I’ve said for a while that the two most critical needs for the Chinese church now are (1) theological education and (2) family ministry (marriage, parenting, etc.).
Here’s one more reason I’ll say it again. The WSJ blog recently posted an article “A Chinese Father’s Most Important Job”. Here is an excerpt of it.
When it comes to parenting, Chinese fathers say the most important role they play is that of the family chauffeur.
In a survey of 500 Chinese fathers released earlier this week by communications company JWT, respondents ranked driving their children to extracurricular activities and to school first and second, respectively, as the childcare responsibilities they most viewed as the responsibility of the male in the family. More than two-thirds of Chinese fathers surveyed said they saw these tasks as their responsibilities, not their wives’.
Fathers ranked handling doctor visits, disciplining children and helping with homework third through fifth on the list of daddy jobs.
Imagine the implications for the church?
How do pastors see their role when this is a common model for leading a family?
Paul describe one of the qualifications of an elder-pastor,
“He must manage his own household well, with all dignity keeping his children submissive, for if someone does not know how to manage his own household, how will he care for God’s church?” (1 Timothy 3:4–5)
If you are interested, I have written on the topic of Chinese pastoral leadership and its influences, in particular typical notions about fatherhood. The article is called “Authority in a Collectivistic Church: Identifying Crucial Concerns for a Chinese Ecclesiology.”
In the previous post, I asked a question people have been asking, “What does the fox say?” But then we looked at a more important question, “What does the gospel say?”
Sadly, people often have the same reactions to both: If it’s not “I don’t know,” then they might just guess. This was a first response I listed in the last post. There is a second frequent response to the question, “What does the gospel say?”
2. A lot of people simply assume they understand the gospel.
People get a bit startled when I tell them that we should not “assume” the gospel. Isn’t the gospel foundational? If we can assume anything, isn’t it the gospel?
Let me say from the start––there is only one gospel. However, there are many ways to express it. I’m not just talking about modern evangelism; even in the Bible, we find diversity in gospel presentations.
The problem comes when we confuse a certain perspective on the gospel with the gospel itself. Every gospel presentation uses some sort of theological framework. We always express the gospel using a particular formulation consisting of one or more metaphors, points of emphasis, and/or set of texts.
It is very possible to assume correct doctrine and yet distort the gospel message in a way that makes it hard for people to understand our message. This is exactly why I frequently talk about compromising the gospel by settling for truth.
What Happens When We Assume?
In chapter 2 of my book, Saving God’s Face, I show in detail how many evangelical assume the gospel. This has detrimental effects on evangelism and contextualization in particular. Here is how I introduce the subject:
If we assume the gospel in contextualization, we commit a logical fallacy by begging the question. Accordingly, assuming the gospel largely predetermines the results of contextualization. Thus, begging the question renders faithful contextualization all but impossible. The problem is systemic since all Christian theology centers on the question, “What is the gospel?” This goes beyond saying that theological background inevitably influences contextualization. Missiologically, if the gospel is presupposed, what is the value in doing theological contextualization? By examining this tendency to make premature assumptions, contextualization methods can be corrected and improved.
One who writes about theology and contextualization can tacitly assume a particular formulation of the gospel and even open a door to syncretism. While many affirm the centrality of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection, there is too little explicit focus on what exactly should be contextualized. Consequently, syncretism goes unnoticed since the contextualized theology does little more than restate a doctrine in traditional theological categories. Many scholars may not see the problem since their definition of “syncretism” is limited to only that which deviates from the gospel. Yet, theological syncretism also results when culturally bound conceptions of the gospel become the assumed framework of contextualization. It is easier to identify syncretism with a foreign culture than the sort of syncretism that grows from a traditional theological system.
… presupposing a gospel a priori thwarts and potentially sabotages theology from the start. It concludes by arguing that contextualization is an act of biblical interpretation, not simply the application or communication of biblical truth.
When we assume the gospel, we risk either cultural syncretism or theological syncretism. Even if we don’t completely compromise the gospel, our message will seem incoherent or irrelevant.
Contextualizing for a fox?
