by Hwa Yung
Asia, with some 3.7 billion people and less than nine percent of whom are Christians, clearly needs the gospel. But we cannot go on doing things in the same old manner. What then is the way forward? For what it is worth, here are some thoughts on the matter.
Some time ago, while spending a few months in Britain, I met a dignified Chinese lady in the kitchen of our hostel. A full professor from a Chinese university in a highly specialized field of Information Technology, she was doing some advanced research at the local university, one of the most prestigious in the country. Here was a person who epitomizes the future of China. On finding out that I teach theology, she said: “You people must come to China and preach the gospel.” Startled by her statement, I asked her whether she was a Christian. I was even more amazed when she said, “No.” I then asked her why she said what she did. Her answer stunned me. She replied: “China needs God. If China does not know God, there is no hope for her future.”
I must confess that I have still not quite gotten over the conversation. It was a Macedonian call to the church worldwide. But before we rush to China with all the missionaries and resources at our disposal, we need to ponder for a moment the words of John Sung, the greatest evangelist and revivalist of twentieth-century China. John Sung was not unappreciative of the sacrificial labor of many Western missionaries who gave their lives to bring the gospel to China.
Nevertheless, by the 1920s and 1930s, he noted that often it was missionary control and dependency on Western funds that prevented the Chinese church from growing. Repeatedly he urged the budding Chinese church to cut its apron strings and move on towards independence and maturity. Asked shortly before his death in 1944 about the future of the Chinese church, Sung revealed that God had showed him that a great revival was coming. But the missionaries would all have to leave first. The history of the last fifty years shows that this was the most profound prophecy concerning the Chinese church in the twentieth-century.1
Asia, with some 3.7 billion people and less than nine percent of whom are Christians, clearly needs the gospel. But Sung’s prophetic statement reminds us that we cannot go on doing things in the same old manner. What then is the way forward? For what it is worth, here are some thoughts on the matter.
THREE TRENDS AND ISSUES AFFECTING ASIAN MISSIONS
To begin with, those wanting to think strategically about Asian missions should note three important global trends. First, sometime in the 1980s, the number of Christians in the non-Western world exceeded that in the West for the first time in modern history. Figures given by David Barrett show that in AD 2000, the number of Christians in Europe and North America is about 750 million (39%), compared to almost 1.2 billion (61%) for the whole non-Western world. This shift of the center of gravity of the church from the Western into the non-Western world is not merely demographic. It is also reflected in the vitality and growing influence of non-Western Christianity. One can see these in the joy of African Christian worship, the fervency of Korean church prayer life, and the dynamism of evangelism in Latin American Pentecostalism, Indian rural house churches, etc. Parallel to this is the perceived decline of Western Christianity, in the face of powerful secularist and liberal pressures within an increasingly post-Christian milieu.
Perhaps the clearest illustration of this two-sided trend is Lambeth 1998, when Anglican bishops from all over the world met together. The burning issue then was whether homosexuality is an acceptable Christian moral alternative. In the end, this was overwhelmingly rejected because almost all the African and Asian bishops opposed it. The Times of London (Aug. 6, 1998) commented:
Yesterday’s resolution, adopted by an overwhelming majority, was a surprising and uncharacteristically trenchant dismissal of the liberal position … But the outcome also reflects the growing weight at Lambeth of doctrinally conservative Third World bishops.
Lambeth 1998 may well mark a watershed in global Christianity. It was probably the first time in modern history, at a Christian gathering of international significance, that an agenda strongly driven by Western churches was decisively rejected by the whole body under the influence of non-Western leadership.
A second observable trend is the changing shape of the international cross-cultural missions force. The following summarizations are based on the total number of missionaries from Protestant, Anglican and independent churches given in the last two editions of Operation World (1993, 643ff., 2001, 747ff.).
