Growing up in an American Christian church, I learned that other religions were wrong and of the devil. Therefore, I avoided learning anything about other cultures or their religions even though my own heritage was Japanese Buddhist—both sides of my family were Buddhist but did not observe any obvious Buddhist practices.
In Asian culture, often anyone who is born in a Buddhist country is considered a Buddhist. It’s not uncommon for people with a strong family identity to consider their family and religion together. If someone makes a negative statement about their religion, they interpret it as critical of their family. For example saying, “Buddhists are going to hell,” would be very offensive and make it almost impossible to share the gospel.
My initial ministry goal in Asia was to present the gospel message by clearly explaining the way of salvation making sure I covered each essential point. I believed that if the gospel message was clearly presented, people would recognize the truth and reject Buddhism and other religions. It didn’t take long to realize that this method did not work.
People with a family identity don’t focus on facts or truth but on relationships. I didn’t realize that I needed to develop a relationship in order to gain a hearing. Asians believe that it is not possible for humans to know absolute truth. They believe that humans only know part of the truth so there must be some truth in every religion. In many Asian cultures it is perfectly acceptable to be a Buddhist and a Christian.
As I reflected on culture, I realized that culture influences how we share the gospel message. Individual identity cultures focus on communicating the truth to individuals while Christians with a family identity focus on developing relationships before sharing the gospel message. We automatically create misunderstandings when we communicate the gospel from a different cultural identity.
In family identity cultures the social interaction that takes place through life is important. Similar to the agricultural cycle—preparing the land, planting seeds, and harvesting—a person goes through stages of birth, illness, disappointment, marriage, and death. Buddhists view going through these stages of life as suffering. However, they are able to go through these stages with the help and support of their family. The suffering people experience is due to their attachment to the various things in their lives–physical and material as well as spiritual.
Therefore family members are always present. When a child is born, family members attend to both the newborn, the mother, the siblings, and other family members. Being present is often more important than what a person does while there. Typically family members don’t need to ask for help as others see what the person needs and provides as they can. Those with a family identity do everything together particularly celebrating a birth, being ill and recovering, getting married, having children, celebrating birthdays, and dying. They believe that people were born to be together and will only survive if they stay together.
Much of what they do to help family members is viewed as good works which earns them merit towards their next life. They can even share their merit with others in order to help them towards a better situation in their next life. It is not uncommon to hear comments about what they would like in their next life—what they want to be or who they want to be with.
Family membership is very strong as everything in life and death happens in the context of the family. So when a person becomes a Christian, parents can be very fearful that if their child leaves their family group, they will not be cared for and not have a proper funeral. This change of identity may also bring shame to the family.
The individual identity view of suffering is not necessarily connected to stages of life, but it is a negative concept connected with bad things or pain—physical and emotional—and is something to be avoided. The way to avoid suffering is to be prepared for it ahead of time. For instance, one can buy insurance—accident, fire, both short- and long-term illness, death—to deal with suffering. They can also hire experts to give them advice while people from family identity cultures have family members to help.
Scripture encourages us to take care of family members (1 Timothy 5:8), to share with one another, and to do good works (Matthew 5:26; Ephesians 2:10; Colossians 3:23–24, etc.). We can do good works helping, supporting, and encouraging our Chinese friends as they go through various stages in their lives. However, as believers, our motivation is not to gain merit but to glorify God. Christians can also expect to experience suffering for Christ but God helps them through the suffering in order to bring glory to himself (1 Peter).
In befriending Chinese, ask God to give you wisdom to know how to offer help (do good works) and build a reciprocal relationship so that your actions bring glory to God rather than being seen as merit to gain salvation in a Buddhist sense. And to create an opportunity to share the gospel message.
With this blog, we conclude this series on cultural identity and its impact on gospel ministry among Chinese.
We’ve seen that most people are unaware of the impact of their cultural identity on the way they do things. If a person is also a Christian, the tendency is to view one’s way of doing things as biblical not cultural and reinforces the belief that other cultural ways of doing things are wrong. This understanding is unconscious and can prevent a person from accepting and understanding others.
If we truly desire to further God’s kingdom, we need to accept that our culture has shaped our beliefs and that our culture may only know part of the truth. This perspective should encourage us to learn more about God from people of other cultures.
If our cultural differences prevent us from demonstrating God’s love to one another, it will be very difficult to share the gospel message. First a relationship needs to be developed that stands the test of time with on-going interaction and sharing. If there is little or no sharing of resources, it is difficult for Chinese to even be willing to hear the gospel message. Sharing our lives and our resources can open the door to sharing the good news of the gospel.
More information can be found in:
Tapestry of Grace: Untangling the Cultural Complexities of Asian American Life and Ministry, Ben Shin and Sheryl Takagi Silzer, 2016, pages 3–4. 78–80, 86, 89, 124, 137–138, 151–158, 162, 165, 173, 176.
“How Cultural Reciprocity Practices Reinforce Merit-Making Affecting the Experience of God’s Grace” by Sheryl Takagi Silzer in Seeking the Unseen: Spiritual Realities in the Buddhist World (SEANET Book 12), edited by Paul de Neuii. Pasadena, CA: William Carey Library, 2016.
Image credit: cattan2011 via Flickr.
Sheryl Takagi Silzer is a third generation Japanese American. She worked with Wycliffe Bible Translators in Colombia, Papua New Guinea, and Indonesia as a Bible translator. For the past twenty-five years she has worked as a multicultural consultant leading Cultural Self-Discovery workshops for sending agencies, schools, and churches around the …View Full Bio
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