Chinese Evangelism: Deep in Tradition, Shallow in Theology?

Chinese Evangelism: Deep in Tradition, Shallow in Theology? July 23, 2013

It’s a lot easier to memorize a gospel presentation than to understand it.

That seems to be a common thread in following list of troubling trends in Chinese evangelism. Previously, I discussed #1–3 (though these are not in any sort of rank).

chinese evangelism 4One of the major thrusts of my dissertation was to address this particular point. China is an honor-shame society, which means that issues of face and group identity are more of a concern than laws. Laws are unevenly enforced and obeyed because relationships are more important.

Despite this, people use law-language as a primary way of expressing the meaning of sin and the significance of salvation. Keep in mind the word for “sin” in Chinese is the word for “crime.” Therefore, the Christian seems to be saying, “You are a criminal because some couple a long time ago committed a crime.”

To be clear––we should never set law against honor-shame. People need both metaphors in order to get a fuller understanding of Scripture. Nevertheless, we have to start somewhere. Why not start with what makes better sense to them?

chinese evangelism 5This is rather straightforward. If you ask people to explain a bit deeper what they mean, the cracks begin to show. Ask questions like “Why did Jesus have to die?” or “What does the law have to do with anything?”

You will often see someone start repeating what they have already said but not really answering the question. Beyond the memorized presentation, people struggle to give an account of the hope they have.

chinese evangelism 6The last point had to do with people’s systematic theological thinking. Here, I emphasize the biblical story itself. I have a Chinese gospel track in my desk right now that quotes Rom 1:2–4, but deletes one part.

It says that this gospel was

“promised beforehand through his prophets in the holy Scriptures, concerning his Son, . . . and was declared to be the Son of God in power according to the Spirit of holiness by his resurrection from the dead, Jesus Christ our Lord.”

What was deleted? The phrase “who was descended from David according to the flesh.”

This is just a small sign of a bigger problem. No one knows why Israel, David, and Abraham matter. Consequently, people don’t know why the Old Testament really matters. At best, it becomes material for sermon illustrations. Ironically, almost every gospel presentation in the New Testament makes much of Israel’s history.

chinese evangelism 7Chinese religion is formulaic.

You do certain rituals and expect the gods and ancestors to bless you. Therefore, when westerners introduce the “sinners prayer” as the entry point into eternal life and blessing, think about how the average Chinese listener will respond? This prayer seems to fit in well with other Chinese religious practices. Of course, many Christians try to explain that the prayer itself does not save. Yet, there is only so much that our words can hold back the weight of our actions.

Easy-believism (or “decisionism”) even goes beyond praying the “sinners prayer.” It extends to the way the children of Christian parents see salvation. I have taught at many underground training centers. I frequently ask how someone first came to know the Lord. Perhaps the most common response is “I have always been a Christians because my mom and/or dad believe in the Lord.”

In a collectivistic culture, the religion of your nation and family de facto becomes yours. When you lump in a lack of biblical depth, people are bound to read the Old Testament and them use Israel as a proof that children are saved because their parents have faith.

This list raises the question of the Western church’s influence on the Chinese church. What do you think Western missionaries could do to help correct these tendencies?

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  • Joey

    Great analysis, Jackson. It seems to me that the same tendencies are true for missionaries, though for different reasons. For example, easy-believism has made a comfortable nest in China because, as you say, Chinese religion is formulaic. I think for many from the US, the appeal and acceptance is because it’s convenient and tones down the offense of the gospel, which fits with two cultural values in the US – comfort/convenience and tolerance.

    • Yes, I think people underestimate how non-“Chinese” the Chinese church is. Collectivistic cultures value conformity, which means being quick to accept a missionary’s message, since he or she is the foreign expert on a (so called) “western religion.” Westerners underestimate their potential influence. Such ignorance can be damaging.

  • Quietlyverbose

    Very on-point analysis. It seems that a shallow sharing of the gospel is enough to move hearts toward decisions, but the follow-up life lacks…well, life. Shallow roots lead to shallowness in everything else. Sad phenom, but real. Thanks for putting words to this.

    • So true. And I fear such shallowness will recreate the same sort of traditionalism one sees in Chinese Buddhism. Inoculation to true Christian faith is a real danger people face.