Launching Movements among Buddhists – 2
Case Studies of Best Practices
– By Steve Parlato –
Edited from a video for Global Assembly of Pastors for Finishing the Task
Part 2: Fruitful Tools and Approaches
To speak into the Buddhist worldview, this vastly different understanding of reality, myself and others have developed some tools. These tools communicate the gospel, contextualize the message, in a way that’s getting a lot more traction among Buddhists. One of those tools is “Creation to Judgment.” A second tool is what I’ll call “The Four Noble Truths of Jesus.” This tool was developed in Myanmar by a Buddhist-background believer and an expatriate working together to really wrestle with the meaning of the gospel and the meaning that needs to be communicated to local Bamar Buddhist peoples. “The Four Noble Truths of Jesus” has seen a lot of traction: a lot of Buddhist-background believers coming to faith. The tool was then taken to Thailand and Cambodia. We did see some traction in Cambodia, but not as much in Thailand, (partly because not many people used it). It wasn’t used widely enough in Thailand to really see its effect. But in my own experience in the Thai context, many Buddhists I talked with didn’t know the terms. They weren’t familiar with the contrasts being made using the tool. I as the messenger started to explain to them Buddhist concepts that they weren’t at all familiar with.
In the Myanmar context, it seemed the average person is very familiar with these terms and an immediate understanding could be forged. In the Four Noble Truths of Buddha, Christians can totally agree that life is full of suffering. Not only is it full of suffering, we know exactly where it came from. You can quote things from the first three chapters in Genesis. We ca totally agree that there is thunha (desire). We see the flesh – the evil nature inside of humans – coming together and creating societies that are broken: full of suffering and creating suffering. So suffering comes from sin and disobedience, and a broken relationship with our creator. We can make the same observation that life is full of sin and its origins are very much in desire. Lastly, there is a place of no suffering. They call it nirvana, we call it the Kingdom of God.
If you use the word heaven, you will immediately have a communication problem. Buddhists already have seven levels of heaven, so they don’t need a Christian heaven; they’ve already got heaven. What we mean by heaven is something completely outside the Buddhist worldview. It is to break free of karma: your sin, karma and its effects. The Good News in Jesus is that you can be free of your sin and your karma and enjoy eternal life with him. The fourth point of the Four Noble Truths is that you attain salvation through perfect implementation of the eightfold path. In Christianity, we just have one path: follow Jesus. Jesus is the way, the truth, and the life; nobody comes to the Father except by following him. The gate is narrow and the way is long that leads to life; that gate and that long path is Jesus. So we have one path not eight.
The other tool, “Creation to Judgment,” I’ve personally seen be very effective at communicating meaning with Buddhists. I’ve trained many hundreds of others to use the tool, and they in turn have trained others. And many of them are reporting good success in using the Creation to Judgment explanation. In Thailand, our Creation to Judgment tool takes about three and a half minutes to tell and it goes like this:
“In the beginning, God created the heavens and he created the earth. In heaven he created angels: many, many angels who were there to serve and worship God. On earth, he made people. He made a man and a woman in his likeness to be with him. And between God and man there was a close relationship like a good family. Everything God made was really good. But a problem happened. In heaven, one angel and his group rebelled against God. They wanted to be like God, so God threw them out of heaven down to earth, which led to another problem. The people God had made did not obey God, so the close family relationship between God and humanity was broken. At that point, death came into the world; suffering came into the world and has continued until this very time. Everything was a terrible mess. But God, who loves people, did not leave things in that situation. He promised there would be a deliverer, a helper who would come and restore the relationship between people and God. That helper, that deliverer, is Jesus. Jesus lived a perfect life; he never sinned. He had the power to heal sickness, to help blind people see, and help the deaf hear. If people had demons, he was able to cast them out. He even brought back to life people who had died. But despite living such a good life, the religious leaders of Jesus’ day were jealous and made a plan to put Jesus to death, death by nailing onto a cross. They arrested Jesus and nailed him to the cross. After he died they took his body down and put it in a tomb, in a cave. God looked down on the sacrifice of Jesus and he was pleased. To show his pleasure, he raised Jesus back from the dead on the third day. In the Bible it says that whoever turns from their sin and places their faith and trust in this helper Jesus, they will be able to break free of their sin – karma. They will be given the right to become a child of God and live forever. And they will receive the Holy Spirit so they will have power to live a life pleasing to God. After Jesus had come back from the dead, he spent about 40 days with his disciples. Then he ascended and went into heaven. But Jesus said he’s coming back. When he comes back, all the people who have ever lived, in all generations, in all places, will appear before God’s judgment seat. Each person will go forward, one at a time, to account for their deeds, the good and bad that they have done. Those who have put their faith and trust in Jesus will live forever with him in his kingdom. Those who did not already put their faith and trust in Jesus will be forever separated from him. [Person’s name], I am a member in God’s family and God loves you and he wants you to be a member in his family. Is that something you want to pursue today?”