Foreigners typically struggle with the tones when speaking Mandarin. One trick some people use is simply talking faster. If you talk fast enough, the tones all blend together and sometimes a person can fake it. That’s not a good long-term language learning strategy.
In the “What does the fox say?” video, the singers don’t know what a fox says, so they just try different forms of babbling, cackling, barking, or whatever other sound they could think of. But guess what? In the end, no one would say that they are speaking the fox’s language.
If they were trying to contextualize the one gospel for a fox, they are not using a good long-term contextualization strategy. Contextualization is not simply saying anything that sounds reasonable. Even if they were to accidentally speak “fox language,” they would not be able to communicate anything meaningful (in whatever sense we might say a fox makes an intentional noise). Something can be true and yet lack significance for the people who hear it.
This is the goal of contextualization––to understand, convey, and apply the gospel in a way that is not only true but expresses its significance.
Even if we knew what a fox said, would we know what it meant?
How do we contextualize the one gospel in any culture? We begin by asking “What does the gospel say?” We should not simply assume we already know.
- One of the most important quotes I’ve read on contextualization (jacksonwu.org)
- The Gospel with Chinese Characteristics (jacksonwu.org)
Are you one of the 100+ million people who’ve seen this video?
I know that for some people, the first time they saw it, they felt just a little dumber. One person left this comment on YouTube, “I’m so embarrassed to live in this generation.” On the other hand, it is a catchy song. When it’s all said and done, you really do start to wonder, “Well, what does the fox say?”
Nobody knows what the fox says … so people just guess. They are satisfied and content with their assumptions because it makes them happy and they don’t know anything different.
So why talk about what foxes say?
What does the gospel say?
I regularly ask Christians (including missionaries) to explain to me the gospel. I want to hear how they understand and summarize it. You may be surprised how much people struggle to answer this seemingly basic question. There are two problems to consider. I’ll mention the first one here. The second one will come in a later post.
1. Some people don’t know exactly what the gospel says, … so they just guess.
They talk about all kinds of things they’ve heard from a pastor or read about in a book. So often, people confuse “gospel” with “Bible,” as if preaching the gospel was essentially just teaching anything in the Bible.
Therefore, it should not be surprising when people start listening to false gospels. After all, one may think, “Your guess is as good as mine.”
To solve this problem––to help people know and remember the gospel––people have used all kinds of presentations. Some are rather direct and provocative, “What if you died tonight…?” Others have great artwork and clever wording. People try to design simple presentations that are “catchy” because they want listeners to remember them.
Making gospel presentations clear, memorable and reproducible is a worthy goal. However,we need to ask ourselves a humbling question:
What side effects should we be aware of when training people to use simplified gospel presentations?
I’ll just mention a few answers to that question. I’ve talked on some of these answers in Saving God’s Face. I’ll say a bit more in the next post. If we are not careful, the following consequences could result.
- We make the gospel acceptable
People are sometimes deceived by simplicity. They think it’s “easy” to be a Christian. Of course, at one level, we can agree with that. On the other hand, the Christian life can feel painful, even impossible, at times. Jesus warns his followers to expect suffering and rejection.
- We might syncretize the gospel
On this point, I’ll simply repeat the quote by Dean Flemming that I previously posted.
…But could it be that refusing to contextualize the gospel poses an even greater risk of syncretism?
Consider the situation today––not unlike that of Colossians––when the gospel meets worldviews that are burdened with fear of unseen powers thought to control practical realities such a crops, health, and family relations. In many cases, the Christian message that has been imported to these contexts from the West has failed to address such issues. As a result, people can easily assume that Jesus is powerless to overcome the forces that influence their daily lives. Like the Colossian syncretists, converts may look for supplements––shamans, amulets, rituals, or occult practices––to protect them from hostile spirits. Ironically, a gospel that neglects such worldview issues may unwittingly end up promoting syncretism instead of preventing it.
(from “Paul the Contextualizer,” in Local Theology for the Global Church: Principles for an Evangelical Approach to Contextualization, 18–19)
This leads to the next potential consequence.
- We may distort the gospel
This could come both through syncretism and by reductionism. Likewise, we can confuse main themes and minor themes.
- We will assume the gospel
I know this last idea sounds strange. Why is it a problem to “assume the gospel”? I’ll elaborate on this last point in a coming post.
