My focus is the younger generation of East Asian students, those born between approximately 1961 and 1981 from China, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Macau, Korea, and Japan. I interviewed 28 new believers and 8 seekers and surveyed 32 new believers and 39 seekers from these countries. The following conclusions are based on these interviews and surveys. I offer this report with many thanks to colleagues all over the US who helped me find respondents. For a summary of the practical tips, see this article.
Insights for Evangelism
East Asians need to have many questions answered as they hear the gospel. But for cultural reasons, they are often hesitant to ask their questions or tell you what is really on their minds.It is essential to discover their real questions and feelings. This can be done by developing trust and asking them their questions in private, by using anonymous surveys, or by giving everyone an index card and having them write their questions and then structuring Bible studies or inviting speakers to answer the questions. It may be necessary for you to 'play the devil's advocate' and ask hard questions yourself to demonstrate that you aren't afraid of hard questions. (See appendix on common obstacles to faith for frequently-asked questions). New believers need to get these questions answered in order to be strengthened themselves and to share their faith with family and friends.
Non-Christians will attend a group from 6 months to a year just to practice English or to seek friends. If they have not formed deep relationships within the group or become genuinely interested in the faith during this time, they will probably leave. It is essential for Christians in the group to form close relationships with newcomers. Some of those interviewed complained of not being able to form deep relationships with Americans. It is also essential to present the gospel in as clear a manner as possible during this time. Materials in the home language should be used as much as possible to make the message clearer.
What a true Christian is must be clarified. East Asian assumptions about religion make it difficult for them to understand that being a Christian is not a matter of doing Christian things (like attending church or being baptized).
Knowledge, relationship, and experience are all important in helping East Asians find Christ. The Chinese seem the most cognitive, but even for them, it is usually not just knowledge which led to a decision. Knowledge had to be followed or accompanied by some kind of experience, intuition, or power encounter. The lives of Christians were key attractions to faith. American ministries tend to emphasize the cognitive, while international students themselves often encourage friends to make a decision while they still have very little knowledge. A balance of knowledge, experience, and relationship is needed for both evangelism and discipling.
There is a certain set of worldview assumptions and characteristics which represent an overlap between traditional East Asian assumptions and postmodern assumptions: spiritual interest, many truths rather than one, learning through experience and intuition, the importance of community, non-linear thinking, and preference for the auditory learning channel. These assumptions are the ones found most often among East Asians. This means that some of the ways of ministry which are effective for postmodern American students, such as intimate small group communities and worship using contemporary music, will also be effective for East Asians of the same generation.
This generation is more similar to their American (or Canadian, I would assume) peers than previous generations of internationals were to previous generations of Americans. Under the influence of postmodernism, the Americans have moved closer to the East Asians, and global modernization and media have caused the East Asians to move some, too. When I singled out the youngest group of students taking my surveys, I found that they ranked higher on feeling fragmented, wanting to try many ways of living, awareness of personal pain, liking the singing and worship, and wanting to find their real identities than did the entire group. These postmodern characteristics were also reflected in the interviews of the youngest students.
Like the American "Gen X", this generation values their peers. As a result, some of the most effective evangelism of internationals is being done by internationals themselves. American students have also been quite effective in evangelizing their international peers.
Insights for Discipling
The most common conversion pattern for East Asians is conversion to community before conversion to Christ. This is the most common pattern for Gen X as well, according to the author of Generating Hope: A Strategy for Reaching the Postmodern Generation. Almost everything the author says about reaching out to this generation of Americans is true for East Asians as well. The second pattern is crisis followed by commitment to Christ, followed by commitment to community. The third is commitment followed by reversion to the previous state or backsliding.
Some East Asian conversions appear to be 'additive'—they represent the addition of a Christian commitment to previously-held assumptions. They also involve an exchange of one god for another without a change in belief about how one relates to God or about the character of God. Thus God is seen as the giver of good luck. And relating to God as personal may be difficult. There may be an attempt to be good in one's own strength, as Confucius encourages. (See "East Asian Worldview Assumptions Requiring Special Attention" below.) Additive spiritual changes may be one of the main causes of reversion or "backsliding." When God does not give good luck, then the individual may decide to revert to the old way or try another god.
The main challenge for the discipler of East Asian students is to help a person who has made an additive commitment come to the point where "Jesus is Lord" is at the core of the worldview—influencing previous assumptions—rather than the Christian commitment being a mere addition to the worldview (see "Crucial Biblical Assumptions and Decision vs Conversion" image below).
Workers among international students need to make preparation for reentry a more central focus of our work. This was a major concern voiced by students who were going back. They did not feel prepared to answer the questions of family and friends or fit into churches back home.
A key part of discipling and reentry preparation is involving students in ministry as true partners with us. Students who were involved in leadership and service were better prepared to return home and had a greater vision for mission than those who were not.
Common Obstacles to Faith of East Asian Students
- How could a good God allow so many bad things to happen?
- How can you say that Jesus is the only way to God?
- Aren't there many gods, not just one?
- Isn't Christianity just a Western religion?
- Isn't there a conflict between science and the Bible?
- People are basically good, but the Bible says they are sinners.
- What about those who have never heard the gospel (especially my ancestors)?
- Why doesn't God give good luck to good people, especially Christians?
- How can we believe that the Bible is reliable?
- How can we believe in miracles (especially the resurrection of Jesus)?
- Why did God do so many bad things in the Old Testament?
- How could a good God allow people who have never heard of him to go to hell?
- I understand about God, but who is Jesus?
East Asian Worldview Assumptions Requiring Special Attention During Discipling
- The gods (God) are impersonal.
- The gods (God) may be good or bad.
- The gods are not transcendent.
- Each nation or area has its own god.
- Our destinies are pre-determined; we must consult shamans for good luck and try not to upset the gods.
- One must always strive hard to be good and attain a virtuous ideal.
- One must pay for one’s own sins or faults—forgiveness is crazy.
- It is better to practice moderation in all things.
- In order to teach, one must attain a high level of knowledge (and virtue).
- One must not lose face. Behavior which deviates from the norm is punished by gossip, so what the Bible calls "the fear of man" is very strong.
Crucial Biblical Worldview Assumptions for East Asian Students
- God is personal.
- God is the creator of the universe, not a territorial god.
- God is transcendent.
- God is completely good.
- God wants intimate relationship with human beings.
- Sin is the choice to live independently of God, refusing the family relationship God wants with us.
- Jesus Christ is the way to relationship with God, the truth about who God is, and the source of true life.
- Jesus’ death on the cross was for our infirmities and sorrows (pain) as well as for our sin (see Isa. 53:4-6).
- God's love is unconditional—he cannot be bribed or manipulated.
- God doesn't give luck; he gives his presence.
- The way to grow is to consistently say "yes" to relationship with God and to relationship with his people.