In actual field practice we share this tool with many, many people. We almost never get all the way through. People stop us and ask questions. They want an explanation: What do we mean by this? Is it like that? Is it like something else? It’s always important to pause and deal with their questions. If it takes you a half hour or two hours to get through the whole thing, that’s a great sign.
These two tools – the “Four Noble Truths of Jesus” and “Creation to Judgment” – are contextualized tools that help get the message across. The Church in the Buddhist world has primarily followed Western practices and has created church structures that are very Western in form. Wherever church planting has been fruitful in the Buddhist world, you’ll see there has been a level of contextualization. We might use a simple thing, like a gizi bell in Myanmar to send our prayers to heaven, or some local terms for amen. These things help. Using local indigenous music and using oral Bible stories for preferred oral learners: these are really important elements of how we do church together, so that church looks as familiar and normal as it can in that cultural setting. Coming up with church structures suited to a local setting is a conversation that needs to take place with Buddhist-background believers from that culture. They, wrestling with Scripture, maybe with the help of an outsider or outside missionary, come up with those forms.
Our world, our cultures, are in massive change. No culture is static, so creating indigenous church structures does not mean preserving some picture of history in the past or some idealized ancient music form. In all of these Buddhist countries, they’re going to different kinds of music, so you indigenize into the forms that make sense today. That way the church forms don’t destroy people’s identity in their ethnicity or their nationality. They can fully be Christians within their national context. Local Buddhist-background believers need to think critically about the actual forms and terms that get used. They need to think carefully, so they don’t just look at existing churches and say, “Oh, they do it that way; we need to do it that way.” Or “I saw this on YouTube; we’ve got to do it that way.”
A great and helpful role of outside workers is to help local Buddhist-background believers think carefully about what they’re communicating and that they don’t inadvertently perpetrate a Western form. Adoniram Judson was a fruitful missionary to Buddhists in Myanmar. In his memoirs we can see some things that characterized him and his ministry and its fruitfulness. First, he had a passion for the lost. He is known for translating the Bible into Burmese, and that’s one of the key outcomes of his ministry life. But it was a tremendous struggle for him to not be out engaging the lost with the message of Christ, and just translate the Bible. But he received that as his call and he translated the Bible. Yet he was characterized as a person with a passion for the lost. He desired for everyone to hear; he had a vision for all Buddhists in the whole country to know Christ. This “no place left” vision was very much in his heart and soul.
He also released local people to lead very early. He allowed lay church leaders, emerging new church leaders, to perform baptism and then lead their church services. He had an effective system for releasing local people into leadership in their churches. He also had a vision to disciple entire families. You can see in his memoirs: gathering whole families together, where he would identify a key leader in the family unit, whom God had touched. Through that person, they would gather their extended family together and they would have lengthy conversations to present the gospel.
Lastly, I believe certain spiritual warfare topics are unique to the Buddhist world. The first one that myself and others have encountered is miscommunication. Often when one team member explains something to another team member, the listening team member hears something quite different than, even opposite of, what was said or meant. I have noted family conflict when we go into a Buddhist situation, unlike we saw when we were working with Animists or in other parts of the world. There seems to be almost a demonically inspired barrier that inhibits good communication. We talked about that some with the failure to contextualize the message, but even when the message was spoken clearly, there’s some kind of wall – almost like a barrier to hearing what’s being said. A second theme we’ve noticed is a lot of cross-cultural workers having terrible dreams: violent dreams of death. There seems to be a spirit of death involved with those who reach Buddhists.
I pray that some of what I’ve shared will equip you to better launch a disciple-making movement among Buddhist people, wherever you are in this world. Whatever version, whatever mix of Buddhist philosophies are present among the people you’re reaching, just receive them as they are. Use the universal language of love to bring them to full understanding of the true liberation and ultimate truth that’s in Jesus. Never present yourself as another messenger of a religion. Our faith is the ultimate truth, explaining all of reality, all of our future. It is the ultimate hope for all people everywhere. It’s never to be back-pedaled or embarrassed about.
I understand there has been minimal progress among the Buddhist world for various reasons: the great gulf of understanding, differences between Buddhist and Christian teaching, failure to contextualize the message, failure to contextualize our methods and church forms, failure to follow biblical multiplication principles, and a lack of awareness about some of the spiritual warfare issues involved in reaching Buddhists. As you go on your journey, you may be able to add to that message. I trust that you will, and that you will build on this small humble foundation of reaching Buddhists and make it better for the next generation. God bless you in all that you do.