There has long been talk about the role of worldview in cross-cultural ministry and the need for Christians to understand not only their own worldview, but also the worldviews of those to whom they minister. As ministers and missionaries, we not only desire to understand people’s worldviews, but we also hope to see change occur in the student communities we serve. We believe the gospel can and should deeply impact the way our Chinese friends understand themselves, God, and the world. One aspect of worldview that has been getting more attention with the rise of the global church is that of cultural narrative. All peoples live according to a story explaining who they are – cultural narratives explain where a group comes from and where it is going. For individuals, cultural narratives explain what group they belong to and why. Of course, not every person has a complex and well-defined idea of what makes up his or her cultural narrative. Some people have highly articulated understandings of who they are, where they have come from, and where they are going. Others have less developed ideas and operate according to very basic terms of identity.
But regardless of the complexity or simplicity of the narrative, all people operate according to some story they believe explains who they are. For example, I know that I belong within the story of America and its perpetual struggle for liberty. I am the descendant of German and Scotch-Irish immigrants, and I am the first person on my mother’s side to graduate from college. I am a Christian and have always been part of a church since I was born. Along with many other aspects of my narrative, these big and small stories tell me who I am. I may not actively think about them much of the time, but the narrative within which I operate is integral to my understanding of both self and culture. From the small individual to the complex society, narratives shape the world in which we live.
As noted by historians and missiologists, the operative role of narratives in peoples and societies is precisely what makes conversion to Christianity so full of conflict. With the adoption of a new belief system, the convert suddenly risks losing all of her preceding cultural narratives. Who is she now and how does she relate to her home culture? Where is she going and what are the objectives of her life? And often most importantly, how is she supposed to interpret her past? How are the cultural narratives that previously shaped and defined her life to be dealt with?
When faced with these questions, converts to Christianity often respond in two potential ways. On one hand, they may deal with their conflict with complete abandonment of all preexisting narratives. Relationships with family and friends may be abandoned and all things associated with the individual’s home culture set aside. For those of us working with Chinese in America, an example of this might be the strong desire many new Christians display to remain in the United States rather than return home. Because their narrative of faith has only ever been experienced here, it is often simply easier to adopt a new cultural narrative rather than figure out how to deal with the one they left behind.
On the other hand, converts to Christianity may respond in a second way by trying to hold on to their preexisting narratives without letting the gospel challenge or reshape them. This can look like anything from complete syncretism to an overly pietistic interpretation of the gospel in which faith is relegated so completely to an inward and private reality that it never challenges the convert’s previously held narratives. I have watched many Chinese students embrace the gospel as a helpful tool or meaningful experience for life, but fall short of seeing the bigger picture. They continue to operate according to the big picture of life Chinese culture offers and little change takes place in their lives apart from a therapeutic sense of peace. While this inward peace is a good thing, by itself, it does not produce fruit in a person’s life.
As Americans working to spread the gospel within Chinese communities in our country, I am afraid that our students are particularly at risk in this area. They often do not have the benefit of coming to faith within their own cultural context, but rather are converting to a new belief system while in a foreign context. Especially if the Christian walking with them in the process is American, rather than Chinese, the convert faces greater conflict; for just as with all cross-cultural interaction, some of the gospel message will inevitably retain aspects of American culture. Even in my best efforts, I can never fully lay aside my own cultural narratives and this makes the picture even more muddled for my converts as they try to understand exactly what the gospel means for their own Chinese cultural narrative. When is the gospel itself creating conflict with the convert’s cultural narrative and when is it simply the American narrative clashing with the Chinese narrative?
Without an understanding of God’s redemptive-historical narrative for the world and of their personal and cultural place within that narrative, the Chinese we serve will by de facto inherit the narrative of Western life and Western faith. This is something we should be proactively counteracting. It is not our job to make Chinese internationals more American in their faith, and we can only avoid such from happening if we give them a bigger narrative than the ones our and their culture can deliver. It is our job to empower them to understand the metanarrative of the gospel so that they might interpret their cultural background accordingly. In a cross-cultural setting, the Chinese we work among are most commonly either maintaining their preexisting narratives or they are unconsciously piecing together narratives based on the American culture that surrounds them. We need to give them the gospel metanarrative that embraces and transforms all other narratives according to God’s revelation.
Salvation is for the individual, after all, but it demands our adoption into a new family. Chinese converts often know a lot about their relationship to their new Father and what it means for their personal life, but they usually know very little about the family into which they have been brought. Without explaining and incorporating the historical-redemptive narrative into our evangelism and discipleship, we invite students to build a relationship with God their Heavenly Father while allowing them to know nothing of the family God has used and is using to create his story of redemption. Our students know they have a great Redeemer who has rescued them and who gives them peace and meaning in life; but they often lack an understanding of what that means for where they came from and where they are going.
This is key and so I'll repeat it: in order for a person’s worldview to change, he needs to understand where he and his culture have come from and where they both are going. As Andrew F. Walls writes,
“If a nation is to be discipled, the commanding heights of a nation’s life have to be opened to the influence of Christ; for Christ has redeemed human life in its entirety. Conversion to Christ does not isolate the convert from his or her community; it begins the conversion of that community. Conversion to Christ does not produce a bland universal citizenship: it produces distinctive discipleships, as diverse and variegated as human life itself. Christ in redeeming humanity brings, by the process of discipleship, all the richness of humanity’s infinitude of cultures and subcultures into the variegated splendor of the Full Grown Humanity… This means that the influence of Christ is brought to bear on the points of reference in each group. The points of reference are the things by which people know their identity and know where, and to whom, they belong. Discipling a nation involves Christ’s entry into the nation’s thought, the patterns of relationship within the nation, the way the society hangs together, the way decisions are made.”
Does the Christian faith in China simply mean inward peace for individuals? Does it mean becoming more Western as one matures in faith? Does it mean that all of Chinese history and culture must be abandoned? If we agree that the answer to these questions is a resounding “no,” then we must reconsider the overly simple gospel explanations we as American Christians are telling our Chinese students. We must wrestle to find ways of preaching the gospel that communicate the bigger, fuller picture of God’s plan for the world, a picture that includes China, its lengthy history, complex culture, and multifaceted people.
We can start by developing better ways of incorporating what God has been doing in this world from beginning to end in our explanation of the gospel. After all, there is a goal and direction towards which God is working and he asks his adopted children to be a part of it. Until our Chinese converts are able to understand the grand cosmic metanarrative God desires for them to participate in, they will continue to operate according their old worldviews, maintaining faith as a private and personalized matter. It is only through communicating redemptive history in our gospel conversations with Chinese seekers and believers that they will start to think of themselves, their communities, and their culture holistically within God’s grand plan.
Hannah Nation serves as the blog editor for the China Partnership. She is a student at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary and works full-time on staff with China Outreach Ministries, serving students in the Boston metro area. She first traveled to China in 2005 and has cared deeply for the country and its church ever since.