Evangelism: How Long Does It Take?

One of the more common questions I field about ministry in mainland China is about how long it takes the average Chinese person to make a decision about the Gospel? While plenty of anecdotes might be supplied, the question remains a difficult one to answer. I do care to attempt a response, though, because questions like this one help to shape expectations and strategies for missionary work. Let me show you what I mean…

There are two extreme viewpoints concerning this issue, and they both seem to be based on real-life observations. The first of these extreme viewpoints says something like this, ‘The harvest in China is ripe. People are responding to the Gospel in large numbers. The Spirit of God is powerfully at work, and the church is growing by leaps and bounds.’ Now, what kind of expectations and strategies does this perspective lead western Christians to? Quite often it leads us to believe that evangelism in China is a walk in the park!

And that is precisely what many western Christians believe. Often I hear American Christians lament that their country is so hard, while the people of other countries (such as China) are so hungry for the Gospel. Nor are missionaries immune to such thinking. I once heard a missionary to China jokingly tell an American pastor that you could speak a bunch of gibberish to Chinese people, and they’d get saved! This sort of perspective certainly doesn’t give much incentive to aspiring missionaries to get much in the way of pre-field training. And more subtly, such expectations may also lead visiting westerners to associate many or all visible manifestations of Christianization as glorious works of the Spirit, regardless of violence being done to the Gospel. Meaning, while a Chinese church may not preach anything like the Gospel you preach back home, the masses of people crowding into the pews may yet be mistaken for a revival!

On the other hand, there is an extreme viewpoint that says, ‘Most Chinese people come from either a Buddhist or atheistic background. They usually have to hear the Gospel many times before they are ready to make a decision. It is a huge decision to follow Christ, and they don’t take it lightly.’ Naturally, the expectations and strategies this view gives rise to are considerably different. It tends to expect a long career of faithful service of sowing and watering and relatively little visible fruit.

This perspective is common among many full-time laborers in China (some of whom came to China assuming the other extreme viewpoint!). Most missionary English teachers, for example, have been told that the best thing they can do with their time in China is to build some long-term relationships with some of their students and consistently live out the Gospel in plain view, and be ready at all times to answer questions about their faith. All hope of sharing the Gospel with a large number of people has been abandoned. Church-planters are no strangers to these feelings, either. The difficulties of planting indigenous churches (unlike some other missionary endeavors) do not exactly foster optimism in evangelism.

So, the question is hardly of little account. Is there a better alternative to the above extremes, a way to simultaneously grapple with the realities that each of them rightly discern? I’m going to resist the urge to develop an answer in this post, as that would make it much longer than it already is. For now, suffice it to say that both of these viewpoints are recognizing important realities in modern Chinese missions. It is true that many Chinese people are professing faith in Jesus Christ. It is also true that many Chinese people take a long time to contemplate the claims of Christianity. And where do these two realities lead us, if not to prayer? Let us give thanks for the undeniable harvest that is being realized in many parts of China! And let us implore God to do what only His Spirit can do – bring stony-hearted sinners to repentance and faith.

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BONUS UNSOLICITED OPINION!!!

I have a strong dislike for the word ‘balance.’ First of all, everyone thinks their position is balanced! Have you ever heard anyone call themselves a hyper-anything? The word ‘balance’ is a screen to cover all manner of thoughtlessness and inexactitude. It is often no more than an intellectual cop-out. A question like the one we’re talking about in this post could be rephrased as, ‘How do you strike a balance between these two perspectives on evangelism in China?’ The answer, then, can’t very well be, ‘Try to be balanced’! The question in such cases is ‘where is the fulcrum?’ not ‘should there be a fulcrum?’ Given that the extreme positions on a given issue are untenable, the real question is where on the range between those two extremes you fall. If I asked you where you thought was a good place to live, it would not be helpful for you to answer, ‘Extremes should be avoided – strive to live between the North Pole and the South Pole.’

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4 Comments on “Evangelism: How Long Does It Take?”

  1. East-West Ministries April 2, 2013 at 2:38 pm #

    We find the same to be true in many Muslim nations. The harvest at times is fast, and at others is slow, but often they are all years in the making. And there’s no denying that the Holy Spirit is moving in many unreached nations! What may seem small to we Americans is often a large step in the world’s spiritually darkest regions. Thanks for your perspective!

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. Evangelism: How Long Does It Take? (Part 2) | The Gospel in China - April 6, 2013

    […] about how long it takes for the average Chinese person to make a decision about the Gospel message. Last post looked at two extreme positions, one of which says that Chinese people are incredibly open to the […]

  2. Evangelism: How Long Does It Take? (Part 3) | The Gospel in China - April 20, 2013

    […] the last post in this thread (read part 1 here and part 2 here) I shared some observations about sharing the Gospel with Chinese people. Thinking […]

  3. The Widget Salesman | Sino Project - June 5, 2013

    […] our co-laborer has done a wonderful job at explaining the difficulty in answering this question here, here and here. I believe an illustration is at hand to further explain the receptivity to the […]

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