<3>A Nagging Question
When I first went to Asia, I longed to share with Chinese “the unsearchable riches of Christ.” I still do. That’s why I preach, teach, and write so much! Indeed, I spent the first fifteen years or so of my ministry trying to communicate the Gospel as clearly as possible, and that is still my aim. For the past fifteen years or so, however, a slow realization has been dawning upon me, and has come to the forefront in my approach to missions. What if I haven’t really understood the people to whom I have been speaking? What if I am answering questions they are not asking? Am I speaking to their hearts? To their deepest beliefs and convictions? Do I know their fears, their hopes, their dreams? When I speak and write, do I couch my words in terms they can really understand? Have I adapted the form (not the content!) of my message to their unique culture, in such a way as to bring real conviction of sin, profound faith in God, and clear awareness of the Lord’s will?
Another Way? The Importance of Listening
Slowly, I am beginning to see another way to reach Chinese, both Christian and pre-Christians, with God’s love and truth: Listening. James tells us to be “Swift to hear, slow to speak” (James 1:19). In Proverbs we read, “He who answers a matter before he hears it, it is folly and shame to him” (18:13), and describes a fool as one who “has no delight in understanding, but in expressing his own heart” (18:2). Job’s would-be counselors first sat with him in the dust for a whole week, wordless – and even then their pre-conceived ideas prevented them from effective ministry! Jesus spent thirty years leaning Jewish culture from the inside, and only then began to preach. And he was the sinless Son of God. About thirty-five years ago, at the beginning of my ministry, I read a little book called The Awesome Power of the Listening Ear. It made a profound impact on me at the time, and its title still rings in my ears. The author basically said that people want to be heard, and understood. Only then will they listen to us. And only then will we know what to say, and how. A few months ago, a very good Chinese friend finally got up the courage to say to me: “You Americans come to us saying, ‘Let us help you solve your problems.’ But you don’t even know what our problems are! You don’t take time to understand us.”
Listening to the Chinese
For those of us wanting to reach Chinese, listening must come first! Listening begins with years of serious, diligent language study. Even then, linguists tell us that our priorities are learning to (1) listen; (2) speak; (3) read; and (4) write. All too often, we are eager only to acquire the ability to speak! As we continue language acquisition, we must also dig deeply into the culture. For the Chinese, this means absorbing their long history. For decades now, I have read as many books as possible on Chinese civilization, and the history of Christianity in China. To force myself to reflect, I have been writing reviews of some of these volumes, which you can find on our Web site. Chinese culture abounds in complexity, depth, and scope, and there are a variety of ways to become slightly familiar with some aspects of it: Watching Chinese movies; reading Chinese literature; listening to Chinese music; visiting Greater China; viewing Chinese art; scouring the Web; attending a Chinese church... Above all, we can get to know a few Chinese well, simply by asking questions, and listening to their responses.
Pray for Us
All of our associates are committed to learning as much as we can about our Chinese friends, in all of the ways listed above. We want to earn trust before presuming to speak. We seek also to share with our non-Chinese friends what little we ourselves have begun to learn, so help them love the Chinese more effectively. We need first and foremost to listen to God each day. Only as we “receive with meekness the implanted word” shall we be able to become “doers of the word” and bridle our tongues enough really to listen to others (James 1:21-22, 26).