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Religion in Context: Exploring Viable Forms of Christianity in East Asia

By Lydia Gingerich

Everything we do is covered in culture: the way we wash our hands, what time we eat meals, and even what we eat for those meals. Each part of the world has developed a way to execute daily tasks, providing comfort through ritual. But what if we were told we must change these basic practices in the name of religion?

“In Buddhist culture, the first forty days after death is a time of high importance, that person’s spirit is still in limbo before going to the next body,” report William and Rebecca,*RMM workers in East Asia. If family members do not perform the correct rituals, or if they do not take the first forty days seriously, it shows a lack of care. Many generations later, a family will still be judged for the way they handled those days. In the midst of this cultural practice, East Asian believers are trying to understand their responsibility as both followers of Christ and participants within their communities.

When William and Rebecca first moved to East Asia, they were cautious about asking local believers to adopt western rituals of faith. “We looked down on missionaries from the past who would go in with choir robes, pews, and an organ.” So, while staying away from those items, the couple soon realized they were doing the same thing with guitars, choruses, and Bible studies. “We would sing in the local language, but the structure was very similar to what we grew up with.” Rebecca confesses that when she noticed this, she was shaken, and she had a lot more grace for the workers who came before her. William remembers realizing the gravity of this during one of their meetings. “I looked over at one of the ladies who had been a Buddhist for most of her life. She was used to reverent prostration – and we were sitting there laughing in our living room.” He thought, “How could she view this as religion?”

The way William and Rebecca did Christianity made an impact not only on the believers in their fellowship, but they realized it also could produce a ripple effect throughout the country. While some people are looking to leave Buddhist culture completely, William believes that one of the biggest reasons East Asians don’t become Christians is because they feel they will betray their people. Culture matters, and if Christianity is seen as outdated or too foreign, it could keep many people from choosing Jesus. In the last number of years, they have taken steps to find a worship style that works for their East Asian fellowship.

One of the ways they have adopted an East Asian approach to religion is by having a designated worship room. This space includes paintings that honor Christ and depict stories from his life made in the East Asian style. Candles and incense are burned so the room smells and feels sacred to those who fellowship there. While the group continues to use the living room for socialization, the worship room is reserved for communal worship.

When one of the ladies first saw the worship room she asked, “Are you allowed to do that?” She was used to the western style of Christianity. It took her a while to warm up to the new idea, but William and Rebecca heard later that this woman told her sister who then put up similar paintings in her own home. “Since her sister put up that artwork, she has received less pressure from her family about not being Buddhist.” She is still religious in a way that her friends and family could recognize, and that was acceptable.

William explains, “East Asians often want to know what they will do if they become a Christian – what are the actual actions they will take. Maybe we are not vocally allowing or disallowing, but they will pick up on what we do.” If this culture looks at the church William and Rebecca are leading and only see American Christianity – the result of how religion has developed and evolved with western culture – they will be confused. While William and Rebecca have started incorporating traditional East Asian worship formats, they want those who have grown up in the culture to take the lead in this direction. They see their role as one of exploration, inviting those around them to make decisions about which rituals and customs they want to adopt, adapt, or reject.

“They saw something workable, as opposed to a Christianity that has all kinds of barriers between the faith and their culture.”As members of a country that has been primarily Buddhist for the past two millennia, East Asian Christians have been making these decisions for a long time. When one lady, in particular, became a Christian, her husband, who was a Buddhist, expected her to perform her role as the woman of the household and give offerings to the idols. “She refused because she was now a Christian, so her husband began to beat her,” says William. She later found a verse in the Bible telling her to obey her husband. Presented with a paradox, she decided to serve the idols not on her own behalf, but on her husband’s. The beatings stopped, and he allowed her to go to Christian meetings. Looking to the passage in 1 Corinthians 8 where Paul responds to eating food sacrificed to idols, she strives to remain a member of society while following Christ.

These are the sorts of decisions with which East Asian Christians struggle as they aim to be faithful to Christ. Figuring out how to be Christian and East Asian means deciding how to have a funeral without alienating themselves and how to portray faith to family members. It is not an easy process, but it can be exciting.

At a recent gathering, some of the East Asian believers discussed how their current practice of faith differs from the one initially presented to them. “They were introduced to a harsh and strict practice of Christianity, but Christianity in this form doesn’t alienate them from their families as much. They think that a culturally sensitive Christianity could spread throughout the land.” For William “that was a tremendous blessing. They saw something workable, as opposed to a Christianity that has all kinds of barriers between the faith and their culture.”

Pray for this family as they continue to engage the culture around them while bringing God’s light to this part of the world. Pray that the body of believers in East Asia would grow in number and maturity.

*Names changed for security