Thursday, June 15, 2006

Converting the Taiwanese Working Class to Christianity

Christianity Today offers an interesting article on class and cultural issues in Christian missionary work in Taiwan.

Although working-class Taiwanese are not necessarily poor, they are typically less educated—and education here is a crucial symbol of status and success. Some have dysfunctional family backgrounds, and many don't think much of themselves, Gibson says. Traditional and less open to the Western world, working-class Taiwanese tend to be steeped in generations of ancestor and idol worship. Few know the gospel.

"Some white-collar people in Taiwan hear the gospel five times when working-class people don't even hear it once. It's embarrassing," says Lincy Tu, a local evangelist who has planted five working-class churches in the past ten years. "Our society does not have compassion for the working class, and our churches are the same."

In the mid-1800s, early missionaries to Taiwan focused largely on starting Christian schools and hospitals, enabling converts to climb the socioeconomic ladder. They were especially active among aboriginal peoples, who proved far more receptive to the gospel than Han Chinese. The Chinese immigrants, who would eventually compose the vast majority of Taiwan's population, brought from the mainland a mixture of Buddhism and Taoism that would form traditional Taiwanese folk religion. While these beliefs remain popular among working-class Taiwanese, Christianity remains largely inaccessible to them.

Yet Taiwanese seminary professors and pastors, many of whom have studied abroad, continue to endorse Western, academic methods of reaching out to communities, Tu says. For example, worship services usually involve intellectually demanding sermons and text-heavy worship bulletins.

"[Working-class] people are open to the gospel if it's presented to them in a way that they can understand," says Gibson, who is taking part in a renewed effort by Overseas Missionary Fellowship (OMF) to reach Taiwan's working class. "But if church services are conducted like school—the one thing they failed at—it won't work."

Another reason of course is that many educated Taiwanese have lived overseas, where they encounter Christianity as part of the community religious function, which they then adopt. Whereas working class Taiwanese cannot travel.

One problem is that Christianity, as a text-based religion which requires mastery of a particular body of doctrine and texts is that it does require some interest in and ability in reading. Because of this "text bias" the non-text basis of Chinese traditional religious practice often fools westerners into thinking that Chinese religious belief must be non-existent or shallow, when in fact it simply emphasises "doing" rather than "knowing." The result is that text-based proselytization founders:

Missionaries are also experimenting with new methods of explaining the gospel to the working class. IMB's Hokkien Harvest has spent years developing a library of audiocassettes and cds in Taiwanese, the "heart language" of the working class.

"Although the problem of illiteracy isn't as prevalent as I had once expected, we have found out that you always need to have the right evangelistic tools in your tool belt that don't necessarily involve writing and reading," says Mike Miller, current strategy coordinator for Hokkien Harvest. "Otherwise, you'll miss reaching some people."

IMB missionaries in Kaohsiung have found that grassroots audiences particularly enjoy testimonies on tape. Even though one such tape is that of a doctor, "he talks like a taxi driver—kind of down home," Miller says.

When it comes to printed materials, several mission groups have started to use colorful books to tell Bible stories and link them to salvation—a method based on materials developed by New Tribes Mission for use with tribal people groups.

OMF has also started to publish booklets containing simple stories from Scripture. Once, when A-chong picked up a normal Bible, he was overwhelmed by the volume of text. When missionary Tim McCracken handed him an OMF booklet instead, A-chong breathed a sigh of relief. "Oh, I can read that!" he exclaimed.

It is interesting to compare how poorly Christianity has done in Taiwan, to its current growth in China. Indeed, with the exception of Korea, Christianity has made little progress in most of the Confucian societies around China. If the Communists really wanted to stop Christianity, perhaps they should introduce real religious freedom....


Josee said...

I am not sure if the spread of Christianity in Taiwan will be good for the presevation of local cultural and traditional beliefs among the people. I have seen first-hand how the adoption of Christianity has destroyed a lot of cultural practices in my country.

In their eagerness to spread the religion, some overzealous preachers have gone down the route of criticizing & condemning local cultural practices as feudal & superstitious (some of them are but there are some that have historical reasons like dumpling festival) and the local cultural practitioners as herectics.

Consequently, many young people who have adopted the Christian religion stayed away from many traditional practices. Family conflicts often result when the parents remain as Taoists or Buddhists. For example, some converts that i know of have decided to stop visiting their parents on certain days because they don't want to eat food that were used for ancestor worshipping. There are others who have chosen not to even celebrate Chinese New Year cos'they are perceived as 'backward'.

These new converts have taken to embracing Christmas & Easter as their new festivals. However, many do not know that alot of the festivals celebrated in the West do not have Christian origins too (e.g. Halloween).

Taiwanese working class has played a key role in preserving alot of old cultural practices which makes the island unique. I don't wish to see Taiwan's culture being destroyed.

Josee said...

Perhaps the Taiwanese Working Class will be more receptive towards Christianity if the preachers are able to show how the religion will be able to co-exist with their existing cultural practices or else it will continue to appear to these people that the religion is a western religion.

These people are not going to stop practising things that they have be doing for generations. And it certainly doesn't help by telling people that they will go to heaven if they adopt Christianity but hell if they choose to continue with their 'feudal' practices.

I am often preached this way. And I often think what has happened to my loved ones who have passed on which keeps me even further away from the religion.

Michael Turton said...

Yes, there's a sign outside our house that says in Chinese: "The Bible Forbids Ancestor Worship." Great attitude, that.


Geoff C said...

I can't help but agree with Josee. As an (ex)anglican trained priest I despise the mindless aggressive cant of missionaries. I am appalled by their insensitivity to traditional cultures and beliefs and their attempted replacement with so called Christian traditions.
Hokkien Harvest is just one insensitive travesty of a religion which will only harm Taiwanese.
I apologise to sensitive souls....but I wish that all autocratic monotheistic religions and their saccharine brained adherents mortify themselves out of existence.
Geoff C

el spencer said...

I once had an international business class where the professor stressed the importance of adapting to different cultures. This article highlights how Christians have had to change their approach via audio tapes and colorful books to spread their message.

Is this any different from Nike, Nokia or any other global enterprise trying to enter an untapped market?

Great post, dude. Hit any bike-riding Mormons lately?

Ed en Vadrouille said...

What else to say?
Josee has perfectly described word for word what i have seen happening in Tainan.

As a Catholic i can hardly stand the comportment of some of these people, specially since there is a backlash from the taiwanese in my direction whenever i mention that i am Christian.

Taiwanese unfortunately dont understand the differentiation between different "brands" of Christianity. So i end up publicaly disavowing other christians in front of my inlaws-to-be whenever they just get too excessive (a group of 10 of them praying loud and nearly yelling AMEN! in a quiet restaurant...).

It doesnt help as well that the local mormon targets people in the McDonald to abuse them to listen for dizains of minutes to their theology crap. I end up carefully checking both floors before eating in.

I actually went to see a catholic priest just to confirm me that they were not acting in such a way. It made me feel more comfortable at being white and christian.

And yes El Spencer, the message is delivered just as if you were an untapped market. It is basically "buy it or f**k off!".

Zealous missionaries are one of the rare aspects of the anglo-american world i truly despise.