- One of the most important quotes I’ve read on contextualization (jacksonwu.org)
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.”
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?
- Biblical Theology from a Chinese Perspective (jacksonwu.org)
- Chinese Evangelism: Deep in Tradition, Shallow in Theology? (jacksonwu.org)
- Is Our Theology Enslaved to the Law? (jacksonwu.org)
- 10 Troubling Tendencies in Chinese Evangelism (jacksonwu.org)
- A Theological Version of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” (jacksonwu.org)
- Jesus Preached a Chinese Gospel” (jacksonwu.org)
My previous post, examined the story of the rich, younger ruler (Mark 10:17–30). I suggested that Jesus shifts our focus from “what” to “who.” If this is correct, then what does this mean for gospel preaching?
“Who” is our hope
The reason why people “do works” is not merely because they want to “earn salvation.” Rather, they just want to be accepted. For many, “salvation” (as Christians talk about it) has never entered their mind. Therefore, they settle for social substitutes: if they have this or that relationship, if they are accepted into this or that group, then all will be well.
In short, what people do is largely determined by who they want to be. Therefore, certain “works” will gain them acceptance by those with whom they want relationship.
I have written on this before in a post called “Legalism is an Honor Shame Problem.”
Instead of challenging people about their wrong assumptions about how to be saved, perhaps we need to question who is it they want to please.
How Jesus Preaches to Chinese People
First, he makes clear that having “eternal life” has significant moral thus communal implications for the present life. For example, one has to rethink his or her view of money.
‘ . . . go, sell all that you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.’ 22 Disheartened by the saying, he went away sorrowful, for he had great possessions. 23 And Jesus looked around and said to his disciples, ‘How difficult it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!’ 24 And the disciples were amazed at his words. But Jesus said to them again, ‘Children, how difficult it is to enter the kingdom of God! 25 It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God’” (Mark 10:21–25).
Second, Jesus focuses on guanxi (relationship). At the climax of the narrative, Jesus makes a promise,
Truly, I say to you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or lands, for my sake and for the gospel, who will not receive a hundredfold now in this time, houses and brothers and sisters and mothers and children and lands, with persecutions, and in the age to come eternal life. But many who are first will be last, and the last first.
“Now in this time,” we will receive hundredfold in “houses and brothers and sisters and mothers and children and lands.” I don’t know if I have ever heard someone preach on this specific point. It is probably because people are afraid of preaching a “Prosperity Gospel.” Yet, Jesus says it. So should we.
How is it so? At conversion, we enter into our true human family—those whom God redeems from every nation. We can go anywhere in the world and find family. As family members, their house is our home. Our things are theirs. What an encouragement to become a Christian! This is straight from the lips of Jesus himself.
Jesus uses our human love for guanxi to draw people to himself.
Third, Jesus’ gospel does not hide the fact that we will lose face, fortune, and family.
A Christian must “leave” his or her birth family (in the sense of exchanging fundamental loyalties). Gaining our new and true family will mean facing “persecutions.” In order for the rich ruler to embrace Christ, he must accept a new perspective of honor and shame (i.e. face): “many who are first will be last, and the last first.”
We are not simply asking people to forsake their families. We are asking them to gain their true human family—a much larger family! Rather than losing face and guanxi, they are gaining them.
Chinese Answers to Western Questions
What do we learn from Jesus’ exchange with the rich, young ruler?
1. People lack relationships not simply works.
Jesus answers in a very Chinese way. For Chinese people in general, their most pressing concern is not “what they should do to be saved”. Rather than worrying about accumulating “good works”, they want to accumulate relationships. People use relationships to secure jobs, opportunity, face, etc. Chinese are pragmatic people.
Being a Christian is about relationship, not mere rule keeping. Salvation comes freely by grace and is gained neither by works nor the important connections one has (business contacts, some rich uncle, etc.). We are saved by having a relationship with Christ. We are saved for relationship with God and his people, who come from every nation.
2. People lack perspective on our present salvation.
We cannot assume our listeners even want to be “saved.” Most Chinese have little time for what they see as abstract speculation about the afterlife. While we can never belittle the importance of the coming age, we have to show how our salvation influences the here and now. Jesus’ view of salvation extends to this life, not simply to some far off future.
