“Being” Church in Buddhist Societies

Blog October 17, 2018

Christ’s method alone will give true success in reaching the people. The Saviour mingled with men as one who desired their good. He showed His sympathy for them, ministered to their needs, and won their confidence. Then He bade them, “Follow Me”.

Ellen G. White, The Ministry of Healing, p. 143.

Several blogs ago, we examined the special potential that Adventists have when sharing the Good News of Jesus with Muslims. In that blog, we pointed out cultural similarities that give Adventists a strong connection with followers of Islam.

Whenever we seek to reach those who are part of another culture or faith, it is vital that we follow Christ’s example of meeting people exactly where they are before bringing them to faith. A recent presentation by Greg Whitsett (director of the Center of East Asian Religions and Traditions) examined ways to do just that when working in a Buddhist society.

When working with those living in Buddhist society, it is vital to understand their social context. In these societies, men are the head of the household. There is also a strong reverence for ancestors, both male and female. Buddhist societies are built on predictability; this is especially true within the home, where each member has clearly defined roles and responsibilities. Loyalty is also a highly regarded principle in these societies.

In Buddhist societies, residents dwell indoors, while guests remain in the front room or courtyard. There is a certain intimacy and vulnerability (typically reserved only for family) that is shared with those who are welcomed beyond that point. Anyone who enters any indoor space must remove his or her shoes. This is not just a sanitary practice, but is also a sign of respect in many countries.

When working in a Buddhist society, the first step before sharing Jesus is to gain the trust and respect of locals. This must be done by simply living among the general population, essentially being “reborn” as a member of their community. Also, while serving the youth and/or the poor is often an entry point into a community, in Buddhist culture it is essential that we follow the example of Jesus by winning the trust of traditional patrons.

Many church planters are eager to begin their work with the acquisition of a building space, as this is an effective method in other cultures. However, in Buddhist societies, it is more impactful to first exist among the community as a resident. Once a building has been acquired, it is important that it be a “shoes-off” space; this creates the atmosphere of kinship or family of believers, as opposed to that of a school or civic center.

Membership in this culture must be personal and familial as opposed to a traditional organization or school. As such, new members should be welcome and participate in the family of believers before they are baptized.

In Buddhist cultures, it is not enough to build a church and expect people to show up and be converted. In these societies, church planters must simply “be” the church. Our responsibility to “be the church” for other people also extends beyond the realm of witnessing in Buddhist societies; indeed, we can learn to be the kind of individuals that draw others into our local churches—wherever we may be in the world—by exhibiting warmth towards and interest in people who visit our congregations. We encourage you to read more about the impact of a warm church atmosphere around the world, here.

Additionally, we invite you to consider your life in and outside of the church environment: are you being the kind of person that people in your life can turn to for support?

Read more about the Center of East Asian Religions and Traditions here.

Created in collaboration with the Institute of Church Ministry.