In the last post, I discussed Chinese pragmatism, and how that affects the way that Chinese students approach religion. In short, it seems that, as a general trend, Chinese students seem rather less concerned about whether Christianity is true, and rather more concerned about what difference it makes to them. Picking up on that theme, the question I want to take up here is what the practical implications of this pragmatism with postmodern characteristics has for ministry to Chinese, particularly as regards evangelism.
It seems to me that there are a few things to consider here. First, it can be easy in the process of sharing the gospel to default to an apologetic mode in which we unholster certain arguments (even well-conceived and persuasive ones) in an effort to shoot down objections and convince our Chinese friends of the truth and rationality of Christian beliefs, thus pushing them toward faith in Christ. For Chinese students who have been steeped in atheism, certain articles of the Christian faith—God’s existence, creation, miracles, and the resurrection, to name a few—will inevitably engender disagreement. In the past, removing such disagreements through apologetic spadework seems to have been effective as a means of clearing the way for faith (on a human level, anyway). But while trying to demonstrate the veracity of Christianity certainly isn’t wrong, that approach may no longer answer the question I suspect today’s Chinese students are more likely asking: “What difference does Christianity make to me?”
In analyzing today’s postmodern generation, Dr. Juta Pan puts it this way: “Though rational assent undoubtedly has an important role in people’s decisions whether or not to accept the faith, the real key to their decision to believe in Christ often lies in their knowing that only God can give them purpose, hope and sense of value in life. When they are fully convicted that they need Christ, the majority of their traditional faith questions are easily resolved because of their changed presuppositions.” In light of Chinese students’ pragmatic postmodernism, contextualization seems generally to advocate for a departure from previous means of sharing the gospel that focused on apologetic encounters.
You have made us for yourself, and our hearts are restless until they find their rest in you.Augustine
What, then, would be a more contextually sensitive approach toward evangelism? Dr. Pan’s quote above may give a hint. Christianity does indeed provide purpose, hope, and value in life (both objectively and subjectively); the gospel does meet our deepest needs. Perhaps, then, we ought first to focus on building a relationship with them in the context of which they feel comfortable enough letting us in, so that we can get to know their hopes, dreams, fears, and felt needs. This isn’t typically the stuff of first conversations; it’s the stuff of conversations after trust has been forged and love and acceptance genuinely received. Then when we know their hopes, dreams, fears, and needs, we can begin to tailor our presentation of the gospel to fit the contours of their lives. Of course, we needn’t wait until that point to share the gospel; hopefully it’s such an integral part of our lives and identity that sharing about it with them is a natural extension of allowing them to get to know us. But as we get to know our friends better, we can help them see how the gospel makes a difference when they meet with academic failure for the first time in their life, or when they go through a difficult break-up, or when they feel lonely or isolated, or even when everything seems to be going well but there’s still a hunger for something more. As creatures made in God’s image and living in God’s world, whatever it is that we’re seeking outside of God will never ultimately satisfy. Augustine, perhaps, says it best: “You have made us for yourself, and our hearts are restless until they find their rest in you” (Confessions 1.1). As we discover where their hearts are restless and where they feel needy, we can readily answer the question of what difference Christianity makes.
At the same time, a word of caution may be in order. Focusing on our point of need in sharing the gospel isn’t necessarily a problem. After all, we are genuinely in need; we are without hope of salvation outside of Christ. Indeed Scripture repeatedly depicts us as sinners in need of a Savior. But in focusing on the point of need, we need to be careful not to leave intact the sense of autonomy of those with whom we share the gospel. God is not our cosmic genie in a bottle who exists to serve us by meeting our needs and catering to our every whim. In his great grace, God does meet our deepest needs in Christ, but he also asserts his lordship in Christ. And often what we actually need isn’t the same thing as what we think or feel we need.
Additionally, and with a view particularly towards postmodernism, while convincing Chinese students of the truth of Christianity might not be the most effective point of departure, the love and beauty of Christianity can be a powerful apologetic. Reflecting Christ through the concrete actions of welcoming, loving, and even sacrifice for the benefit of others illustrates vividly the practical implications of the gospel and gives weight to the truth of the gospel (or in pragmatic terms, it works). Helping our friends find a community with which they can identify within the church can create openness to hearing the gospel. Attending church worship services, with their songs, liturgy, and sacraments in all of their beauty and solemnity, can sometimes stir the affections in a way that paves the way for the gospel; I’ve heard a number of testimonies to this effect, and Dr. Pan’s article details a couple as well. In such cases, the affective power of the gospel moves beyond the postmodern suspicion of truth claims. Of course, truth is essential to Christianity, and will need to be addressed, but sometimes a stirring of the affections becomes a starting point for that.
What are your thoughts? How have you dealt with Chinese pragmatism in your ministry? Share your comments below.