During our family’s eight years of serving among an unreached people group in China, we often felt lost, bewildered, lonely, and discouraged; nevertheless, we never stopped learning about Christ’s way of using every opportunity to train his disciples to know, believe, and understand him. We lived among people who were so different from us, seemingly very far from God, and where Christians stood out radically from their neighbors. As those sent to spread the gospel message, we learned over the years that the way we delivered this message was of critical importance. We have seen how the faithful teacher, the Holy Spirit, guided us with wisdom.
The way we shared Christ was key to becoming an effective witness for him. Isaiah 43:10-11 says, “You are my witnesses, declares the Lord, and my servant whom I have chosen, so that you may know and believe me and understand that I am he…. I, even I am the Lord, and apart from me there is no savior.” We found that first we needed wisdom to know God, and then to know how to communicate his love to an unreached people group. In her memoir, The Savage, My Kinsman, Elisabeth Elliot writes that the word “missionary” does not occur in the Bible; however, the word “witness” does.1 How could we be an authentic witness in the context where we found ourselves? We needed wisdom.
Wisdom in Contextualization
When we first started, we did not really know what we were doing. We naively thought that the gospel would somehow automatically zap people into changing what they believed and how they lived. But how would they need to change their lives? Why was this gospel good news to them? What were their hindrances to belief and discipleship? We did not know. We did not even know we needed to know that.
In the beginning, we shared the gospel as if it were a sale at a store that was too good to pass up. We had reduced it to a sweet deal, a limited time offer. This was due to our misunderstanding of the gospel itself. Though genuine in heart, we were misguided in theology. Problems arose when these people saw that following Christ required changes in their lives, values, and even their schedules. Being a Christian was a burden, a foreign addition to their already busy lives. They thought we represented an agenda and pushed us more to the outside.
We learned to slow down and observe the culture. We asked questions like, “What makes them afraid?” “Where do they turn when they are in trouble?” and “How do they view people of authority?” These questions helped us to observe the culture and enjoy it. At times we lost patience and were tempted to hurry. But we learned to leave the slow, but sure, work of Christ up to Christ. In time, people came to us at points of crisis in their lives when they had nowhere to go. Somehow, we had become friends throughout the years, and this became a mutual gift. The Holy Spirit began to open their eyes during those trusted talks, and that was the beginning of new lives being born.
Wisdom in Discipleship
Through being a part of this culture, we soon noticed that the women had a tremendous hunger for relationships and eventually for the gospel. I cannot explain what drew some of them and sustained them in their faith except for the effectiveness of God’s calling of his own children.
These minority women lived in an agrarian society where most of the household and village duties fell on their shoulders. Households simply could not function without their serving hands. Aside from daily domestic functions, women were expected to carry out village ancestral and temple worship rites. New women believers often faced opposition from their husbands, in-laws, and even the entire village since they could no longer participate in these rites. Initially, the pressure was tremendous on those new believers when their only support was the foreign worker family. Some often stumbled along the way.
I remember one of our new believers who walked into my house to confess the immense guilt she felt for going to the market to buy incense and then burn it at the temple. She said she felt so afraid of God the whole time, but she could not bring herself to tell her mother that she could not do this anymore. I had a choice then to falsely “affirm” the guilt as from the Lord and admonish her to obey better next time, or I could listen to her struggles and extend comfort first. I chose the latter.
The Eastern culture is already shame-ridden and fear-driven.2 We must be careful to discern Christ’s instructions in this context. Yes, God’s word commands us to stay away from idols, but instead of just telling this woman rules, it was crucial for her to understand why Jesus wants this for a minority woman. To understand that, many questions needed to be asked and answered. A renewed mind over time was the focus, and joyful obedience would follow later. Now, she has been a believer for eight years, and since that initial year, she has not bought incense nor helped with any kind of idol worship. If you ask her today why she is able to obey, she would credit her actions to the gentleness of Christ and not a desire to make the foreigner happy.
Nowadays, you will often find her happily cleaning more chickens than anyone else and washing extra loads of dishes at the village gatherings. This is how she serves her family and neighbors instead of performing the temple duties with other women. Discipleship is a long road of obedience, and we must be careful to not build upon shame since it is actually a hindrance to the gospel.
Wisdom in Understanding and Applying Scripture
Throughout the years, many other women came to us with issues that ranged from church conflicts, family tensions, raising children, being in debt, and living with abuse. These women needed help to balance and negotiate meaning in light of their old worldviews and God’s will in scripture. However, they often made assumptions about Christ that predominantly consisted of a mixture of their old worldviews, superstitions, spiritism, and moralism. The minority people we served are a very “spiritual” people in that they believe different mediums can “speak” to them. Initially, due to low literacy in this agrarian society, cross-cultural workers and leaders emphasized sharing encouragement or personal insights drawn from scripture as opposed to thorough exegesis and teaching of scripture. When our church gatherings first focused on spiritual (but simplistic) exercises such as sharing how they felt encouraged by God, we were alarmed by how they interpreted scripture to be about themselves. They sought emotionalism, spiritualism, and religiosity rather than Christ. Who can blame them? These were our blind spots that we gave to them in the beginning.