In a coming post, I will explain how theology from the West influences the way we do evangelism in the East.
- Chinese Evangelism: Telling Only Half the Story? (jacksonwu.org)
How do you use Mandarin to talk about honor and shame (i.e. “face”)?
What if you don’t speak Chinese? For those not interested in speaking Chinese, there’s still plenty here to help you learn about how language reveals culture. Some observations may help people think about how to use language to share God’s message, regardless of one’s cultural settings.
Presuming to exhaust the depths of Chinese honor-shame language is laughable. There are hundreds of words and idioms that convey variously related ideas. I’ll offer some basics for now.
Beyond a Superficial Understanding of Honor
Mainly, two words are used to mean “face”:
1) 面子, miànzi –– this is most general word.
2) 脸, liǎn –– is often interchangeable with miànzi, but it does have the ability to connote much more, though many Chinese are not initially conscious of the face. Liǎn can convey a more narrow idea that carries moral implications. It speaks a little more to one’s value as a person.
Here is one way to say it: One is born with liǎn but not necessarily miànzi. A person could possibly accept losing miànzi, but one could never accept losing liǎn. So, liǎn is miànzi, but miànzi is not necessarily liǎn. Miànzi may be superficial (pun intended), as with movie stars. Liǎn goes deeper. Various books and articles have explained this in more detail.
Because this distinction is based in mandarin, I think northern Chinese might grasp the point a little faster than southern Chinese (whose daily diction is influenced by Cantonese), but they all acknowledge the point once I explain what I mean.
What Can You Do With a Person’s Face
First of all, you can “have face” (有面子, yǒu miànzi). Only then can you “lose face” (丢面子; diū miànzi; 丢脸, diū liǎn). However, you would prefer to “save/keep face” (留面子, liú miànzi), so you need to protect/preserve face (保全面子, bǎoquán miànzi). After all, it may prove difficult to “redeem/restore face” (挽回面子, wǎnhuí miànzi).
Of course, we all “by nature love face” (天生爱面子, tiānshēng ài miànzi). This is not necessarily bad. “People want face like a tree wants bark” (人要脸树要皮, rén yào liǎn, shù yào pí). Sadly, before God, we have all lost face (丢脸, diū liǎn)?
Why? Rather than “giving God face” (给神面子, gěi shén miànzi), we have “made him lost face” (丢祂的脸, diū tā de liǎn) in the eyes of world. Or, we might say we have “blackened” or “thrown mud” in God’s face (在神的脸上抹黑, zài shén de liǎn shàng mǒhēi). It’s quite true that we “love face too much” (太爱面子, tài ài miànzi).
We “owe God face” (欠神脸, qiàn shén liǎn).
However, as he looks at the world, he sees us “striving/fighting/competing for face” (争面子, zhēng miànzi). It seems that a basic principle is all sinners “to try to preserve face whatever the hardship” (死要面子活受罪, sǐ yào miànzi huó shòuzuì). If we want to humbly love God and others, we have “to put down our face” (放下面子, fàngxià miànzi).
Face is neither inherently good nor bad. It just is. To some degree, everyone is “inclined to pursue face and avoid shame” (趋荣避褥, qūróng bìrǔ). If you say that you don’t want face (不要脸, búyào liǎn), this conveys the idea that you have “no sense of shame.” So, “caring about face” (关心面子, guānxīn miànzi) is critical for being a moral person. (This will become clearer when in my upcoming post using “honor” verbiage.)
Other Posts You may Like–––
Explaining the Trinity in Chinese Language (JacksonWu.org)
Chinese Characters in the Chinese New Testament (JacksonWu.org)
Western Christians make a big deal of the rich young ruler story (Matt. 19:16–29; Mark 10:17-30; Luke 18:18–30). The account has become the quintessential expression of a legalist trying to earn his salvation. Is this interpretation correct or is it just a caricature of the rich man?
Our understanding of the story matters significantly because it shapes the way many people perceive a sinner’s problem and thus do evangelism. To explore this question further, let us consider what we would see if we read the text with a Chinese lens.
