Chinese Church Voices

Reaching Tibetans

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Mission work among Tibetan peoples in China is especially sensitive. Yet, in this article from Mission China Today, Brother L, a missionary preacher in a city in China, gives fascinating insight into the careful mission work already being done among Tibetans.

He describes the necessity of mission work among the Tibetan people, as well as the opportunities for how the Chinese church and foreign mission agencies can partner with to minister to Tibetans.

Gospelization of the Tibetan People

01 Neglected Missions among the Tibetan People

Looking over two thousand years of history of the spread of the gospel, we find that the gospel began in Jerusalem, passed through Antioch, Ephesus, as well as the Macedonian Peninsula, spread through all of Europe, after which the gospel came to the Americas, Africa, and Asia. Today, after the revival of the East Asian church, where will the gospel spread to?

Looking at it from the perspective of the western progression of the gospel, the Chinese church faces three great religious barriers on their road of missions: Islam, Tibetan Buddhism, and South Asian religions. For the Chinese church, when missionary movements are mentioned most people focus on missions among the Muslims because of the influence of the “Back to Jerusalem” Movement. Mission work among Tibetans, however, is often neglected.

In reality, the Chinese church should find Tibetan missions easier to grasp than mission work among Muslims. Muslim mission work takes on the challenge of 1.8 billion people (according to missions data from 2018), while there are hardly as many Tibetans. There are roughly 10 million Tibetans in the entire world, and over 7 million of them live within China. If we want the missions movement in China to continue progressing, we must take seriously the challenge and duty of Tibetan missions.

02 A Basic Overview of the Tibetan People

The majority of Tibetans live in the highlands at the heart of Asia. For mainland Chinese people, Tibet is in the “border region” of China. But looking at the whole of Asia, Tibet is actually in the central region of Asia, and is also at the highest point of Asia. Rivers that begin in the Tibetan region flow north, east, and south. In other words, the water and rain that comes down from Tibet nourishes the common people who live on the plains.

So, from a certain perspective, Tibetan people see themselves as possessing the “source.” And they think that people who are able to survive at 4,000 meters above sea level are a superior kind, a “man above men.” And in terms cultural development, Tibetan culture is in no way inferior to other cultures. Tibetan script is an advanced academic script, and once translated and edited the most complete Buddhist literature on earth—the Chinese Buddhist Canon. This canonical collection of Buddhist literature includes 4,569 different texts and was translated and edited into Tibetan from Buddhist literature of various countries.

The three main dialects of Tibetan languages are Amdo Tibetan, Central Tibetan, and Khams Tibetan. Tibetan people not only live within China, but also in places such as Bhutan, India, America, Germany, etc. So Tibetan missions have traits of both MC2 (missions among ethnic minorities within China) and MC4 (cross-cultural missions abroad). In terms of countries, the Himalayan region belongs to several different countries. But the peoples in this region communicate very closely. In the pan-Himalayan region, the main languages are Tibetan languages, similar to how many languages are mutually understandable in the pan-Turkic region (for example, Uyghur has 60~70% similarity with languages in Central Asia). Bhutan’s script, for example, is Tibetan script, and if a Tibetan were to go to Bhutan, they would have no problem communicating. From history we learn that Bhutan was originally a small tribe belonging to Tibet, but later became an independent kingdom.

In terms of culture, particularly religious piety, Tibetans are among the finest. Tibetans look down on those who are greedy for wealth. To them, money is not a problem; faith is the most important. For the sake of faith, the entire family could go bankrupt. To the Tibetans, faith and life are entirely intertwined. That is why they have so many traditions of spinning prayer wheels, circumambulating temples, hanging prayer flags, doing the Tibetan kowtow, etc. Do you know what is written on the little prayer flags? It is all scripture. It is not enough that they themselves chant it, but they want the wind to help them chant it again as it blows past the flags.

Many spend their savings of many years on Tibetan kowtow. When they run out of money, they find a local job to earn some more, and then continue kowtowing on their way. Some people spend a year and a half on their journey, kowtowing once every three steps, all the way to Lhasa. Where is their destination? Many of us assume that their final destination is Potala Palace. But in fact, they only go by Potala Palace, and their final destination is Jokhang Temple, to pay homage to a Buddhist statue there. What Buddhist statue is this? This Buddhist statue was a statue of Sakyamuni Buddha at age twelve brought all those years ago by Princess Wencheng. This is the most powerful statue in the entirety of Tibet. In other words, it is the ancestors of the Han that brought this statue to Tibet, causing many Tibetans to experience the curse of poverty for its sake. We could say that we Hans owe the Tibetans an apology of a thousand years. So, before we share the gospel among the Tibetans, we must first apologize to them. The Han people owe the Tibetans the debt of the gospel. Incidentally, this is like how the Chinese owe Indonesia a gospel debt as well, because Islam was mainly brought to Indonesia by a Chinese by the name of Zheng He, also known as Sanbao. To this day, Indonesia has a city commemorating him, called Semarang [“Sanbao Long” in Chinese].