By AD 2000, the numbers from the non-Western world had overtaken those from the Western world. Other evidences further support this pattern. For example, North American missions appear to be facing a serious problem today of not having enough recruits to replace those who are retiring. At the same time, Urbana 2000, a traditionally predominantly white American conference in the past, saw the presence of at least twenty-six percent of the twenty thousand or so students made up of Asian Americans or Asian nationals studying in North America.
Much of the energy for Christian missions in the twenty-first century will probably come from the non-Western world. In the West, the liberal churches will become increasingly irrelevant. Evangelical and Pentecostal-charismatic churches will continue to contribute, but even so it will not be like what it was before. Living in an increasingly post-Christian environment, much of their spiritual energy will be sapped by having to face an increasingly hostile spiritual and social environment outside the church, and the growing problem of moral compromise within.
The third trend concerns how the world is being reshaped today. Harvard Professor Samuel Huntington, in The Clash of Civilizations, argues that fundamental realignments are taking place in the post-Cold War era (1997). In the past, the battles were fought first between kings, then later between nation states, and finally between ideologies in the Cold War period. Now in the post-Cold War period, the clashes will be largely between civilizations, of which he identifies eight major ones: Western, Orthodox or Slavic, Latin American, Sinic or Confucian, Islam, Hindu, Japanese and African. Huntington’s thesis has been seriously discussed and critiqued by many. But after Sept. 11, even skeptics have to admit its validity to some degree.
In other words, civilizational patterns of thinking and action will drive much of the world in the next few decades. This has tremendous ramifications for missions. For example, the last couple of decades have witnessed the increasing resurgence of all the traditional religious-cultural groupings, including radical Islam with groups like al-Qaeda, and fundamentalist Hinduism with India’s BJP, among others. Invariably, this means that pressures on Christians in places where they are minorities will increase rather than decrease. Thus the empowerment and sustenance of persecuted churches will become an increasingly important missions agenda.
Apart from these three trends, the Asian church also faces three serious issues. To begin with, the rapid growth of non-Western Christianity in the last half-century does not mean that everything is well. In many places in Asia, serious problems exist. For example, in spite of the wild-fire church growth, especially in 1960s and 1970s, Protestant churches in South Korea are facing a crisis today. Church growth began slowing in the 1980s, and plateaued or began declining in the early 1990s. Contributory factors suggested include divisions, lack of social involvement, over-emphasis on mega-churches, inadequate pastoral oversight, distrust of leadership and nominalism.2 In the last few years, charges of autocratic leadership, nepotism, misuse and embezzlement of church funds have not helped to arrest the declining pastoral image. Clearly, in many parts of the non-Western church, Christian fundamentals are not in place, especially in relation to commitment, holiness and character formation.
Secondly, the gospel for too long has been proclaimed in a truncated form. This problem did not begin with the fundamentalist-modernist debates of the early twentieth century, which led to the sharp dichotomy between evangelism and sociopolitical concerns. The roots go back to the domestication of Christian theology by Greek philosophy, which underlies the dualistic distinctions between soul and body, spirit and matter, and evangelism versus sociopolitical action.
Consequently, the gospel is often presented in a distorted manner, with half of it being proclaimed at best. For example, in the 1920s, precisely at a time when China was opened to foreign influence for the first time in hundreds of years, many intellectuals rejected Christianity. China was looking for national salvation. But the conservatives preached a gospel that promised only spiritual salvation, never mind the plunder and destruction of China through Western and Japanese imperialism in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. On one hand, Chinese leaders saw the gospel as yet another superstition, totally irrelevant to the future of China. On the other, the modernists’ social gospel offered much in terms of education, science, medicine and the modernization of China. But it had no real answer for China’s spiritual need, and therefore lacked the power to effect moral transformation and cultural rejuvenation. Hence that too was rejected. So long as we fail to show that the gospel speaks holistically to all of life, many in Asia will simply deem it irrelevant.
