Asia

Obtain daily prayer guides for peoples of this region. 

Historical Background
(Information taken from “Buddhism and Islam in Southeast Asia: So Different, Yet So Much Alike!” by Keith Carey, Global Prayer Digest, July 2006)

It is hard to imagine two religions being more different than Buddhism and Islam. Buddhism has its roots in Hinduism. It is flexible, whereas Islam has a rigid set of theological beliefs. In Buddhism, there are many gods or none at all. One of the strictest tenets of Islam is that there is only one god. But ironically, once you scratch beneath the surface with both religions in Southeast Asia, you find they are very much alike. Animism pollutes both major religions.

Buddhism in Southeast Asia
Buddhism was founded in the sixth century before Christ by Siddhartha Gautama, a privileged and well-educated son of a wealthy Hindu prince in northern India. Deeply spiritual, he tried to reform the Hindu system, especially its caste rules. This new form of Hinduism spread throughout India. Although the ruling elite rejected it, Buddhism was far from finished. It spread into much of East Asia, where it is still a dominant religion.

The two biggest sectors of Buddhism are Theravada and Mahayana. The latter is the form that is most prevalent in Northeast Asia; the former is dominant in Southeast Asia. They teach that spiritual enlightenment is accessible to only a few true believers. The individual moves toward enlightenment alone with no help from rituals or even statues of Gautama Buddha. This is the most orthodox form of Buddhism since it closely follows Gautama Buddha’s teachings.

Though the form of Buddhism is orthodox, most peoples of Southeast Asia are more animistic than Buddhist. Remember that Buddhism is a very flexible religion; adherents can accept or reject much of the Buddhist teachings and embrace other religions along with Buddhism. In Southeast Asia even the dominant people groups like the Thai and the Burmese may call themselves Buddhist; however, if you look beneath the surface, you will find animism. These people, who call themselves Buddhists, fear ghosts, spirits, demons and a plethora of other spirit beings. Making peace with these spirits and living financially prosperous lives is what they seek. At least in name, Buddhism is the dominant religion in Thailand, Myanmar, Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam and Singapore.

Islam in Southeast Asia
Like Buddhism, Islam was imported to Southeast Asia. In many areas where Islam now dominates, the people were once Buddhist or Hindu. As early as the seventh century, Muslim traders took Islam to Southeast Asia. Six hundred years later, Roman Catholic explorer Marco Polo noted a few Muslim enclaves in northern Sumatra. Through the centuries, kings and local chieftains, who were usually Hindu, became Muslim. Muslim traders married local women, and spread out throughout what is now Indonesia, Malaysia and Mindanao in the southern Philippines. These parts of the world still have Muslim majorities.

Why did these leaders convert to Islam? Some of them were attracted by Sufism, a mystical form of Islam that seemed to be a spiritual high road to these Hindus; others were hoping that their conversion would help bring about more lucrative trade with these Muslims. Still others were trying to build political bridges with outsiders who might help them fend off the Roman Catholic Portuguese and Spanish invaders who came in the 1500s.

How can we pray for the peoples in this part of the world? PRAY that the call of Christ will overwhelm Buddhists and Muslims in this part of the world no matter what people group they belong to.

PRAY that people will find ways to embrace Christ without forfeiting their cultures and their identities within their ethnic groups and families.

PRAY that peoples in this region will embrace Christ despite what their enemies are doing.

Whatever their reasons, the new Muslims were different from their more orthodox counterparts in the Middle East. They were not as interested in theological tenets, but in the mystical aspects of Sufism. In general, Muslims in this part of the world focus their attention on a number of non-Islamic rituals and customs. These include a belief in ghosts, the use of amulets and fetishes and consulting mediums to try to affect outcomes in everyday life. Their religion can be described as “folk Islam.”

Orthodox Muslims would like to see changes in the Islamic practices in Southeast Asia. The most orthodox Muslims are from the Wahhabi sect of Saudi Arabia. This sect, which has inspired Osama bin Laden and other terrorists to use Islam as a geopolitical tool to gain power, has sent “missionaries” to Southeast Asia to bring the people into a “proper” understanding of Islam.

The Current Spiritual Condition of Southeast Asia
Although Buddhism and Islam are not followed in their most devout forms in this part of the world, very few members of these dominant religions have turned to Christ. Christianity has made inroads among the Vietnamese however, Buddhist groups like the Lao, the Thai, the Burmese and the Shan have not allowed Jesus to become a part of their lives. With the exception of the Javanese, Islamic groups in this part of the world have shown little interest in the gospel. Mostly the smaller, weaker tribal groups like Karin subgroups have become Christianized in Southeast Asia.

Why is this so? Whether we like it or not, people will reject Christ for political reasons if they believe it will make them lose power. History has also shown us that people will reject a major religion because their enemies embrace it. For example, the Karins have embraced Christianity in part to be different from their Burmese enemies, while the Burmese refuse to consider Christianity.