Imagine this. You’re a new missionary, freshly arrived to the field. After years of preparation, you’re finally here and you can’t wait to start telling people the Gospel. There is just one slight problem though. The language You can barely tell people your name. Even after a six months or a year of language study, it still feels a bit beyond you to give a really good explanation of the Gospel to your neighbor or the lady selling fruit at the market. But, behold! What do I see on the literature table at the church camp? It’s the Four Spiritual Laws - translated in the local language! That’s the ticket. You buy a whole stack. Your neighbor gets one. The fruit lady gets one. The guy at the gas station gets one. Even the Buddhist monk gets one. Even though you can’t give a good verbal explanation in the local language yet, at least these folks have gotten the Gospel message in a form that they can understand. Or have they?
The vast majority of Gospel tracts in the English language assume some familiarity with Christianity. To say, “God loves you and has a wonderful plan for your life” assumes that both the speaker and the listener know which “God” we are talking about, that “love” is a good thing, and that “you” and “I” really exist. If the person receiving the tract is a Westerner with a nominal Christian background, these are not bad assumptions. However, if the person receiving the tract is a Buddhist in Thailand, where the professing Christian population is less than 1%, can we really make these assumptions? In fact, Buddhism teaches that there is no God, that love is a desire that leads to suffering and should be extinguished, and that neither you or I really exist.
If we just give our Western gospel tracts, written for a Western audience with Western assumptions to a Buddhist, Muslim, or Animist who worships various spirits in the forest, is he going to understand such a tract the same way that a Westerner would understand it? Is the Gospel going to be sufficiently communicated with merely this little tract? Likely not. So then, what’s a missionary to do? Do we stop sharing the Gospel altogether until we are fluent in the local language and fully versed on all aspects of worldview, values, and beliefs of the local culture? Absolutely not. My point here is not to say, “Stop using translated Gospel tracts” but to point out that any Gospel tract translated from English is probably going to need some more explanation that merely what you find in that little booklet. So what then should we do?
- Find good tracts in the local language that don’t need as much explanation to “fill in the gaps”. Some translated Gospel tracts are more usable right “out of the box” then others. Although the Four Spiritual Laws is a popular and well-known tract, I am not convinced that it has the right focus, either Biblically or for the Thai Buddhist context within which I work. The Four Laws tract doesn’t tell you which God it is talking about. It assumes that God loving the world is a positive thing which not all Buddhists would understand since the Buddha taught people to rid themselves of desires like love and not attach themselves to the world. The average Thai Buddhist on the street here might not think about love being a bad thing but some would. I much prefer to use the Two Ways to Live tract because built into it is an explanation that God created the world and reigns over it. Man is subject to God as His creation and we have rebelled against our creator, incurring his wrath by going our own way instead of submitting to our creator. For someone coming from a non-Western, non-Christian background, this is a much better starting point than “God loves you”.
- Keep learning the local worldview, complete with common misunderstandings and objections to the Gospel. I’d encourage new missionaries and those on short-term mission trips to do the best they can in sharing the Gospel with the limited knowledge and language that they have. However, as long as you are on the mission field, keep learning, growing, and adjusting your presentation of the Gospel so as to increase clarity. Don’t be afraid to share the Gospel just because you haven’t yet found some key cultural redemptive analogy that will make the Gospel “click” in people’s understanding. But continually be on the look out for anything that will help you be more clear in what you are communicating. Ask people lots of questions. Check understanding and ask curiosity questions of those whom you are sharing the Gospel with. You may learn something helpful for the next time you share the Gospel. If you get a strange response to some Christian truth you are sharing, go ask a local Christian or a more experienced missionary why that person may have said that. Over time, I have learned that Thai Buddhists think about sin as primarily killing animals and use the word “religion” to mean ethical teaching about how to be a good person. Both these facts are helpful as I try to figure out the best way to communicate with people and answer objections like “All religions are the same because they teach you to be a good person.”
- Supplement the tract that you are using with local illustrations and give further explanation of points that particularly difficult for the local people. A translated Gospel tract should not be used as a "stand alone" evangelism tool. Thai Buddhists conceive of religion as merely ethical teaching so I often belabor the point that while all ethical teaching (“religion”) may be good in a sense, it is insufficient to free us from the power and consequences of sin, and the judgment of God. There is a nice tract and poster preaching story about a boat that illustrates this point nicely. I’ll also often pull in some illustrations from Thai history about Queen Suriyothai and a former king of Chiang Mai in order to help explain substitutionary atonement.
Ideally, there would be a really nice Gospel tract written by a Thai Christian that takes full account of the starting point that Thai Buddhists are coming from. As of yet, I have not found such a tract. Even if I were though, my job as an evangelist would not be done. People are all different and every time I share the Gospel, it is necessary to talk with that individual person. The Gospel of Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever so I don’t change the Gospel. But my approach to people and how I go about sharing the Gospel must change according who I am talking to, just as Jesus spoke differently to the woman at the well (John 4) than he did to the self-righteous Pharisees.
We must never stick a tract under someone’s nose and think that our duty is done, and the Gospel has been shared. However, Gospel tracts can be helpful. I keep a bunch in my car. I sometimes give them out to people I don’t know that well even if the tract is not as suited to the Thai context as it possibly could be. But that’s what I have available right now. And if I have some more time, and the person has the interest, I am happy to take the time to really get into the Gospel, doing the best I can to make the Gospel as clear as possible for the individual that I am talking to. In the years to come, I hope to be continually learning how to be clearer in my explanation of the Gospel, refining and adjusting as I go.
At the end of the day, however, I praise God that it is Jesus Christ who is building his church, using imperfect people and imperfect explanations of the Gospel to work salvation in the hearts of many. Praise be to God alone in the salvation of sinners.