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 characters 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 atheism 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 “unconditional love” can also be a profound witness to Chinese people.

You Get What You Deserve, and if you want something, you must work for it or pay for it. This can be seen in Buddhist ideas of doing things to “make merit”, and giving offerings in order to get something (success, marriage partner, a child, etc.). This makes the whole idea of God’s grace and mercy difficult to accept. Also, since most people consider themselves to be good people, they do not see themselves as sinners who need to repent.

Self‐centredness: the Chinese are not inherently any more self‐centred than any other race, but the “insider/ outsider” value tends to reinforce self‐ interest. The one‐child policy has certainly led to a more self‐centred generation. Only children, with no siblings with whom they have to share, and with the attention of two parents and four grandparents focused on them, are likely to grow up quite self‐ centred! It is noticeable amongst our seeker and new believer friends that their prayers tend to be focused entirely on themselves, their needs and their families. Those expressing interest in the Christian faith often talk about “finding the religion that is best for me”.

Filial Piety is a very strong element of Chinese culture, derived from Confucius. It stresses people’s primary commitment to their parents, with the consequent heavy obligations. Whilst to some extent this is consistent with the Bible’s teaching about honouring your father and mother, it also presents a challenge where adult children cannot question or go against their parents on anything. This is particularly difficult where young people have become Christians. It also presents a problem in marriages, such as when a husband pays more respect to his mother than his wife (c.f. Genesis 2: 24).

Ancestor Worship remains an important element of Chinese culture, at least for some people. Ancestors are seen as retaining influence over the family and will bestow benefits if given honour and gifts. The annual Qing Ming (清明) festival, or “Tomb‐Sweeping Day”, when paper money and other items are burned to help ancestors in the afterlife, can present particular problems for new Christians. Parents are often upset when their children become believers for fear that their children will not carry out their filial duty to their parents when they are dead.

Repaying Parents’ Investment: many Chinese parents regard their children as their investment for their old age. This is reinforced with the one‐child policy, together with the absence of a welfare state and old‐ age pensions. Parents pour their resources into their child’s education, with the expectation that the child will get a good job and so can support their parents in their old age. Whilst it is highly commendable that children take responsibility for their elderly parents, the obligations often seem to be quite onerous and materialistic. It makes it very difficult for a young Christian, as an only child, to serve the Lord by taking a lower paid job or becoming a pastor or missionary.

Pressure to Get Married: the assumption is that everyone should get married and produce a child, preferably well before they are 30. Singleness seems to be culturally quite unacceptable, not least because of the obligation to produce descendants. Parents put great pressure on their children, particularly their daughters, to marry and produce a grandchild, and will suggest “suitable” candidates to marry. For believers committed to marrying believers, this creates a big tension, especially for girls, given the imbalance of Christian girls and boys. This pressure often leads to unsuitable marriages, and the divorce rate is rising rapidly.

Hierarchical Society: despite 60 years of Communism, China remains quite a hierarchical society.(4) Age and status dictate how people relate to one another. This can make it very difficult to challenge what those who are older or higher status say or do, even when it is wrong. It also make is very difficult to resist the demands of the boss at work (the laoban, 老板), however unreasonable those demands. For young Christians in the workplace, expectations of working excessive hours, working on Sundays and participating in corrupt practices, can present serious difficulties.

Some implications for being Church: We observe that many Chinese new believers do not seem to “get” the idea of church. Whilst people are often happy to go to a church, regarding it as a form of entertainment or an opportunity to meet friends, they seem unwilling to commit to belonging, preferring to go randomly to this or that church or group when it suits them. To what extent this is a consequence of the culture, is not clear,(5) but certain cultural factors may be at work: the insider/outsider issue, Chinese pragmatism, the suspicion of motives, the desire for self‐improvement, the suspicion of non‐governmental organisations, etc. There is also the idea, in the writings of Laozi, of “decorating one’s life” with various good things.(6) The tendency to adopt various elements of Christianity without commitment of the heart, seems to fit with that idea.

Notes & References

  1. Because of the long experience of Christianity in the West, many aspects of Western culture have Christian roots, but these have often become mere traditions which have lost their real Christian basis. Moreover, many aspects of modern Western culture are profoundly un‐Christian: post‐ modernism, for example.
  2. Chinese people tend to be very pragmatic, and willing to believe in whatever “works”. Thus, many people seem to be able to hold different religious ideas at the same time, depending what seems to work, and what religion is “in fashion”. There is a saying “For a hundred people there are a hundred beliefs”. (Xinran, The Good Women of China: Hidden Voices, Vintage, 2003)
  3. There is an interesting parallel with – or contrast with – the Biblical concept of the sovereignty of God. However, in contrast to the idea of destiny or blind fate, the Biblical message is of a loving God who, whilst sovereign over everything, still allows us freedom to choose. There is also, in Chinese culture, the idea of Tian (天) or Heaven which controls man’s destiny, and to whom appeals may be made, but this seems more akin to pagan ideas of “the gods” than the Biblical picture of almighty God. Sadly, when Chinese people encounter the Biblical ideas of predestination and election, they may conclude that their “destiny” is that they are not one of the elect.
  4. In some ways, perhaps, the role of the Communist Party – a very hierarchical organisation – has reinforced that.
  5. Many young people in the West also seem to be unwilling to commit to institutions like church or marriage.
  6. “The development of human culture is a process of decoration.” (Laozi, c. 600 BC, quoted by Ye Lang and Zhu Liangzhi, Insights into Chinese Culture).