China’s rejection of the gospel in the 1920s also illustrates a third missiological problem, that of an alien Jesus. Whenever the gospel is presented in a manner that the hearer cannot understand, because of the foreignness of the language and thought forms, and in ways that fail to address the felt needs of the hearer or a culture, then an alien Jesus is being proclaimed. Apart from a truncated gospel, other illustrations can easily be found. For example, many missionaries working in Asia today still have real problems with the supernatural and miraculous realm. They find it difficult to comprehend that almost everywhere in the non-Western world where the church is growing rapidly, the form of Christianity found in those places tends to take signs and wonders and deliverance ministries seriously. In their negative response to such manifestations of spiritual power, these missionaries often forget that their own versions of the gospel are products of Enlightenment Christianity, which Charles Kraft has described as “powerless” (1989). If Asia is to hear and understand the gospel, then we need to ask how we can avoid presenting a Jesus who is alien.
FIVE PROPOSALS FOR THE WAY FORWARD
How are we to respond to the above trends and issues? I suggest that we need to consider seriously five things in our missions agenda.
1. Empowering the indigenous churches. We must use all means possible to empower indigenous churches. The goal is to enable them to move on towards genuine independence so that they can take their place as equal partners in the global Christian community. The reasons are obvious. For a start, given the growing importance of non-Western churches, helping them to move towards increasing effectiveness would be one sure way to advance world missions. Further, it is also the best method to tackle the continuing problem of paternalism in missions. The latter unfortunately is still very much alive in various places, with complaints directed not just against some Western missionaries, but also against many from the newer sending churches in Asia. So long as this persists, the Holy Spirit will not be free to do his work and indigenous churches cannot mature. The prophecy of John Sung about widespread revival coming to the Chinese church only after all missionaries have left should serve as a sharp reminder to all. Missionaries—whether Western or Asian—must stop over-estimating their own sense of self-importance so that the Spirit can have his way.
2. Challenging indigenous leaders on the issues of discipleship and character. Crucial to the growth and maturity of the indigenous churches is the need for leaders with genuine Christian commitment and character. In many parts of Asia, the churches are not short of leaders, but rather the right kind. The Korean church was probably the most vibrant in Asia in the last few decades. Yet we saw that even there the gospel fundamentals are often not in place. The failure usually begins at the leadership level. Thus, perhaps more than anything else, the great need in the Asian church today is for able leaders who also embody Christian character and exemplify servanthood. Here Asian Christians can learn much from the best of the West.
Certainly, scandals among church leaders and shallowness of Christian discipleship and holiness are also found in the Western church. Nevertheless, it needs to be said that Christian character takes time to grow. Thus in the best of the Western tradition, where holiness of life and Christian commitment have been nurtured over generations, we often find wonderful examples of Christian character. For example, we know of many Western families who have modeled missionary commitment and sacrificial service over several generations. Such things are far less common in the non-Western world, simply because there has not been the same long years of Christian traditioning and nurture. The implication here for our Western friends is clear. Guard against paternalism at every point. But do not be afraid to exemplify for us discipleship, commitment, holiness and character, if these have been granted to you.
3. Recovery of a holistic gospel. Earlier we noted that the underlying dualism of Western theology produced a truncated gospel. Indeed, David Bosch notes that since the time of Augustine, the individualization and spiritualization of salvation have become endemic in Western theology. This, he says, “could not but spawn a dualistic view of reality, which became second nature in Western Christianity—the tendency to regard salvation as a private matter and to ignore the world” (Bosch 1991, 216). This was the particular weakness of evangelical Christianity which Lausanne II in Manila (1989) sought to address, when it took the phrase, “the whole gospel for the whole world,” as part of its theme.
The recovery of a holistic gospel will require us first to exorcise Greek dualism from our thinking. As Francis Schaeffer noted,
True Christianity is not Platonic. Much, however, of what passes for Christianity does have the ring of Platonic thinking in it…the body is bad and is to be despised. The only thing that matters is the soul. But the Bible says God made the whole man, the whole man is to know salvation, and the whole man is to know the Lordship of Christ. (1969, 74)
The gospel is holistic because biblical Christianity speaks to every human need.
