Evangelism: How Long Does It Take? (Part 2)

So we’re talking 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 Gospel and decide to trust Christ very quickly, and the opposite one which says that Chinese people take a painfully long time to make up their mind about the Gospel. Given that both of these positions have some grounding in reality, how can we formulate an answer to that question that will not lead us into unwarranted pessimism or optimism in witnessing? Some observations…

1. The biblical precedent is not as one-sided as it is often depicted.

Often, when we hear of mass conversions to Christ, we are reminded of those first few chapters of the book of Acts, where thousands of Jewish people in Jerusalem are accepting the Messiah they only recently murdered. When we hear of similar movements in our modern world, we are tempted to think, ‘That’s the way it ought to be! Now that’s the Spirit’s power!’ Unfortunately, as I’ve written about before, this is really only dealing with part of the biblical data. Try to find a Pentecost-like mass conversion in the missionary journeys of Paul. Among the Gentiles, it is far more common for Paul’s message to be met with a bit of acceptance, some confusion, and a whole lot of resistance! While it is true that the Spirit is free to move in Pentecost ways, he is also free to move in Mars Hill ways. And to be perfectly honest, Chinese society (and most other un-Christianized contexts) bears a much stronger resemblance to the scenes of Paul’s labors among the Gentiles than to the synagogues of that time.

2. The Gospel story usually takes longer to tell to a Chinese person.

I hope most of you would agree that the clear communication of the Gospel to an unbeliever is sufficient cause for us to anticipate the possibility of that unbeliever coming to Christ. That is, if they’ve heard the Gospel, they may accept it. Simple enough. But in China, it can be much more difficult to make a Chinese person understand the message of the Gospel. Take, for example, the sentence, ‘God is holy, and cannot allow sin to go unpunished.’ Though this premise appears simple, it contains at least three categories that Chinese people do not readily grasp: God, holiness, and sin. A Western child that grows up with Sunday school lessons, sermons, memory verses, and a generally Christianized culture is going to have much more content stored in these categories than their Chinese counterpart. We can at very least say that it takes longer to be sure that a Chinese person understands what we mean by ‘the Gospel.’ But we can say, too, that it has really nothing to do with their Chinese-ness, as much as with their ignorance of helpful background information. We can find the same ‘theological overstimulation’ when witnessing to those from an unchurched context in our own country.

3. Individual cases vary greatly.

It shouldn’t be surprising, then, that any one Chinese person’s response to the Gospel is impossible for us to predict! We have people in our Chinese churches that came to faith in Christ relatively quickly after hearing the Gospel for the first time, and we also have many who waited months to make a decision to accept or reject Christ. So rules are hard to formulate. But we have noticed that much of the fruit that falls earliest soon spoils. Many of the people that seemed most eager to trust Christ prove in the long run to have been rocky soil. Doesn’t Christ’s parable warn us that there is a correlation between speedy conversions and a danger of falling away? Accordingly, the rapid growth of Christianity in China leads us to prepare against a great future apostasy. On the other hand, it is not uncommon for an unbelieving Chinese person to attend church long-term. They may be drawn by the community, the music, the preaching, or just the novelty of the thing. Or they may be dragged by a friend or family member.

4. Something supernatural is happening whenever someone believes.

I think we all agree here. There’s a difference between hearing the Gospel and hearing the Gospel, right? Paul said that the Gospel that he preached was ‘hid’ to unbelievers. What could he mean by that? He certainly didn’t mean that they hadn’t heard! He had seen to that personally! But he did mean that their hearing of the Gospel had not resulted in faith. And that was the result of spiritual blindness. This means that, humanly speaking, the conversion of a sinner is an impossible thing! Those who come to China expecting an easy harvest will be disappointed. There are no easy cases. Thus, however many genuine new believers there are in China, each one represents a miracle wrought by God. In this respect, the question of ‘how long?’ has one ultimate answer: until God answers our prayers for the conversion of the lost! This also means that the pessimism of others is equally unfounded. If a sinner is saved in the United States, it is no less a miraculous work of God’s grace than when a Buddhist is saved in China! It’s all impossible, but we’ve all seen it happen!

5. Apathy towards the Gospel is often blamed on culture.

As in point 3, it is true that many unbelievers attend church for a long time before coming to a point of decision. And as in point 2, it may take them a long time to understand the Gospel message. But these two ‘long times’ (attendance and learning) are not necessarily equivalent! In other words, I don’t believe that it takes a Chinese person months and months to understand the Gospel! Those unbelieving husbands who sit in church for six months before coming to a crisis are not taking six months to figure out what the Gospel means (or the value of our preaching would certainly be called into question)! It is harder for Chinese people to understand the Gospel, but it’s hardly ‘hard’! It shouldn’t take them as many hours to understand the Gospel as, say, to read a book. The Gospel of Christ is simple. I fear that much of our hesitancy to call people to respond to the Gospel is not truly because we want to give them ample time to understand, but because of our own lack of boldness.

Conclusion: How do we answer the question? How long does it take? My answer is something like this: it need take no longer than it takes to clearly explain the Gospel. The Gospel is just as powerful in bringing new life to a Chinese person as to anyone else. It may take several more hours of explanation for a Chinese person to see the Gospel clearly than it would for a churched American kid. But once the facts of the Gospel have been made clear, we can hold our breath in desperate prayer, anticipating the glorious possibilities! The Lord’s hand is not shortened that it cannot save!

In the next post on this topic, I’ll try to flesh out some applications implied by this perspective. How do these observations shape our own commitments to be witnesses in China?

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  1. 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 of evangelism in […]

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