However, the Lord was merciful. Several years into our work, he gave us opportunities to collaborate with Chinese house churches that had learned from their mistakes. They reminded us that though semiliterate people may see the Bible as challenging due to their literacy limitations, there is still no substitute for the written word of God. They may struggle with reading, but their understanding is not limited.
However, since we initially underestimated their ability to understand God’s word, we had chronologically taken them through paraphrased versions of Bible stories. With literacy levels that ranged from illiterate to third grade among the women, and some higher for men, we wrongly assumed that they could not handle the biblical text. After realizing our error, we started to take them through the Bible, verse by verse, starting with Genesis 1:1 and aiming to go as far as we could. We read, interpreted, and applied biblical teaching together, spending the majority of our time on interpretation and sound hermeneutics.
Wisdom in Waiting for Transformation
After a year, we had covered from the beginning of Genesis to the end of the book of Ruth. When they could not understand something, we read it to them and then explained it as we went along. We read through the awkward sounding names and hard to understand illustrations word for word. In the following year, we struggled through the metaphors in Psalms and the logic in Romans. For a minority farmer, those metaphors and logic can seem very far removed, but God himself was very near to us all those years. This slow, but sure, work of God was by far the most rewarding and foundational part of our years there. The Holy Spirit was a faithful teacher. He helped us to be faithful to the text by not skipping over historical contexts, by seeing Christ in the passages, and seeing our fallenness through it all.
Six months into our study, we saw light bulbs turn on in them. They began to have a sovereign view of Christ and, in turn, saw their own need to repent of old worldviews and actions. A most memorable experience came while studying Deuteronomy 23 together where the instruction on what to do with human waste was given specifically. Something I always did when we gathered for worship in a village home was to sweep the place and tidy up first. I thought the worship time should be special and I wanted to create a place that reflected the posture of our hearts. But mess and dirt were not a big deal to this people group. They often slept right next to farm equipment and their pigs. I was not sure if cleanliness was just a Western worker’s idiosyncrasy, so I never advised them to prepare for our gatherings like I did.
When we came across this passage, however, they all realized, almost simultaneously, that the place we gathered was not suitable for a holy God to come and meet with us. If this God had a plan so detailed as to account for the proper disposal of human waste, then he must be a God who wants our outside to reflect our inside posture. After that day, they kept the place for our worship meetings clean by tidying up and sweeping. Later on, they also began to prepare various teas and refreshments for the fellowship meeting so we could enjoy each other’s company before the Lord. The major difference we saw was that scripture began to build in them a worldview that permeated everything they did.
We have witnessed many other times when God’s word accomplished its purpose. It was, and is, our job to faithfully equip, explain, teach, and feed, first ourselves, and then his sheep with it. God’s grace and patience taught us—the inexperienced workers—to become skilled at handling his word. By his grace, he steered us away from trying to transform our lives through shame, guilt, morals, and appeasing spiritual leaders. By his grace, he taught them (and us) that his word is our hope and has the power to change us. By this same grace, he will faithfully lead us to our mutual heavenly home.
- Elisabeth Elliott, The Savage My Kinsman, New York: Harper, 1961, p. 20.
- Jayson Georges, The 3-D Gospel: Ministry in Guilt, Shame, and Fear Cultures, 2014, Tim& 275; Press, p. 11. Georges identifies three types of culture. Guilt-innocence cultures are usually individualistic societies (mostly Western) in which lawbreakers are found guilty and seek justice or forgiveness to rectify wrongs. Then there are shame-honor cultures, usually collectivistic (common in the East), where people shamed before a group seek to restore their honor before the community. Finally, fear-power cultures have animistic contexts (typically tribal or African), where people are afraid of evil and harm so pursue power over the spirit world through magical rituals. For further information see Barnabas, Roland, “Communicating the Gospel with Power among China’s Animistic Peoples,” ChinaSource Quarterly, March 19, 2018, https://www.chinasource.org/resource-library/articles/communicating-the-gospel-with-power-among-chinas-animistic-peoples/. See also Christian, “Challenged by different Ways of Seeing, Part 2,” ChinaSource Blog, July 29, 2019, https://www.chinasource.org/resource-library/blog-entries/challenged-by-different-ways-of-seeing/.
Image credit: Ray Smith
Skylar Nie (pseudonym) is a mom of three who loves coffee, hikes, and simple meals with her family. She has been fortunate to spend part of her life with her family among unengaged unreached people groups (UUPG) of China where God taught her how to love the church with truth …View Full Bio