This post simply makes a few observations that prepare us for the upcoming post, in which I will show in what sense Jesus preached a “Chinese” gospel.
Are We Asking the Wrong Questions?
If we ask the wrong question, we’ll often get the wrong answer. Notice how Jesus reframes the entire conversation.
First, Jesus changes the question from “what is good?” to “who is good?”
The rich ruler asks, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus replies to him, “Why do you call me good? No one is good except God alone….” (Mark 10:18).
Significantly, Jesus changes the ruler’s question from a “what?” to a “who?” Rather than “what is good”, we need to consider “who is good.” So often, we misdiagnose our problem and therefore the solution. The man’s problem is that he hadn’t established the right relationship—with Jesus. In Chinese terms, he didn’t have the right guanxi.
Second, Jesus explains salvation in terms of “who?” (guanxi) not simply “what?”
Whereas the rich ruler (and we?) emphasizes “eternal life,” notice that Jesus again speaks about guanxi, a “who” question. In Mark 10:26-31, we read,
And they were exceedingly astonished, and said to him, “Then who can be saved?” Jesus looked at them and said, “With man it is impossible, but not with God. For all things are possible with God.” Peter began to say to him, “See, we have left everything and followed you.” Jesus said, “Truly, I say to you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or lands, for my sake and for the gospel, who will not receive a hundredfold now in this time, houses and brothers and sisters and mothers and children and lands, with persecutions, and in the age to come eternal life. But many who are first will be last, and the last first.”
Jesus does not allow us to think merely in terms of time or personal security. Salvation has a distinctly communal aspect. We gain a big family (i.e. rather than simply losing our birth family). Conversion is a changing of group identity. In this way, Jesus expands our typical ways of thinking about salvation.
One thing we lack––relationship (guanxi)
Jesus shows us our real desire and true need. This should cause us to rethink the way we talk. People have a good but misplaced desire for relationship (guanxi). We need to reframe our gospel presentations to reflect this point.
“Who we are” to a great extent is decided by “whom we know.” We always make decisions in the context of our relationships; yet, we too often preach an individualistic message––only stressing what an individual personally must do and can get. We frequently do not talk about identity, belonging, gaining a family, and the implications for our present relationships.
Chinese are especially mindful of the importance of relationship in life. Instead of talking about works-righteousness and even bad mouthing the cultural emphasis on guanxi (as I’ve heard some westerners do), let’s take advantage of it. After all, this is a very redeemable aspect of the culture. Doesn’t the Bible make at least as much of relationship as the Chinese?
If the rich young ruler were Chinese, perhaps he might have asked, “Whom must I know to be saved?” Or, “What kind of guanxi do I need?”
If we confuse “who” and “what”…
We need to be careful not to fall into the same trap as the rich ruler.
We will never see the significance of Jesus’ message if we confuse the questions “what?” and “who?” Accordingly, we will be ill-equipped to preach the gospel as Jesus did.
As sinners, our tendency is to focus on what we get. We can easily start seeing relationships as “connections” or means to gain personal advantage. Jesus challenges this way of viewing relationships.
If we focus too much on “what” questions (what one must do, what one gets), we can wind up neglecting even more fundamental concerns like identity, relationships, and belonging.
In upcoming posts, I will highlight a few more implications for evangelism and theology.
This is a warning for those living anywhere near the Beijing and Shanghai areas. Benny Hinn is coming to China in December. Here is an excerpt from an interview in which he announced his visit.
The following comes from an article by CharismaMagazine titled, “Benny Hinn: The Anointing Is Still in Operation.”
Hinn: Doors are swinging open. I’m going to China, by the way, if you can believe it. I’ve been invited to preach in two cities, Shanghai and Guangzhou, in January. India has opened up big. I’m going to Buenos Aires, Argentina, in December, and they’re expecting massive crowds. And Africa. Dear God! The invitations I’m getting now for Africa can keep me there probably the whole year.
The prosperity gospel is a major problem confronting China. For those remotely near Beijing and Shanghai, be aware of the potential consequences resulting from Hinn’s visit. As a major spokesman for the prosperity gospel, he may renew interest and enthusiasm for health and wealth oriented theologies.