Secondly, in our theological formulations, we need to reclaim “kingdom” categories. The central theme of Jesus’ preaching in the Gospels is the “kingdom of God,” and the central theme of the rest of the New Testament is that “Jesus is Lord/King.” We need, therefore, to reconceptualize or, at least, reemphasize mission as the proclamation of Jesus’ lordship over all of life—individuals, as well as whole communities; in every sphere of human life, be it spiritual, psychological, socioeconomic or ecological; and both now and in the world to come! It is interesting that one mission leader, who has been visiting churches all over Asia, told me recently that the one word that increasingly sums up the mission task for many Asian church leaders is “transformation.” And transformation it seems, is exactly what the Chinese professor mentioned earlier is also seeking.
4. Contextualizing the gospel. Unless genuine efforts are made at contextualizing the proclamation of the gospel and the practice of the faith, Christianity will continue to be widely perceived as a Western religion. This matter has been discussed repeatedly, yet much of Asian Christianity remains in Western captivity. This can be seen in the Gothic cathedrals in downtown Seoul, in tribal Christians in rural Malaysia worshipping God dressed up like American “angels” dancing with tambourines, in seminary training based almost entirely on Western textbooks and methodologies rooted in Enlightenment rationalism, and so forth. We seem to misunderstand the protest of the anti-Christian intellectuals of China in the 1920s when they screamed, “One more Christian, one less Chinese!” We have not heeded the plea of Sadhu Sundar Singh, possibly the most influential Indian Christian who ever lived, when he said that his people needed the “water of life” but “they do not want it in European vessels” (Boyd 1975, 109).
However, if Huntington’s thesis on the intensification of civilizational clashes in the coming years is correct, then the issue of contextualization must indeed be addressed with greater urgency and at greater depth. Because, to think in civilizational terms invariably means to think contextually. We cannot go into the details of contextualization here, but some examples will help.
First, we must begin with the everyday concerns of the church, such as its hymns and worship, evangelistic and pastoral methods, architecture, etc. Second, it would require us to be sensitive to cultural and civilizational tensions in our missionary approaches. A good example of such sensitivity is found in the approach being taken by one established Western mission agency. One of their leaders mentioned in conversation that they are building a third missionary training college in Hong Kong. But why Hong Kong? His reply is instructive. Their deep concern for Muslims has led them to conclude reluctantly that the thousand-plus years of conflict between the Western and Muslim civilizations means that any breakthrough among Muslims is unlikely to come from the West.
Thirdly, Asia includes four of the largest mission fields today—the Buddhist, Confucian, Hindu and Islamic worlds. Yet, to this day, there are relatively little serious apologetics, theologies and ethical discussions formulated in response to the challenges of these cultures and worldviews. Unless we do our homework here, it is difficult to see how major evangelistic breakthroughs can occur. Tom Houston, the former international director for Lausanne, appears to be making a similar point in an unpublished paper titled, “Mobilizing a Church on the Move—Global Clashes: Global Gospel.” Houston was making a missiological response to Huntington. He notes that the church became universal in Europe and North America because whole civilizations became Christian, not just individuals and small pockets of believers here and there. If Huntington is correct that civilizational consciousness will predominate, then similarly we need to think in terms of evangelizing whole civilizations to bring them under the Lordship of Christ. This means that we cannot continue preaching a merely Western gospel. Rather we must empower Christians from every civilization to go back to their own peoples in culturally appropriate ways. “They are the only ones who will be able to take the imperialist face away from evangelization” (Houston n.d., 19).
5. Developing genuine partnership between West and non-Western churches. The centers of the Christian growth are now largely found in the non-Western world. Yet, despite this fundamental shift, for the moment the centers of power remain largely in the West: denominational and organizational structures, institutions and established mission agencies, publishing houses, academically trained personnel and above all, money. This imbalance can grossly distort our perceptions of the global church realities, and consequently the way we work.
