How "Western" Theology Shapes "Eastern" Evangelism

How "Western" Theology Shapes "Eastern" Evangelism November 20, 2013

Traditional western theology may not be wrong, but it also may not be as helpful as we’d like.

Why Western Theology is Not Enough

First of all, the phrase “Western theology” should not carry negative connotations. Some books treat Western theology like it’s the theological “boogeyman”

Our theologies always reflect the cultural lens through which we read Scripture. People readily talk about “African theology,” “Chinese theology,” “Puritan theology,” and whatever other kind of theology. Yet, when someone says “Western” theology, I find people get defensive. This may be because they don’t realize that they absolutize western theology as if it were simply “Theology.”Judgment_Day_21_May_2011_(English)All theologies have limits because we all read the Bible from limited perspectives. This is why I have previously argued for the use of contemporary cultures as a means of interpreting the ancient biblical text. It takes more than a village to understand the Bible. It takes the whole world.


What Happens When We Assume?

Chinese tend to start with different assumptions than those of the typical western missionary. Westerners generally emphasize what one must do to be saved. This is of course a legitimate question. Therefore, one hears a lot about the futility of good works as a way of salvation.

By contrast, Easterners generally ask “who” questions. For example, “Among whom do belong?” (group identity) and “Who should I know?” (relationship, guanxi). For those familiar with this sort of language, Westerners lay greater stress on “achieved face” whereas Easterners emphasize “ascribed face.”

Of course, the what-vs-who distinction is not a west-east issue. It’s a human issue. Naturally, both eastern and western ways of thinking are needed to understand the Bible and ourselves.

Although these are stereotypical descriptions, it is without question that the emphases on relationship and individual achievement do characterize eastern and western cultures respectively. In China, it’s all about whom you know, what your last name is, your title, etc.

In the United States, Americans exalt the heroic individual, who works hard, overcoming the odds to demonstrate his worth. I once heard an American football coach say this to his players, “Just like the Bible says—God helps those who help themselves.” By the way, that is NOT a verse in the Bible.

In China, people give little thought to the one true God. If they are not atheists, then they at best follow a philosophy of ethics or seek to appease spirits in order to secure present blessings. Americans and Europeans inherit a Christianized and thus (mono)theistic perspective of the world. This history leads people to consider how they might please God and be saved from judgment.

Ask yourself–what assumptions lie behind your efforts to evangelize? What is the problem that we think the gospel solves? (Be specific . . . don’t just say “sin.”)

So for example, we have to ask, “Is it appropriate to assume that Chinese nonbelievers want to earn salvation from God by good works?”

How Western Theology Hinders Eastern Evangelism

Different starting points inevitably lead to different ways of doing evangelism. We naturally think others share our assumptions. Therefore, missionaries and locals talk past each other. The missionary assumes the problem is just the hard heart of sinners, making them resist the message.

In truth, one might be presenting the gospel in a way that presumes a problem that doesn’t exist in the mind of our listeners.

As a result, Christianity sounds foreign. The gospel seems incomprehensible. Those who accept that Western message must, to some degree, adjust their natural ways of thinking. After all, the terms in which they learn the gospel are “western” (i.e., they tend to be emphasized more in the West than in the East). In particular, I’m referring to the stress given to individualistic identity, law oriented metaphors, and earning salvation.

In Chapter 3 of my book, Saving God’s Face, I trace a variety of ways that people have tried to contextualize the gospel in China. Again and again, one sees how unChinese these evangelistic strategies really are.

No doubt, we may unwittingly judaize those we try to evangelize by making them become western in their thinking in order to be “Christian,” according to our narrow expression.

**Nothing I have said denies the truthfulness of these so-called “western” motifs. I have simply pointed out that these are not the best starting points for talking to Chinese people, not to mention many other people around the world.

Just this past week, I received an email from someone who is being trained by a major North American missions organization. During week one of their training, here are some of the main evangelism tools they are being given to use: the Roman Road, The Four Spiritual Laws, and their personal testimony.

Are we to believe that these are the best ways to present the gospel among non-Westerners?

Photo Credit: CC 2.0/wikipedia

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