Although Christianity is growing rapidly in some parts of Asia, the question remains: How can we reach the 97 percent non-Christian population with the gospel? The best answer is the mobilization of 70 million Christians in Asia to reach their own people.
But it will take effective leaders to mobilize these Christians. There is a discouraging lack of leadership, however, because Christian young people have not entered full-time Christian service, and because some who have done so are no longer in Asia.
The West must be held partly responsible. When it has retained Asia’s talented scientists, doctors, nurses, and teachers, the West has also kept some of Asia’s gifted Christian leaders. For instance, the number of Chinese theologians in North America is greater than the total in Asia. The American consulate in Madras, India, said recently that 90 percent of the Indian theological students who have studied in the West have not returned to India. There are 250 Korean churches in the Los Angeles area with some 300 Korean pastors. There are 70 Korean churches in the greater Chicago area. One Filipino church in Chicago has seven Filipino pastors sitting in its pews during a Sunday morning service. There are more than 50 Filipino pastors in Los Angeles who are selling insurance.
The shortage of Christian workers in Asia, especially theologians, is alarming. In the mid-seventies a Lutheran church in North Sumatra had 11 trained pastors for 440 churches and 337,000 members. The Protestant church of West Indonesia has one pastor for 88 congregations. The Protestant Church of Sabah in East Malaysia has eight full-time ministers and 160 lay leaders for its 130 churches and 12,000 members. In Taiwan, 300 congregations have no pastors.
At least three steps are necessary if Asian churches are to grow. First, the burden of communicating the gospel and making disciples must be primarily the Asian Christian’s responsibility. There is a great need for grassroots evangelism by Asians. I recently saw three American college students in downtown Taipei, Taiwan, passing out tracts. They were carrying a large placard saying in Chinese, “Jesus came to save you.” They were using a tape recording to proclaim the gospel message in Chinese over a loudspeaker. My question is not whether their method was effective. My question is whether Asian Christians can do grassroots evangelism with as much zeal as those American students. They can if they are trained.
As a Korean, it is very important to me to think that Jesus Christ is my Korean Christ, rather than a white man’s Christ whom the missionary brings to us. Korean Christians should feel responsible for making Christ known to other Koreans.
Second, effective church growth must depend mainly on the creative, Spirit-filled leadership of pastors and lay leaders in the local churches. Confucius once said, “Whilst thy father lives, look for his purpose; when he is gone, look how he walked. To change nothing in thy father’s way for three years may be called pious.” In the Eastern culture, where the Confucian filial piety concept has been ingrained in people for centuries, the authority and responsibility of an elder and teacher are notable. Pastors and lay leaders thus carry enormous authority in the life of the churches. Effective, well-trained leaders can become quite significant. Allen Swanson, a veteran Lutheran missionary in Taiwan, studied 10 rapidly growing churches and found that the one basic factor in their growth was the creative, Spirit-filled leadership of the pastors and lay leaders.
Third, the top priority of Western missionaries must therefore be the training of pastors and lay leaders. It has long been recognized that a well-trained national is far more effective than a foreign missionary, because he knows his culture, language, and people far better, and because, in the eyes of the government, he presents Christianity as his own belief and not as an import from the West.
Should we not take a fresh look at the training of nationals in order to enable them to reach their own people and tribes?
Educational standards are rising rapidly, and theological education must raise its standards as well to meet both intellectual and spiritual needs. Each country should have at least one or two evangelical graduate seminaries, and evangelicals should work together to establish regional graduate and postgraduate programs.
Such regional, cooperative institutions should offer programs in Old and New Testament, theology, church history, Christian education, communications, counseling, evangelism, church growth, missions, music, theological education by extension, and world religions. I have received scores of letters from all over Asia inquiring about graduate training in these areas. Because we don’t have such graduate-level schools, except for general M.Div. and Th.M. programs in biblical studies, I can only recommend training in the West.
If we are to build the quality and scope of theological education in Asia, we must in the long term aim for independence from the West. At the same time, we recognize how hard it is to achieve an effective graduate training program without close cooperation with Western missionaries and Western theological schools. Evangelical mission societies and seminaries in the West must give top priority to the training of national leaders. There has to be constant communication between Asian and Western theological schools. Many Asian students have gone to Western institutions believing they could not find in Asia what they were looking for. This trend can be reversed if Asian schools expand their programs. Western seminaries should not encourage Asians to come for training if similar programs are offered in Asia.
What can Western Christians do to assist and complement the church in Asia? They can begin where every movement of the Holy Spirit begins—with prayer. As the missionary comes and trains the Asian, both need prayer for wisdom and understanding. As the national is trusted to take on responsibility, he needs prayer that he will not be defeated and discouraged by Satan’s devices. And as the Asian Christian is thrust into positions of leadership and sometimes prestige, he needs prayer that God will add fruit to his labors and call many of his fellow countrymen to faith in Jesus Christ.
Asian churches need missionaries who understand these three T’s: people who are willing to train us in very specific areas, to trust us to do God’s will, and to thrust us into the fields to labor.
Bong Rin Ro, a Korean, is executive secretary of the Asia Theological Association, Taipei, Taiwan, and editor of Asia Theological News and Asian Perspective.
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