For example, in almost every global ecclesiastical and missiological gathering, Western participants are in the majority. This gives the impression that westerners are the key players, when in reality the recent growth of non-Western churches has come largely through national initiative and leadership. Thus the old paternalism is perpetuated in another guise. Sometimes, this is clumsily insensitive. One major international organization, in planning a major missiological conference, states that it wants a majority of participants to come from the non-Western world. Yet, the same pamphlet shows that almost all the organizing committee members are Western. And when the fees of such gatherings are set at levels which only the rich can afford, it ensures that the participants, the agendas, perspectives and ultimately the conclusions will be largely Western. Consequently, we remain blinded to changing global realities and locked into outmoded courses of action.
To address adequately the issue of partnership would require us to seriously deal with a whole range of questions. For example, in terms of finance and trained personnel, how and what can the West contribute to augment the meager resources of many non-Western churches? At the same time, how can this be done without giving rise to a dependency mentality on the one hand, and the perpetuation of missionary control on the other. With respect to developing leadership for non-Western churches up to the highest levels, what can we learn from John Stott’s work through the Langham Trust of training national scholars with PhDs? And would international agencies, traditionally under Western control, dare to incorporate non-westerners fully into their leadership on the basis of genuine mutuality?
Moreover, we must resist the temptation to think that benefits flow only one way. Thus, we must also pursue questions like how can missionaries (not merely immigrants) from the non-Western world help revitalize moribund Western churches? How can the example of Lambeth 1998 be a model of action for non-Western churches to help Western churches fight the increasingly tough doctrinal and moral battles in a post-Christian environment? How can insights from non-Western Christianity help to reshape Western Christian thinking, at times distorted by Greek dualism, Enlightenment rationalism and cultural biases, in a more biblical direction?
In a globalized world, the days of parochial thinking and action in world missions are clearly over. Moreover, the task is far too big for any one group to dare think that they can manage it all on their own. The way forward has to be one of genuine Christian partnership between Western and non-Western churches, and between the rich and the poor, whether materially or spiritually. The key question is how can the vast resources of the Western church on the one hand, and the vitality and dynamism of non-Western Christianity on the other, be fused together into a powerful synergistic whole for world evangelization? As we ponder the possibility that the twenty-first century may indeed be the “great century” for the advance of the gospel of Christ in the world, it is surprising that this question has occupied so little space in our deliberations. But this may well be the most important and urgent issue on the global missions agenda today.
1. William E. Schubert, I Remember John Sung (Singapore: Far Eastern Bible College Press, 1976) pp. 65f. See also John Sung, The Diaries of John Sung—An Autobiography, trl. by Stephen L. Sheng (Brighton, MI: Luke H. Sheng & Stephen L. Sheng, 1995) pp. 34, 183 & 198f.
2. See, e.g. Bong Rin Ro, “The Korean Church: Growing or Declining?” Evangelical Review of Theology, 19:4 (Oct 1995) pp. 336-353; and Yonggi Hong, “Nominalism in Korean Protestantism” Transformation, 16:4 (1999) pp. 135-141.
Bosch, David. 1991. Transforming Mission. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books.
Boyd, R.H.S. 1975. An Introduction to Indian Christian Theology. Madras: CLS.
Houston, Tom. n.d. “Mobilizing a Church on the Move—Global Clashes: Global Gospel” (Unpublished mss).
Huntington, Samuel. 1997. The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order. London: Simon & Schuster.
Johnstone, Patrick. 1993. Operation World. Carlisle: OM Publishing.
Johnstone, Patrick and Jason Mandryk. 2001. Operation World. Carlisle: OM Publishing.
Kraft, Charles. 1989. Christianity with Power. Ann Arbor, Mich.: Servant Books.
Schaeffer, Francis. 1969. Death in the City. London: InterVarsity Press.
Hwa Yung is the director of the Centre for the Study of Christianity in Asia at Trinity Theological College, Singapore.
EMQ, Vol. 40,No. 1, jpp. 26-34. Copyright © 2004 Evangelism and Missions Information Service (EMIS). All rights reserved. Not to be reproduced or copied in any form without written permission from EMIS.