03 The Need and Hope for Gospelization Among Tibetans

Looking over current gospel work among Tibetans, there is Bible translation, gospel radio, charities, text ministry, medical missions, and other ministries. When mainland churches participate in Tibetan missions, they usually carry out missions in Tibetan regions through the platform of business, or do short-term missions through children ministry, holiday camps, short-term visits, or other such methods. There are about 250 thousand churches in China, but there might only be double digit churches involved in Tibetan missions. In fact, among 7 million Tibetans, there are currently only 300-500 Christians. Tibetans are truly a great unreached people right beside us. The Chinese (Han) church needs to repent, to wake up, and to become involved in Tibetan missions with a sense of purpose.

We can look to the future of the different stages in the development of Tibetan churches based on the model of progression of the church in Acts: First is the pioneer stage, with much prayer, occasional pre-evangelistic work, and the rise of some Christians. Then it’s the development stage, where the gospel begins bearing fruit; God calls a special group of leaders (such as a Tibetan Paul); and house gatherings begin to multiply. Following this is the trial stage, where the growth of the gospel brings conflicts, intensified persecution, and an inevitable cost; a group of people must stand firm in these difficulties. After that is the revival stage, where more churches are established, more preachers raised up, and the gospel’s growth begins to influence society. Finally, is the missional stage, where local missionaries are raised up to engage in missions within and beyond the country.

On the path of Tibetan gospelization and church growth, Western missionaries and missionaries from “Nation H” have already put in a lot of effort. I once heard a testimony by a missionary from Nation H of his experience in Tibetan missions. It was very moving, allowing us a glimpse of hope for the gospelization of the Tibetan region.

This missionary from Nation H, with the love of Christ, has lived in the Tibetan region for 10 years. He said that the first three years were the honeymoon period: blue skies, white clouds, green grass, pure white snow mountains. . . But after three years, he began to struggle daily, “Why did I come here?” When he was helping out in a village, a lama urged the local Tibetans to take his life. On his way to a primary school, a couple of drunkards tried to stab him with a knife. At that moment, a fourth-grade student rushed to stand between them. With tears, he stood in front of the drunkards, not letting them commit their crime, and made the missionary leave quickly. The missionary was truly frightened. He planned never to return after leaving the area. But every time he knelt down to pray, the child’s face would appear before him. This continued for a week. Finally, he said, “No, I must go back.”

Upon his return, he first met with the village elder. The elder was very surprised that he came back. How could someone who had been frightened away come back? But when the village elder saw him return, he took the initiative to apologize, saying that they were somewhat at fault for not protecting him better. That conversation went very deep. The missionary said to the elder, “We are here for no other reason: We really want to help you. What kind of help would you like from us?” The elder replied, “I hope you can help us run a summer school that would teach our children Tibetan.” In the schools they were at, the children were not allowed to speak Tibetan. If they spoke Tibetan, the teachers would punish them. They even told the students to tell on one another to be punished. This was very hurtful to the people’s feelings. They hoped that their children would be able to speak Tibetan. So, the missionary agreed to help. He then helped them establish a Tibetan summer school. The local people were especially happy, because their children could finally learn through Tibetan.

One day the village elder found the missionary, and said, “Thank you so much for helping us with the school.” Then he asked, “Was there something special you came here to do?” The missionary hesitated, embarrassed to reply directly. The elder said, “That’s alright. I’ll give you a day’s time, and you can say whatever you want to say.” The next day, the missionary spent the day telling the students the gospel. After that, he was still very welcome among the villagers.

Slowly, the villagers began ignoring the lama, and the lama finally “lost his job.” He was unable to stay, so he rolled up his blanket to leave. The temple was also closed down. One day, the relevant government department came to find the missionary, and said to him, “Do you want to leave on your own, or do you want us to expel you? If you leave on your own, you may have a chance to return. If we have to expel you, don’t even think about coming back.” The missionary struggled. Over the past seven years, he had thought of leaving so many times. But when it truly came time to leave, he found that he deeply loved the Tibetans, and couldn't tear himself away from them. In the end, he could not help but choose to leave on his own, for the sake of being able to return.