Here is a post by Trevin Wax that some may find helpful: “Are You Equipped to Respond to the Prosperity Gospel?“
Bruce Ashford, over at Between the Times, suggests a book Health, Wealth & Happiness: Has the Prosperity Gospel Overshadowed the Gospel of Christ?.
If you have articles or other resources to recommend to other readers of the blog, please leave that information in the comments.
Short-term volunteers are a major part of mission strategy.
Long-term missionaries have mixed feelings about the benefit and best use of a volunteer team. However, there is broad agreement about one point: short-term volunteers need more pre-field preparation. Although this topic deserves multiple blog posts, for now, I want to focus on one area in particular—contextualization.
I am frequently saddened to find long-term workers relatively unconcerned or unfamiliar with the whole notion of contextualization. Therefore, it is not surprising that many short-term volunteers have never thought seriously about contextualization. Frankly, I’d venture to say most have never even heard the word.
This is one reason I wrote a contextualization guide for short-term workers.
So What’s the Problem?
The most obvious problem with overlooking contextualization is that nationals simply don’t understand what they are hearing. Already, most short-term volunteers can’t speak the local language. Even if they do understand the words of the message, nationals can easily miss its significance.
I want to share two more extreme stories to illustrate a few common problems volunteers have with respect to contextualization.
“Christ is Lord”
I found the following story in a book that I find both helpful and witty. I’d actually recommend it for anyone wanting a realistic perspective on life in another culture.
Since being in the States, we have heard a few funny stories of people getting Chinese tattooed on their bodies incorrectly. My favorite so far is the poor young girl who thought she was getting “Christ is Lord” tattooed on the nape of her neck. In order to get the most authentic tattoo possible, she went into Chinatown and found a Chinese tattoo artist. She had wonderfully romantic notions of bringing entire lost tribes to salvation through her little tattoo, overlooking the fact that whisking your long blonde locks up off your neck and exposing your tattoo is rather inappropriate in a conservative part of the country where the women don’t even wear pants. She got strange looks every time she had people read her tattoo and after several weeks of receiving perplexing reactions she decided to ask around. At the end of her perilous pursuit she discovered the unfortunate news that the word “Chrysler” had been permanently inked on the back of her neck, not “Christ is Lord.” While the tattoo artist’s Chinese characters were authentic and lovely, his English was not. So when he heard “Christ is Lord”, his ears told him “Chrysler.”
I’ll highlight just few points.
- First of all, the woman simply assumes that these out-of-the-way villagers would have some idea what the name “Christ” means.
So many short-term volunteers are quite shocked to find out that many Chinese people have never heard of Jesus’ name. If they have, they know nothing else except that it has something to do with religion. This woman did not even know how to speak Chinese. Throwing out the phrase “Christ is Lord” can hardly be considered evangelism when the listener doesn’t grasp its significance.
- Second, what is she thinking to expose the back of her neck to very conservative villagers? For better or worse, other cultures are far less open about things like gender, skin exposure, and choice of attire.
A group of American couples came to offer marriage counseling to a group of Chinese believers. During their week, they chose to split husbands and wives into two groups. In the women’s group, the wives began talking about marital intimacy. The conversation turned to the question, “What do you do if you are not in the mood?”
One of the American wives then gave a lengthy answer. Unfortunately, her main suggestion was to “take a bath” and soak her muscles so she could relax a bit and be physically intimate with her husband.
*Here’s the problem–– very, very few Chinese homes have baths. They may have showers. In fact, many people still use bath (shower) houses. This story is a few years old. At the time, bath houses were far more normal.
These are just two stories that illustrate a few very common problems and misunderstandings about cross-cultural ministry.
If short-term workers are going to learn contextualization, then long-termers need to intentionally plan for it. Long-termers should not assume anything. If you have short-term groups coming in, consider how to train them just as you think about training nationals.
Here’s a beautiful example of what contextualization does not look like.
- The Gospel with Chinese Characteristics (jacksonwu.org)
- Train Short-term Workers to Do Contextualization (Orientation Packet) (jacksonwu.org)
- When Short-Term Workers Don’t Contextualize (jacksonwu.org) — my next post