Those who seek to share the gospel with Chinese can learn important lessons from the study of immigrants to the United States from Taiwan who become Christians and Buddhists.
On the one hand, there is much to encourage.
First, the unsettling challenges facing newcomers to a foreign country can be used by God to open minds and hearts to consider a new faith. By leaving their home country, Chinese who go to the West to study or work lose familiar supports and enter into a shifting, unfamiliar environment with little help from family and friends.
If they have previously relied on their own intelligence, skill, personal charm or contacts to get ahead, they soon discover that these are not enough to ensure success. Whereas all these combined to produce opportunity in China (or Greater China), they now run up against new obstacles. Not a few with “outstanding” English compared to their peers discover that they can neither understand nor be understood by native English speakers as well as they thought they would be. Pronunciation – both theirs and that of their new neighbors – vocabulary, slang, and rapid speech may make for an unexpectedly confusing Babel for smart, well-educated Chinese.
Competition is tough at good schools and in the marketplace generally, and old-fashioned Chinese guanxi doesn't go as far as it did before. Of course, you can call on relatives and family friends in your new country, and this might land you a place in an all-Chinese laboratory or restaurant, but it doesn’t take you very far into established white society (and much less farther with Hispanics and blacks).
Furthermore, if you have spent the past twenty or thirty years just concentrating on passing tests, you may lack social skills even in your own society; this deficiency shows up glaringly in a new culture. Men, in particular, being both less sociable than women and less attractive (to be blunt), may feel that they are the victims of prejudice, when in fact the problem might lie more with their inability to fit in.
All of this, and much more, tends to strip away self-confidence. From a Christian standpoint, that’s good, for it opens doors for a message that begins with the assumption that we are not as “good” as we thought we were, nor as strong and capable. Christianity can be truly good news for people who can no longer rely on themselves or others.
That’s where both the content of the gospel and the community of the Christian church can enter in to bring hope, comfort, and even new life to discouraged immigrants. As Dr. Chen shows, the warm hospitality of most Chinese churches envelopes lonely, displaced souls in a loving family and prepares the way for them to hear about the love of God. Practical help demonstrates God’s love in tangible ways, and leads newcomers into a different conceptual and social world.
There’s more to like in this description of a vital evangelical church: The preaching is based on the Bible; small group bible studies, Sunday school classes, and special meetings offer more biblical instruction. Everyone esteems the Scriptures as God’s authoritative revelation, and tries to live by its teachings. A convincing appeal to the Bible can end a debate.
Though at first attracted by very material benefits, or the hope of gaining them, many immigrants gradually begin to see that this world is not the main thing to ponder; we are meant to live with God forever. In order for us to enter eternal life, however, we need to turn our eyes from ourselves and our worldly goals to Jesus and the future that he has won for us by his death and resurrection.
Meanwhile, while we live on earth, we should be seeking internal transformation more than temporal pleasure or success. By reading the bible and attending meetings, joined with prayer and meditation, Christians increasingly submit their lives to God’s will.
The church described in this book is well organized, so that new people are followed up and members are cared for. The needs of lost souls are kept before everyone’s attention, leading to a constant attempt to share the Gospel with unbelievers. Most of the work is done by laymen, with the result that the entire congregation sees the church as its “own,” and has a sense of belonging.
In short, this congregation, like many others in North America, reflects the hard work, strong faith, and deep love of its leaders and members. On the other hand…
From Dr. Chen’s analysis, we can see certain serious problems with even a very good Chinese church in North America.
Chen’s research shows that many immigrants from Taiwan turn to Buddhism in a reaction to the high pressure put on them by zealous Chinese Christians. By repeatedly inviting new arrivals to church, they put pressure on them to such an extent that finally the invitation is accepted. But feelings are not good, so after the “obligation” has been fulfilled, many turn away and never return.
Others, however, unhappy that Christians bluntly tell them that their “Buddhism” amounts to superstition, investigate the Buddhism now common in America, and find that it’s not like the worship of idols they participated in at home. “Modern” Buddhism (which is growing in Taiwan also) focuses more in inner transformation than upon acts of worship to please the gods or ancestors.
So, the evangelistic zeal of Christians drives many away from the church, some of them into Buddhism.
“Why are Chinese Christians so pushy?” asked a Chinese student. “American Christians don’t put the same kind of pressure on you. Christians in China are pushy, too.” After a long discussion, the two of us came up with a few possible answers:
1. Chinese Christians in North America and in mainland China possess great zeal to spread the Gospel. They have received so much from God that they want others to share the same blessings.
2. Americans value freedom for themselves and others, so they try not to put pressure on people to attend meetings which are by nature voluntary. Chinese, on the other hand, regularly use manipulation to get people to do things. Repeated invitations, personal requests, even scolding, are all employed by parents, spouses, children, and others to influence people to cooperate. Simply making one request and giving the other person time and space to respond is not part of Chinese culture. The result, of course, is many actions which are done simply out of a desire to get the other person to stop bothering you; then you go back to your ordinary life.
3. Most Chinese Christians believe in Arminian theology. That is, they emphasize man’s free will so much that they believe a person can just decide to be saved, and it will happen. Even the Chinese terms for “be born again and get saved,” does not, as in the Bible, speak of God’s action upon us, but upon a specific action that we do, such as saying a prayer to receive Christ.
Since people have free will, then the job of the Christians is to persuade them, even pressure them, to believe in Christ. As a consequence, many newcomers are baptized and attend church for a while, and then leave. They were never really convinced to begin with, but were only trying to please.
Another reason that the “back door” to Chinese churches is so “wide” is that Christians many times present faith in Christ as a way to get earthly blessings. Listen to the testimonies you hear: “I trusted in Christ, and got a job, passed a test, found a mate, got a green card” – etc. But what if healing, or prosperity, or success do not come? Then there is no reason to keep on being a “Christian.” Just as in Chinese popular religion, if this “god” is not giving me what I want, I’ll go to another “god.”
If you listen closely, you will hear Chinese Christians talk a lot about success in career, new houses, and the good schools which their children are going to attend, and not much about growth in grace through constant faith in Christ. There are many exceptions to this, of course, but the general picture is clear.
For Taiwanese women – and perhaps many from China as well – the new-found freedom from family obligations is a two-edged sword. One the one hand, it enables them to develop their own life, independently from in-laws and even husband. On the other, some take “equality” in Christ to mean that they can ignore biblical teachings concerning wives and mothers. The temptation is great to follow their husbands into the workplace in order to find a new identity; to make professional advancement and financial independence primary goals; and to neglect legitimate family responsibilities.
Finally – and many more things could be said based on this excellent book – the “Christianity” in the Chinese church described (and it is typical of most Chinese churches), looks a lot more like “Christian” Confucianism than biblical Christianity.
Here’s what I mean: Just as in Confucianism, the focus is on personal moral transformation, relying on God’s help, of course, but mostly working hard myself.
There is very little real grace preached in Chinese churches. It’s mostly all about what we have to do, not about what God has done for us, and continues to do for us, in Christ. Resting in God’s love; knowing that we are unconditionally accepted; daily receiving forgiveness of sins; looking to eternal life in a new heaven and new earth with Christ - these are not spoken about much, either in the pulpit or in Sunday school class.
So, the research results from this book should send us back to the Bible to study what real evangelism looks like (sharing the Gospel and trusting God to change people); what real benefits we should be telling people to seek (spiritual, not material); and the real God whom we worship through Christ, by the Spirit.
G. Wright Doyle
* See the author’s review at www.globalchina.org