by David E. Housholder
This series started with an introduction to Buddhism and to the modified version, Tibetan Buddhism. The second article explained the importance of this particular focus on Tibetan Buddhism, showing both the subtle and not-so-subtle ways Tibetan Buddhism is influencing our culture and attracting people to follow its principles. That article closed with three beginning steps for helping believers be prepared both to understand the differences between Christianity and Buddhism and to be able to share the gospel effectively with followers of Tibetan Buddhism.
We want to help the people in our churches to "always be prepared to give an answer" to those who ask about the hope we profess (1 Pet. 3:15). The contrast is great. M. Tsering writes in Jesus in a New Age, Dalai Lama World: Defending and Sharing Christ with Buddhists, "Tibetan Buddhism is the path of mystic occultism, superstition, and ultimate despair. Jesus Christ's is the path to life" (p. 165). So what do we need to do to enable those in our churches or small groups to point Buddhists to that path to life? There are two processes: preparing for this ministry and engaging in this ministry.
Preparing for this ministry
1. The key first step for launching out into any ministry challenge is prayer. And prayer is not just first in order, it is first in priority.
2. Christians need to have a sense of the consistent Genesis-to-Revelation purposes of God and need to see how those purposes have been and can be communicated across cultures. Everyone, even mature believers, would benefit from going through a course, like the Alpha Course, that is designed to make the biblical message clear to people with no biblical or church background. We can learn from such an approach how we might make our message understandable to people with a Buddhist world view. The Perspectives on the World Christian Movement course (taken in a group setting or individually online at www.perspectives.org) helps prepare people to take the gospel message across cultures.
3. Specialized training programs are available to your church. One such program is called the Introduction to Ministry to Tibetan Buddhists (IMTTB). Instructors will come to your church to present this one-day workshop. Write to email@example.com for information on how you can host such a course.
4. We can help believers get a biblical perspective on key topics in Christian-Buddhist discussions through sermons or class sessions on such topics as desire, suffering, self, prayer, compassion, and more. "Desire," for example, is seen in Buddhism as the cause of all suffering. They aren't speaking of evil or lustful desire, but of all desire, all longing. The desire for close friendships, the desire for joy, and even the desire to see oneself as a significant individual. What does the Bible say about desire? We read that Eve took the forbidden fruit because it "was to be desired to make one wise," and in the Law we are told not to desire (covet) anything of our neighbors. So is desire a bad thing as the Buddhists say? But wait. Look through the Psalms and see how the words of God are to be desired (Ps. 19) and that when we delight ourselves in the Lord, He gives us the desires of our heart (Ps. 37). And Hebrews 11:16 tells us that God is not ashamed to be called the God of our Old Testament ancestors because they desired a heavenly country. Through such studies we develop a thoroughly biblical world view.
5. Equip the church library with some essential books on ministry to Buddhists. You at least need to have M. Tsering's Jesus in a New Age, Dalai Lama World (available at www.interserveusa.org or www.interserveusa.biz), M. Thirumalai's How to Share Your Faith with a Buddhist, and T. Hale's A Light Shines in Central Asia.
6. Collect some resource materials people can share with Tibetan Buddhists. If you have contact with Tibetan people who have immigrated to North America you will want to have a few Tibetan Bibles or English/Tibetan New Testaments (see www.multilanguage.com). Other tools are the JESUS film in Tibetan, and materials to help people with no Bible background to grasp the message of the Bible (for example, By This Name by John R. Cross. See www.goodseed.com).
Engaging in Ministry
1. Are there Tibetan restaurants or shops near you? Is there a Tibetan Buddhist study center or monastery in your area? Are there international students from Tibetan Buddhist countries (perhaps from Bhutan or Nepal or China)? Are there people of whom you are aware who are intrigued by the teaching of the Dalai Lama? That's the first step, finding those with whom you can share.
2. Ministry begins with lots of listening. Let people tell you their stories. How did they come to be in North America? Or what has attracted them to the Tibetan Buddhist way? Do lots of listening.
3. After listening, ask some key questions and then listen some more! One question I often ask is "What do you do to keep yourself spiritually fresh?" You can also ask their understanding of God, of self, of suffering, of rebirth. The more you understand their point of view the better you will be prepared to present your own understandings in ways they can grasp.
4. Offer, as you sense it might be appropriate, to pray for your friends. As you have listened you have learned of their needs. Offer to pray for God's blessing on their lives. Rarely will people refuse to let you pray for them; most people welcome it gladly.
5. Eventually you could offer to loan your friend a copy of the JESUS film, or you could ask if they would like to study the Bible with you. You could either work through a book like By This Name or just study through the Gospel of John or some of the parables and teachings of Jesus.
6. One thing you don't want to do is rush to invite your friend to church. That experience can be more confusing then helpful to someone with no church background. Fellowship around your dinner table (or theirs) will be a better way to help your friend know what Christians are like.
7. Finally, realize that ministry with people means commitment to them. It means caring for them as people, not as subjects for witness.
Buddhism is growing as a religion in the U.S.. Sharing Christ with Buddhists, especially Tibetan Buddhists, is not an easy task, but it is one to which God has called us.
David E. Housholder served for over 20 years in India among Tibetan Buddhist refugees.
He is Interserve USA's EthnoServe director.