04 The Gospelization of Tibetan Peoples Requires Unified Mission Work

The gospelization of Tibetan peoples requires the efforts of missionaries from mainland Chinese churches. It requires the rise of Tibetan preachers, as well as the cooperation of Western missionaries, missionaries from Nation H, and Indian missionaries. Western missionaries have their strengths—they have rich missionary experiences, professional ministry teams, experience and ability in missions research, as well as financial support. Missionaries from Nation H also have their advantages. They have excellent pioneer abilities, courage in the face of difficulties, experience of church revivals, and passion for prayer. As for missionaries from the Han Chinese church, Tibetans are our close neighbors, and counts as neighboring cultural missions. Many Tibetans know Chinese, and so we can tell the gospel to them in Chinese. The other advantage Han missionaries have is that we don’t need a visa for missions in Tibet. However, the most important team for Tibetan gospelization is Tibetan preachers. They are the core force for Tibetan gospelization. They know their own people best, and have the best results of evangelism.

A Tibetan preacher once told Han preachers, “When you go to Tibet for missions, it is typically over 4,000 meters above sea level. Over time, most people cannot take it. And it takes several years to learn the language. So, you should focus more on the Tibetan peoples of the plains, such as Ngawa, Garzê, and Qinghai Amdo Tibetans.” The Tibetan preacher also hopes that the Chinese church can watch over Tibetan university students in urban universities. Just in Xi’an there are already 5,000 Tibetan university students. These are the elites among the Tibetans, and winning them over can bring about the future gospelization of Tibetans.

05 The Future Strategy of Tibetan Gospelization

Tibetan gospelization requires going forward one step at a time. First, it is plowing the earth and sowing the seed. Then it is sprouting and growth. Finally, it is maturing and bearing fruit. Although mission work in Tibet is still at the stage of plowing and sowing, we believe that there will be a maturing and bearing fruit in the future.

Tibetan gospelization requires the strategy of team ministry. People with the gift of evangelizing and planting churches need to be involved in pioneering and shepherding. People with professional skills need to be involved in providing a platform and solving the identity problem. Supporting reinforcements need to engage in the practice and application of faith, engaging in loving charity service. Those with the gift of administration need to be involved, partnering and making connections. Such partnership with one another can develop into sustainable mission work. Phillip Butler said in his article “The Power of Partnerships,” “Partnerships are biblical; partnerships are the strength society witnesses; partnerships are the most efficient path of church development; partnerships are helpful in utilizing limited resources well; in unstable world situations, we need the testimony of partnerships.” When God’s people join together in partnerships, sharing Christ, ministering together, they can bring powerful results.

Tibetan gospelization requires a strategy of unified development both from the frontier and the rear. Those in the rear must convey a vision of Tibetan missions, establish an altar of watchful prayer for Tibetan missions, mobilize Tibetan missions with strength, select personnel for Tibetan missions, engage in pre-ministry training, organize Tibetan missions movement, establish Tibetan missions platforms, mobilize donations for Tibetan missions, as well as send long-term workers. Frontline people need to research the current situation of gospel spread, and engage in missions through the principle of incarnational ministry. We need to establish a platform for missions, and apply a two-pronged strategy—the gospel mission and the cultural mission progressing at the same time.

Tibetan gospelization needs to progress along a three-pronged strategy—the target audience of Tibetan missions can be divided into three levels: the highest level is the lamas and tulkus. These are true Buddhists, many of whom are essentially atheists. They are characterized by being philosophical, and lean towards academic discussion. The second level is the community which believes in tulkus. Whatever tulkus teach, they will listen and believe. They believe that tulkus know all things. The third level are the common people. They believe in the Bon religion, which is the indigenous form of religion of the Tibetans, and is seen in the use of prayer flags, prayer wheels, and so forth. These are the characteristics of different groups among the Tibetans.

In addition, there are text-based mission strategies, mission strategies through radio and television, mission strategies through new media, as well as cooperation of professional talents, church multiplication movements, church leaders training, etc. I hope we can promote Tibetan missions, stage after stage, to raise up the Tibetan church, and continually increase the ratio of gospelized Tibetans, so that Tibetan families will add one after another to the church. Tibetan gospelization is a necessary step on the Chinese church’s path towards maturity. Tibetan gospelization is a part of missional China, and a part of the global missions movement.

Original Article: 藏族福音化 by 今日宣教

Image Credit: James Wheeler from Pixabay
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