Evangelism in Asia: Developing and Living Out Relevant Theologies
by Deshabandu Adrian De Visser
The key to reaching Asia will be evangelism through local churches adopting methods relevant to Asia.
Asia: A Faith-based Snapshot
- Asia covers 8.6% of the Earth’s surface. Its four billion people comprise more than 60% of the world’s population.
- There are 50 countries in Asia, from Afghanistan to Yemen.
- There are an estimated 25% Muslims, 22% Hindus, 11% Buddhists, and 8.5% Christians (including Catholics).
- Christian churches enjoy the fastest rate of growth at 3.6% a year, compared to Muslims (2%), Hindus (1.5%), and Buddhists (1.2%).
- Christians in Asia have increased from 22 million (2.35%) in 1900 to over 300 million (8.3%) in 2000.
- Protestant and independent Christians increased from under four million in 1900 to over 193 million in 2000.
- Asian evangelicals (over 130 million) have become almost as numerous as evangelicals in the USA (148 million).
- In 1900, all but five Asian nations were under Western control. By 2000, there were none (Johnstone and Mandryk 2001).
- Christians in Asia are beginning to experience amazing growth, not just in numbers, but also in influence.
- Philip Jenkins projects that by the middle of this century, only one-fifth of the world’s three billion Christians will be non-Hispanic whites (Miller and Yamamori 2007, 20).
- In 1900, Europeans and North Americans constituted 80% of the world’s Christians. Today, 60% of the world’s Christians live in Asia, Africa, or Latin America.
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The key to reaching Asia will be evangelism through local churches adopting methods relevant to Asia. This can be realized by turning away from the individualistic approaches we absorbed from the West and embracing two Asian-relevant methods: incarnational living and the spirit of grace, followed by truth.
Dynamics of Incarnational Living
Incarnational living does at least three significant things for us in our witness. First, it calls us out of our physical comfort zones to meet people where they are. Making incarnation a priority disrupts the Church’s definition of success. It is not about doing more. It is about loving well.
Second, it allows us to hold onto ourselves. The great challenge in incarnational living is to not lose ourselves when we enter another person’s world. Jesus modeled this for us. We identify with people for a higher purpose—to allow God to use us as human agents of his love.
Finally, incarnational living places us between our world and the world of another. We are called to remain faithful to who we are while at the same time entering into the world of another.
Incarnational living is essential for at least four reasons. First, it enables us to build bridges with non-Christians. Our Lord is the supreme example in this regard (Phil. 2:6-8). Second, it enables us to be the salt and light of the world. Evangelism is not a special program, but rather a life we live.
Third, it enables us to live a godly life. Godly living, especially in the context of persecution, is a powerful tool to counteract the prejudice and hatred against Christians and set the stage for the persecutor’s conversion. Fourth, it enables us to care for those in need. Asia is plagued with poverty and suffering. How can we preach the gospel, yet ignore people’s needs?
Grace, then Truth
Jesus’ approach to people was radical: first grace, followed by truth. In contrast to those who tried to petrify the faith with legalism, Jesus preached a simple message of God’s love—grace. He did not condemn sinners, but lovingly advised them to leave their lives of sin.
This approach has been compromised through the influence of Western perspective. Western culture is deeply committed to truth. When it comes to sharing the gospel, the biblical order is reversed. But this is not the reality in Asia. The problems we encounter in ministry arise out of deeply religious cultures. Each person values and treasures both his or her religion and culture. Sharing the gospel (truth) is seen as an attempt to undermine religion and culture.
Legalism in Asian Culture, Religion, and the Faith
Grace is an alien concept to the Asian worldview, but legalism is easily understood and practiced. Social relationships are governed by legalistic assumptions and practices.
Communal living, hailed as an Asian strength, is based on legalistic principles of duty and obligation. Parents provide for their children as a duty. There is an unspoken, yet clearly understood, expectation that the children in turn will fulfill their duty to care for their parents as they age.
Grace is also alien to all major Asian religions. Buddhism teaches that we are responsible for our own redemption. There is no understanding of a God who extends grace and unconditional love.
Hinduism believes in multiple gods, appeased by offerings and acts of obedience. This is done to obtain acceptance and blessings for self and loved ones, as well as to bring down destruction on others. In Islam, one’s future is based on faithfulness to acts of duty: the greater the acts of faithfulness, the greater the reward in the afterlife. Being accepted and forgiven by a loving, graceful God is heresy to a follower of Islam.
The traditions and practices of Christians in Asia have been strongly influenced by the legalism and lack of grace found in our major religions. This has had a profound impact on the Asian Church in a number of ways. First, the biblical concept of grace is not understood. As a result, our response to this grace by God is a legalistic relationship that continues to try to please God, to win his favor and acceptance. Second, the biblical concept of grace is not practiced. This worldview has led to an environment in which Christian practices have come to denote spirituality. Long, extended hours of prayer, prescribed hours of fasting, and faithful attendance of church activities are seen as the hallmarks of spirituality.
