Amanda Mason has noticed Southeast Asians are largely absent from our churches. Given that this time last year Australia was home to almost 435,000 people born in the SEA countries of Vietnam, Thailand, Myanmar, Laos and Cambodia – and their languages are commonly spoken in a range of our suburbs – why the people aren’t also in our churches is a question we should all be asking.
This pattern mirrors a global problem in Christian mission among Asian Buddhists. After two centuries of missionary presence in Southeast Asia, about 1 per cent of people in four of the nations above are part of Christian fellowships (in Vietnam it’s 9 per cent)
Aiming to make church a place where we embrace and understand Southeast Asians from countries such as those above. Mason, a Thai Australian herself, works with the department of Evangelism and New Churches to help parishes rethink how we can respond to the needs of Southeast Asian Buddhist communities.
Here are five helpful things for Christians to consider about Southeast Asian culture before they jump into sharing their faith.
1. How do we balance the conversation?
We’re keen to tell people about Jesus, and so we often provide too much information too fast, before the other person is ready to listen. “In Southeast Asian cultures, trust is essential, and trust can’t be built in a short time,” Mason says. “Southeast Asian cultures are so relational. How can they trust you if they don’t know who you are? What’s the point in listening to your words? Words are hard to understand when English isn’t your first language, so why should they make the effort to listen when they don’t know you?”
It can take a long time to earn the privilege to be trusted enough to have someone listen attentively. “You are better off making a friend rather than a project,” Mason says. “This will take time.” Sharing religiously neutral experiences can help to build trust.
2. How are my Christian words being understood?
Key concepts of Christianity – such as sin, guilt, forgiveness, spirits and the afterlife – are understood differently by Southeast Asian Buddhists.
“Sin has a different meaning in the Buddhist framework,” Mason says. “Heaven has a different meaning in a karmic framework. There are several heavens and it’s about reincarnating into a different level of heaven. People also don’t feel guilty for transgressing the Five Sila in Thai Buddhism, which is like the 10 Commandments in Christianity. So many people break them.”
There’s also a gap in our knowledge of how the Holy Spirit relates to other spirits in the Buddhist worldview. “One thing we don’t understand is the fear and power of different animistic spirits,” Mason says. “It can be a great relief to hear that God’s Holy Spirit is more powerful than other spirits, but it takes sensitivity to know when the best time is to offer this point. Often people run to spirits in times of crisis. Sensitivity is important in times of crisis.”
3. How can we nurture long-term relationships?
Faithful friendship speaks loudly to those from a Southeast Asian background. “It’s a witness in itself. Be so faithful to this person that you’re still there in 10 years’ time, that their mother knows you and that their mother speaks well of you. Be reliable.”
Sharing your faith will have the biggest impact in this context. “Ask them about their family and get to know their family tree. Pray for their whole family. It’s meaningful later on when they find out you’ve been doing that. By explaining you’re praying for someone, you’re sharing what your experience of God is: that he’s personal. If the prayer is answered with a ‘Yes’, you’re showing God cares and answers.”
4. Do I need to rush?
Explaining the gospel too quickly can seem aggressive, and to cultures where smooth relationships and confrontation avoidance are core values, this is counterproductive.
“If you take the time and build the relationship, they will see something of Jesus in that,” Mason says. “What impression does our urgency cause? It causes confrontation, which is not good. It also [implies] superiority over a culture that’s existed for ages – it’s not listening to their wisdom. All of this is very problematic. I know that Jesus may come back soon, but my faithful duty might not be to attack someone, it is to continue to relate with them.”
5. How do we balance the conversation?
It is helpful for Christians to take the time to untangle the complex history between Buddhist peoples and their understanding of the church. Rather than starting at square one, Christians should begin even further back.
“What would happen if we sought to balance the amount of time spent speaking and offering the Christian gospel with time spent understanding the Buddhist’s past experience with Christianity? Mason asks. “Could this possibly remediate the Buddhist perceptions of Christians’ earnest – and, frankly, terrifying – desire to convert them? Understanding their history with Christianity in their family of origin, possibly with a history of colonial occupation, can help the relationship move.”