Cultural challenges facing new Christians

By Nick Devas – 20 March, 2014 (used with author’s permission)

The Gospel of Jesus Christ presents challenges to all cultures, whether Western or Eastern.(1) The Chinese have a culture that stretches over several thousand years. It includes many strands, such as Confucianism, Taoism and Buddhism. Many aspects of Chinese culture are consistent with the Christian gospel, such as the high value placed on the family, on respect for others, particularly for parents and elders. But there are other aspects which can or do conflict with the Christian gospel.  These can be obstacles for Chinese becoming committed believers, or continuing as believers. Many of the elements discussed in this note are not unique to Chinese culture (e.g. the importance of tradition, luck, social hierarchy, materialism, etc.), but tend to be more pronounced in Chinese culture compared to Western culture.

Tradition: certain traditions are very important to Chinese people. Whilst the activity itself may not present a significant problem for Christians, the emphasis on maintaining the tradition, and the faith placed in it, certainly can be, just as the emphasis on certain Jewish traditions became an obstacle to the gospel in the early church.

Luck, Fortune and Destiny: these ideas play a major part in Chinese traditions, leading to superstitions (e.g. avoiding the number 4 or favouring the number 8). Whilst some people may regard them just as a bit of fun (decorating your doorway with charcters for fortune at Spring Festival, for example), others take them very seriously (having your house designed according to fengshui, going to fortune tellers, etc.).(2) Such superstitions are profoundly anti‐Christian, and can really bind people, such as the idea that what happens to you is determined by your “destiny”.(3)

Materialism: modern China is a very materialistic. For most people, their goal in life appears to be material prosperity for them and their family. Clearly, this contrasts with Jesus’ teaching about the dangers of material prosperity: “Do not work for food that spoils but for food that endures for eternal life.” (John 6:27). However, the re‐emergence in recent years of various religions shows how materialism does not satisfy: many people are looking for something deeper, but most do not know where to look. The state philosophy of scientific aetheism offers nothing beyond materialism.

Success: most modern Chinese are very driven
succeed. The whole education system is focused on getting to the top, by whatever means. Great
emphasis is placed on “self‐improvement”, through courses, etc. People are generally valued for their status, success or wealth. This again is strongly challenged by the gospel. Confronted with Jesus teaching on humility, one Chinese student commented, “I can’t be humble, I want to be the best!”.

Insider vs Outsider: Chinese culture places great emphasis on the family, and on reciprocal obligations within the family and within the network of close friends, such as tongxue (同学 – those with whom one was at school or university). The Chinese have given the world the term “guanxi” (关系), meaning connections. By contrast, with those outside the closed circle, one has no connection and little or no obligation. The Bible’s teaching on “loving your neighbour as yourself” and Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan profoundly challenges this. The Chinese perception of insiders and outsiders is a challenge for how the church can grow into a caring, mutually supportive body, with a mission to those outside.

Suspicion of Other’s Motives: the Chinese tend to be suspicious of the motives of others. A well known saying is “In this world, there is no love without a reason, there is no hate without a cause.” If anyone does something for you, it is assumed that it is done for the purpose of getting something from you, thereby creating an obligation to repay. Thus, Chinese may be suspicious of those who give without expecting anything in return, and so may be suspicious of the friendship or care offered by Christians. On the other hand, such “uncoditional love” can also be a profound witness to Chinese people.

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