Legalism in the Asian Church pressures people to live a double life because Asian society is defined by shame. What is hidden is permitted as long as it is not revealed. A Christian in this culture knows that being open about struggles and failures will result in judgment, punishment, and alienation.
Another symptom of our dysfunction in Asia is our fondness for triumphalistic preaching which communicates that the preacher has become flawless and perfect. This preaching also conveys that God is deeply impressed by the preacher’s spirituality. Ultimately, triumphalistic preaching is toxic to the true message of Christ.
An Evangelistic Ministry of Grace Followed by Truth
Let me highlight what grace followed by truth looks like by sharing my own conversion story. As a teenager, I attended Youth for Christ meetings. The first thing that impressed me was the kindness they extended to me. After I attended two meetings, they invited me to join them at a camp. The thought of camping for five days with a bunch of religious nuts scared the daylights out of me! As a Catholic, I was taught that Protestants were people who had wandered from the truth. My bias was high, but I was drawn because of their kindness.
As the day of the camp drew closer, I decided that I was not going to attend—so I lied. After the regular Saturday meeting, I approached the leaders, Richard and Philip, and said, “I’m sorry, it’s not possible for me to join the camp because my parents can’t afford the camp fees.” To my surprise, they replied, “We can pay for you.” I was shocked, ashamed, and challenged. Up until that point in my life, no one had extended such a level of kindness to me.
But by the next morning I had chickened out again. I met Phillip, expressed my gratitude for their willingness to pay, but informed him I did not have adequate clothes. Without batting an eye, Philip replied, “I have enough clothes. I can share them with you.” That day, he earned the right to speak. I did not understand the truth, but grace opened the door for truth. Months later, I surrendered my life to Jesus—not so much because I fully understood the gospel, but because I saw it lived out in full.
Grace opens the door for truth. When this reality is experienced, church becomes a place of grace. It is a place of happiness and security, where true pain can be shared. When the community of God understands and practices grace, nonbelievers are attracted. The church becomes a transformed community that spreads its light into a graceless society (see figure 1 below).
We live in a lonely, cruel world. Survival of the fittest can describe how our world operates. But Christianity operates on a higher level. The model Jesus offers not only differs from, but transcends, all selfishness.
Two Grace Followed by Truth Strategies for Ministry in Asia
#1. Hospitality. Hospitality is central to Asian cultures. We invite and entertain people in our homes on a regular basis. Relationships are built around the dining table—real pain and joys are shared, many hours of unhurried conversations are held.
Hospitality sets a genuine stage for me to be a witness of Jesus. There is no pressure to preach and perform, but rather the stage is set to love and care. Hospitality opens the door for many opportunities to witness.
Conversion is the job of the Holy Spirit. My simple task is to be a witness.I am called to share his love. I am called to share the foolish message of the cross, and the Holy Spirit will take this message and bring about change in the life of a person.
Hospitality is the practice of entertaining strangers graciously. In the New Testament, the Greek word translated as hospitality literally means “love of strangers.” In the Old Testament, Abraham was the host to angels unaware. He invited strangers into his house, washed their feet, prepared fresh meat, had Sarah bake bread, and later accompanied them as they left (Gen.18:1-15). Even today, a traditional greeting to guests among the Bedouin people of the Middle East is, “You are among your family.”
Hospitality was specifically commanded by God (Lev. 19:33-34; Luke 14:13-14; Rom. 12:13). It was to be characteristic of all believers (1 Peter 4:9), especially bishops (Titus 1:7-8; 1 Tim. 3:2). Jesus emphasized the importance of hospitality by answering the question of who should inherit the kingdom: “I was a stranger and you took me in” (Matt. 25:35). Several Old Testament personalities set a good example for all believers in the practice of hospitality. These included Abraham (Gen. 18:1-8), David (2 Sam. 6:19), the Shunammite woman (2 Kings 4:8-10), Nehemiah (Neh. 5:17-18), and Job (Job 31:17-20).
Psalm 23 concludes with a portrait of a host who prepares a table for the weary, anoints the head of the guest with oil, and shows every kindness so that the guest’s cup runs over. The psalmist sees the Lord himself as host; his hospitality exceeds all others.
Ophelia, my dear wife, believes in and demonstrates this reality. I believe that she has impacted the lives of more people through her caring hospitality than I have through my preaching and bashing people with Bible verses.
#2. Caring for the sick. Sickness is a time when people become helpless and dependent on others. Caring for people in this situation leaves an indelible mark of deep appreciation and gratitude. This sincere caring opens the door for meaningful conversations and for new relationships to be formed.
