Somewhere in East Asia, a man steps onto a crowded bus after a busy day at work. As usual, there is nowhere to sit and his wearied legs find no rest on the long commute home. His day began at 5 a.m. when he stood at a bus stop for nearly an hour waiting to board a bus for his two-hour ride to work. After ten grueling hours of working at a job where he was harassed much and paid little, he stands on a cramped bus and endures the journey home.
To protect his lungs from air pollution, he wears a mask over his mouth and nose, yet the foul air still makes his eyes water and sting. This exhausting day is his normal routine, leaving him little time for family. So, wiping the pollution-induced tears from his eyes and grabbing a handle on the bus, his mind returns to the question that has plagued his thoughts the past few weeks: “What purpose is there in all of this?”
More Stuff Does Not Equate to a Better Life
People in East Asia have more freedom, more income, and more stuff than past generations. This abundance, however, does not always lead to a higher quality of life. Long commutes, high costs of living, endless hours at work, overcrowded cities, and polluted environments have left many people like the man on the bus without peace, hope, or fulfillment.
When considering the East Asian worldview, many outsiders might only notice the materialistic, atheistic dynamic of hard-working people whose lives are defined by long hours at the office. In reality, though, underneath these external characteristics is a complex mixture of Confucian, Daoist, Buddhist, and animistic beliefs. The resulting belief system focuses on certain rituals through which a person gains merit for self and for deceased ancestors. Knowing where to begin explaining the gospel to someone who is so influenced by varied secular and religious ideas can be puzzling.
“Knowing where to begin explaining the gospel to people so influenced by varied secular and religious ideas can be puzzling.”
Here are several principles I have adopted for sharing the good news effectively with East Asians.
Start with Your Own Story
East Asians love to hear a good story. And because many of them are struggling to understand their purpose in life, telling them how you’ve found purpose and peace and joy in Christ is a good place to start. Establishing a good relationship first is critical, though. In this context, it’s only in a relationship that someone will give credence to your testimony. Although your testimony is not the gospel, telling your story can pique a person’s interest and open an opportunity to share the gospel.
Explain the Creator’s Existence
Since most East Asians have no belief in a personal creator God, it is best to start by explaining the existence of God (like Paul did in Acts 14:14–17 and 17:22–31). At this point, you will find that they have a lot of questions. Training in apologetics can be helpful in answering some of their questions, but East Asians often need time to process these new concepts.
Articulate Sin Clearly
Since Buddhism teaches that all people are basically good, most East Asians understand sin as something that only a criminal does. Always take the time to explain that what the Bible defines as sin is more than just murder and robbery. Sin has to do with the fact that people are created by God and, therefore, ought to praise him instead of worshiping created things. Thus, all humanity is in rebellion against God and denies him the adoration he deserves—whether by actively resisting him or by simply being indifferent.
Explore Biblical Themes from a Non-Western Perspective
Given their cultural lens, East Asians often resonate with biblical themes that Westerners tend to overlook. For example, since they have a family-centered worldview, the biblical teaching on God as a heavenly Father, against whom we have rebelled and turned away, is powerful in this context. Similarly, their honor/shame perspective means that they can easily relate to the teaching that we, in our sin, have not given God the honor or glory that he deserves. In a positive sense, the teaching of Scripture that none who wait for you shall be put to shame (Ps. 25:2) is a culturally appropriate call to trust Christ.
“Given their cultural lens, East Asians often resonate with biblical themes that Westerners tend to overlook.”
Focus on the Need for Atonement
Since traditional East Asian religions place so much emphasis on gaining merit with the gods through participation in rituals, it is absolutely critical that gospel presentations point to Jesus as the only true and acceptable sacrifice. East Asians need to hear that we are made righteous by faith alone through grace alone in Christ alone (Eph. 2:8–9; Gal. 2:16; Titus 3:4–7).
Address Animistic Tendencies
Animism is a belief that spirits govern and/or oversee parts of the world and can harm or bless humans. East Asians are highly animistic in their belief that ancestors and other gods need to be worshiped. Otherwise, those gods will negatively affect one’s overall well-being. Our gospel conversations cannot leave these unbiblical beliefs untouched. Like Paul, we must convey that Christ is “before all things and, in him, all things hold together” (Col. 1:16).
Don’t Use High-Pressure Tactics
Confucian ideals emphasize peace and harmony. As a result, most East Asians are not confrontational. They will, often, verbally agree with statements that they don’t actually agree with just to maintain harmony in the relationship. They would never want a friend to lose face over a religious dispute. Therefore, while we must call for a response, we should not pressure people to make a decision or they might go along just to please us. We must share the gospel clearly and then encourage them to respond. We entrust them to a faithful God and allow them time to process his truth.