The “old” approach: Does it “work”?
In the past, and up to the present, Western Christians have sought to evangelize China by proclaiming the message of salvation. The early missionaries learned enough Chinese to convey the basic truths of the faith, and then plunged into evangelism, preaching, and teaching, greatly assisted by Chinese converts. God blessed their efforts, as many did respond to their proclamation with repentance and true faith. The same is true today, when thousands of zealous Americans (and others) travel to China for a few weeks, a summer, or even a couple of years, eager to see many Chinese brought to Christ. With little or no ability in Mandarin, they take advantage of the current interest that young people have in things Western, including Christianity. Communication in English seems to demolish the language barrier. Once again, God has done great things, as thousands of people have come to Christ and even formed churches.
On the other hand…
As I have said before, this approach to China ministry carries some limitations. Although we do not for a moment wish to disparage the wonderful results of service in English, some question whether it can go as deep as necessary for long-term transformation. A recent book recounts how the author discovered that even Ph.D. students in America, after living here and being discipled in English, had huge gaps in their comprehension of the Gospel. That led him to go to China to learn Mandarin, so he could communicate with people in their mother tongue. When we probe a bit, we find that ignorance of Chinese language and culture inhibits understanding of the people whom we are trying to persuade to change their entire way of living. Working “in the dark,” so to speak, we may say and do things that seem normal to us, but baffle our Chinese friends. We might answer questions that they are not asking, or respond before understanding what they are really saying. Questions like, “Should Christians always obey their parents?” “Must I really be born again?” elicited some pretty silly responses from me until I knew a bit more about their context. (Hint: The biblical translation of “born again” is the same as Buddhist “re-incarnation.”)
Discipleship in Depth
Furthermore, unless we can read and explain the Bible in Chinese, and in light of their religious and cultural background, it’s very hard to “make disciples” of even the sincerest converts. Our goal is not just a “profession of faith,” but discipleship in depth, which allows the truth of God to penetrate into all departments of thought and action. We seek to build life-transforming relationships, leading to changed lives at home, school, work and all domains of society. That takes time, patience, and considerable understanding.
A “new” way?
Like some other evangelical organizations, our group has chosen to pursue a different path, that language study, reading, asking questions, of lifelong learning. In other words, we commit ourselves to serious study of Chinese history and culture, as well as of Christianity in China. Our younger associates are expected to put in several years of Mandarin training as well. Especially for the first few years, we want to assume the role of students, not teachers, asking our Chinese friends to instruct us, which they are happy to do! Actually, the 19th century Protestant missionaries also set themselves to study the language and culture of China. The China Inland Mission (CIM) required its new workers to attain a level of proficiency that few Westerners today (including me!) could match. Some missionaries even became superb Sinologists (students of things Chinese). Though they did not agree with Roman Catholic doctrine, they were following the example of the early Jesuits, who acquired amazing knowledge of the literature, religion, and history of China, and were adept at following the etiquette of their hosts. To earn the right to be heard, we must first listen. “Listening” encompasses language study, reading, asking questions, observing, and associating with those whom we wish to serve. “If a man gives an answer before he hears [listens], it is his folly and shame” (Proverbs 18:13). After all, Jesus didn’t preach his first sermon until after thirty years of earthly “education” – and he was the Son of God!
Pray for Us
Anyone who has tasted even a bit of Chinese language and culture, or read about Chinese Christianity, knows that this is a banquet with many delights. But to be invited to the feast, and converse with our hosts, requires many years of persistent effort. Please ask God to give us diligence, patience, good memories, wisdom, insight and – above all – a close walk with God. “Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up,” and love comes only from communion with our Lord Jesus through the Holy Spirit. Yours in His mercy, Wright Doyle
Dear Wright, Thank you for this is a timely message. as just today I was struggling to explain my faith and some Christian doctrine to a young woman at a church meeting here in Chengdu. She asked me why I believe, why I think Buddhists are mistaken, why good works and church attendance are not necessary for salvation, and why good works and church attendance are a good idea anyway. Despite the limitations of my Chinese and her English, and despite my very weak understanding of Buddhism, she seemed satisfied with most of my answers, so I would say the encounter was a success. Nevertheless, I could tell that we didn't understand each other 100%. I fully agree that the work of short-term teams with no Chinese skills is exciting but will ultimately lead to disappointment when the shallow faith of the converts lapses. The most effective people I have seen in discipling strong believers are ethnic Chinese from Malaysia & Singapore who have committed to live here for years. I pray the Lord will continue to bless your ministry, and I look forward to your next newsletter.