In Asia, when a family is going through a time of sickness, death, or other trial, the wider community comes alongside them in support. People not only bring food, but live with the family, ensuring they are not alone during the difficult period. In some communities, extended family members live with a mourning family for months, helping them through their time of grief.
A church that responds to the needs of hurting people in true actions of care and grace reflect the authenticity of the gospel it preaches. A church that wraps its loving arms around a hurting family, irrespective of their religion or their openness to the gospel, lives out a lifestyle of grace and truth. It will be a more effective and long-lasting witness in their community than could have created by any evangelistic program.
The Missing Link: Serve without Strings
The accusation from the non-Christian community is that we show care for people only because we intend to convert them. I am convinced that the power of love shown by our willingness to serve without strings is the missing link in the Church. Authentic Christian lives, lived for others, attract and convict people of their need of a Savior. Start genuinely caring for people and see the power of love. Let me illustrate my point with two stories.
Beth was at an airport waiting for her flight. As she waited, she pulled out her Bible and started reading. All of a sudden she felt as if the people sitting around her were looking at her. Looking up, she realized that they were actually looking behind her.
When she turned to see what everyone was looking at, she saw a flight attendant pushing the ugliest old man she had ever seen in a wheelchair. He had long, tangled white hair, a horribly wrinkled face, and a mean expression.
She didn’t know why, but she felt drawn to the man. At first, she thought that God wanted her to witness to him—a thought that repelled her. But as she wrestled with her thoughts, she realized that God wanted her to brush this old man’s hair.
She knelt down in front of the old man and asked, “Sir, may I have the honor of brushing your hair for you?” He asked, “What?” A little louder, she repeated, “Sir, may I have the honor of brushing your hair for you?” He answered, “If you are going to talk to me, you are going to have to speak up. I am practically deaf.”
Almost yelling, she said again, “Sir, may I please have the honor of brushing your hair for you?” By now, everyone was watching. The old man looked at her and said, “Well, if you really want to. I’ve got a brush in my bag.”
She got out the brush and started brushing his hair. She worked for a long time, gently brushing, until every last tangle was out. Just as she was finishing up, she heard the old man crying. She again knelt in front of him, looked directly into his eyes, and asked, “Sir, do you know Jesus?”
He answered, “Yes, of course I know Jesus. Years ago, my bride told me she couldn’t marry me unless I knew Jesus, so I learned all about Jesus, and asked him to come into my heart before I married my bride.”
He continued, “I am on my way home to go and see my wife. I have been in the hospital for a long time, and had to have a special surgery in a town far from home. My bride couldn’t come with me because she is so frail.” He continued, “I was so worried about how terrible my hair looked, and I didn’t want her to see me looking so awful, but I couldn’t brush my hair all by myself.”
Tears were rolling down his cheeks as he thanked Beth for brushing his hair. He thanked her over and over again. She was crying—as were all of the people watching. As Beth went to board the plane, the flight attendant (who was also crying) stopped her and asked, “Why did you do that?”
The door had been opened to share with someone about the love of God. We don’t always understand God’s ways, but we must be ready. He may use us to meet the need of someone else—and in that moment, also call out to a lost soul who needs to know about his love (Moore 2004).
The second story takes place in a small European village, which had a town square that held a special statue. This statue of Jesus was the pride and joy of this small town. But World War II arrived, and soon the bombs began falling.
One day, the statue was hit and blown to pieces. The residents collected all the shattered pieces and slowly did what they could to recreate it. When they finished their reconstruction, the only pieces missing were the hands of Jesus. So they placed this plaque at the base of the statue: “Now we are the only hands that Jesus has” (Wright 2006).
Is this not true even for us? Can you and I be the hands of Jesus as we share his love with the world today?
Johnstone, Patrick and Jason Mandryk. 2001. Operation World: When We Pray God Works, 21st ed. Waynesboro, Ga.: Paternoster.
Miller, Donald E. and Testsunano Yamamori. 2007. Global Pentecostalism: The New Face of Christian Social Engagement. Berkeley, Calif.: University of California Press.
Moore, Beth. 2004. Further Still: A Collection of Poetry and Vignettes. Nashville: B & H Publishing Group.
Wright, H. Norman. 2006. Helping Those Who Hurt: Reaching Out to Your Friends in Need repackaged ed. Bloomington, Minn.: Bethany House Publishers.
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Rev. Adrian De Visser is founder and senior pastor of Kithu Sevana Ministries, a mission-oriented church-planting organization based in Sri Lanka. Kithu Sevena Ministries works with a network of distributed churches and Christian ministries across Asia. Adrian is also vice president for partnership development for Asian Access.
EMQ, Vol. 51, No. 3 pp. 134-135. Copyright © 2015 Billy Graham Center for Evangelism. All rights reserved. Not to be reproduced or copied in any form without written permission from EMQ editors.