The Good Earth by Pearl Buck was my all-time favorite book in Mrs. Sigmon’s 7th grade English class. Back then, I never would have imagined I’d spend 20 years of my life in the land of China. I also couldn’t have guessed that in 2010, my daughter and I would have the opportunity to act as Pearl Buck in a Chinese documentary in Jiangxi province. We discovered Pearl Buck spent her summers there with her parents, as she grew up in China in the late 1800’s.
The TV documentary included scenes of my 11-year-old daughter as the young Pearl Buck sitting at a desk, writing in a journal, getting her hair brushed by a Chinese servant, going to sleep in a big bed and waking up as me, the adult Pearl Buck. I chopped wood with an ax (this required multiple shootings as I was not a natural wood cutter), attempted to type with an old-fashioned typewriter, and in the final scene tied my scarf on the fence of the summer home while I carried my suitcase and looked back longingly.
It was sobering for me to see the way Pearl Buck’s father presented a very foreign gospel. One scene shows him preaching passionately while a Chinese peasant angrily exits the church, and in another scene a farmer refuses his gift of a Bible. Pearl Buck later criticized her father for having a negative impact on the people he was trying to convert. She also felt he neglected his family while he absorbed himself completely in “his work.” As an adult, Pearl seemed to turn away from the Christian faith that had been poorly modeled in her life.
Pearl Buck’s only reference to Christianity in The Good Earth is how the Chinese would have experienced it: a strange-looking white man presenting a piece of paper to an illiterate Chinese farmer, whose only impression of the half-naked man on the cross was that he must have been a very evil man.
Acting as Pearl Buck and learning more of her story challenged me to consider the way cross-cultural workers have presented the Good News throughout history in their pursuit of Christian converts. Their view of God, their view of themselves, and their view of the people they minister to were extremely critical to achieving the end result.
Because of our common commitment to overseas ministry, we are all aware of the pressure to report to our supporting churches the metrics of conversions. But is that really what we want to be about?
“Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You travel over land and sea to win a single convert, and when you have succeeded, you make them twice as much a child of hell as you are,” (Matthew 23:15, NIV).
Ouch. What a stinging rebuke by Jesus. This is not the kind of conversion we are after.
The Apostle Paul, who worked so hard to present a pure gospel of grace with no strings attached, reassured the Thessalonians:
“God tested us thoroughly to make sure we were qualified to be trusted with this Message. Be assured that when we speak to you we’re not after crowd approval—only God approval. Since we’ve been put through that battery of tests, you’re guaranteed that both we and the Message are free of error, mixed motives, or hidden agendas. We never used words to butter you up. No one knows that better than you. And God knows we never used words as a smoke screen to take advantage of you.”
1 Thessalonians 2:3-5, MSG
Ultimately, I think all of us in the Velvet Ashes community believe the Gospel has the power to bring new life to people of all nations and languages through complete life transformation within their own cultural contexts.
Without life transformation, what do Christians even have to offer? Christianity becomes just another religion, one that puts people’s focus in the wrong place—on converting to a new religious culture instead of developing a life-long, life-changing relationship with Jesus right where they are.
As the community of Christ and true representatives of Him, let’s remove the burden of reporting back conversions as the “fruit” of our work. Instead, may our focus be to live lives worthy of the Gospel, with the Fruit of the Spirit, and to share the Good News in a way that seeks to really love and understand other people. May Jesus reach out – through us and into other cultures – to draw others to Himself.
How has the myth of conversion impacted you? How have you seen lives transformed by the Good News that respects and crosses cultures? What can we learn from how cross-cultural workers did (and do) hinder the movement of Christ because of ignorance and pride in their attempts at religious conversion?