by Daniel M. Hung
Two months after I graduated from a distinguished theological seminary in the United States in May, 1965, I returned to Taiwan, the Republic of China, with great expectations. I was elated because I had learned solid, conservative, biblical theology under scholarly professors.
Two months after I graduated from a distinguished theological seminary in the United States in May, 1965, I returned to Taiwan, the Republic of China, with great expectations. I was elated because I had learned solid, conservative, biblical theology under scholarly professors. I assumed that, given the biblical doctrines I had acquired at seminary, all would go well with my church work in Taiwan. Doesn’t the Bible say God’s word is power and, when preached, will not return void? I was convinced that I would surely succeed in church work since I knew God’s word and would proclaim it faithfully. In my vision I saw new churches planted one after another, churches flourishing and multiplying to the glory of God.
Now 16 years have passed. I have not been able to plant a single church on my native land. I have been struggling desperately just to keep alive a tiny church handed over to me by an American missionary. What went wrong? Why didn’t God bless my work? I had faithfully ministered his word. These were agonizing questions.
By God’s grace, a seminary professor from the United States came to Taipei in 1979 to conduct a seminar on the contextualization of the gospel. For a month four of us struggled together over this question. It was an eye-opener. I began to see where many missionaries and national churchmen, including myself, had gone wrong. We had ignored the biblical principles of missions. We had miserably failed to internalize the gospel. We had an unbiblical, mechanical view of the Word of God. God’s Word of life and hope is meant to be preached in the context of a given culture, society and situation. We had ignored that. The flexibility of the unchanging Word was lost in unintelligible, meaningless, irrelevant noise to the unbeliever. And all this time we assumed we had preached God’s word faithfully.
Furthermore, the idea of gospel contextualization revealed my changed self. Having spent three years in a theological seminary in the United States, mentally I had unconsciously become a half-westerner. When I returned to Taiwan in 1965, it had never occurred to me that I was not much different from a white missionary in a mentality, attitudes and viewpoints. I had been trained at the seminary to think in the abstract and to be concerned mostly with logic and science, not reality. Only my yellow skin and flat nose still betrayed my identity as an oriental, a Chinese.
As soon as I began to do evangelistic work in Taiwan, I encountered almost the same problems as did white missionaries: Christianity was a hostile foreign religion, a great threat and danger to the practice of ancestor worship, Buddhism, native religions, Chinese culture, society and family solidarity; Christianity was the forerunner of foreign imperial invasion, certified by missionaries buying property, erecting church buildings, employing native preachers, setting up mission schools, providing foreign funds; Christianity was suspect as a kind of repulsive, "barbarian" atheism because of its absence of images or idols in Protestant churches, its disregard for evil spirits as "objects of superstition." Moreover, since I worked with missionaries, I was occasionally despised as their "running dog," a traitor to Chinese culture and society.
In short, the Christianity seen by others had failed to penetrate Chinese life.
To make matters worse, some American missionaries had self-defeating attitudes and mission policies. They had a superiority complex that naively equated western or American ways with biblical ways. One American missionary wife said to a national preacher employed by her mission, "Don’t try to tell me how to run a church. I know perfectly well how to do it. My father was a pastor in the United States. I was brought up in church." It never occurred to her that Taiwan is not the United States, nor does time stand still.
Some American missions in Taiwan practice the unbiblical mission policy of money-is-power. They have the illusion that, by spending lots of mission funds to erect church buildings that national believers could hardly afford, employing national pastors with mission dollars, they would succeed in planting new churches. Mission enterprises are run like American business companies. Subsidized salaries become subtle methods of control.
The results? A harvest of agony, despair and resentment; churches stagnant, dependent and troublesome, employed national pastors often quarreling over money. A Chinese proverb puts it well: "They got on the back of a tiger and now they have difficulty getting off." Friendship bought in investment is resentment.
Though I did not know the term "contextualization" then, I sensed something was seriously wrong with some American missions in Taiwan. just as tragic has been the pattern of third world missions here. As the younger generation of American missionaries realized the importance of these issues, third world missions have arrived to repeat the old patterns. Korean missionaries have joined our church in Taiwan, repeating past practices of mission subsidy and control, insensitive to new directions.
These things are understandable. The spectacular growth of the Korean churches in this century has convinced them that they know best how to plant and run churches, how to do foreign mission work. So they clone Korean churches in Taiwan in the same way that Americans clone American churches.
In all this, Chinese Christians and pastors in Taiwan have repeated the same mistakes. Dazzled by the phenomenal growth and success of the Korean churches, thousands have flown to Korea in the past few years to watch Korean churches at work. With excitement they have returned to Taiwan with what they regard as Korean secrets of success: Korean ways of church organization and administration, Korean Christian life style, devotional habits, faith healing, Korean mission strategies. The assumption is that these techniques are spiritual ginseng to worldly and impotent Christians and stagnant churches in Taiwan. Korean cure-all wonder drugs will rehabilitate Taiwan.
The results as I see them? Most Christians in Taiwan still remain worldly and impotent, most churches still dormant. Why? You cannot clone Korean churches and Christians in the soil of Taiwan, just as you can never transplant Korean pear trees to Taiwan and expect them to bear soft, large, juicy Korean pears. Taiwan is too hot for such pears. Its crops are tropical ones, bananas, mangoes, pineapples.
Why is contextualization difficult even for Korean missionaries? Are they afraid of change? Do they tend to equate change with liberalism? Will the cycle never end? Contextualization of the gospel without compromising biblical truth is the key to church growth and survival in this changing world of great diversity. God give us the grace to learn.
Asked by EMQ to tell how he would solve the problem, Pastor Hung replied and sent answers he had proposed to his presbytery: (1) modify and change the self-defeating church order of the presbytery, which is mostly copied from a Korean Presbyterian church; (2) get rid of foreign subsidies in church planting and promote self-support; (3) get rid of unbiblical clericalism and promote the lay movement; (4) get rid of the traditional disrespect for women; use them greatly and wisely; (5) promote contextualization of the gospel by all means. "In my work I have seen some different results since the 1979 seminar on contextualization," he wrote. "Our church members have become aware of the vital relationship between contextualization and church growth. Church attendance is up about 20 percent and church income is up about 30 percent."
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