The dos and don'ts of witnessing to Buddhists


While Christianity is hardly on the radar of young people in Western countries, Buddhism is growing in popularity.

In fact in the 90s, as people were leaving the church in their thousands, it was the fastest growing faith in the UK. Today, there are over 500 Buddhist centres and meditation sites in the country.

There is in Europe, the sense that Christianity has been "tried" and now it is time to try something else, Li-Anne Piwonka of WEC International told young European Christians at the Mission-Net Congress in Erfurt, Germany.

"And there are things we didn't do so well so they open themselves up to other streams," she said.

In fact, Buddhism is enjoying a surge in interest as a result of the popularity of New Age spirituality among young Europeans.

While it was "almost impossible" to find a Thai or Burmese temple in her native Germany 30 years ago, today they can be easily found in many of the larger towns and cities.

"They know how to come in as our societies are becoming more frustrated with Christianity," she said.

Around the world, there are around 400 million people who describe themselves as Buddhists, most of them living in countries where it is the dominant belief system, like Thailand or Burma.

In addition to devotees, there are millions who have adopted some aspects of Buddhist belief or practice, such as yoga or transcendental meditation. When these practitioners are taken into consideration, there are no less than one billion people worldwide "influenced" by Buddhism.

"But we don't need to be scared by that," said Guido Braschi, of OMF Europe.

Far better, he believes, is to be prepared, to understand what Buddhists believe, and to learn how to communicate the Gospel effectively to them.

Piwonka agrees: "We need to know the basics to reach out to Buddhists."

The first thing to understand is that Buddhism is not so much a religion as a philosophical belief system which understands life as suffering that can only ultimately be overcome by destroying negative thoughts and reincarnating to better and better life forms until nirvana – or a state of nothingness – is reached.

Its philosophical nature and emphasis on being peaceful are part of its broad appeal, as is the idea that nirvana can be reached without God. No God means no one to boss me around and no need to go to church, says Piwonka.

"With Buddhism, God is within me, you don't need to go to a temple," she explained. "So I can cherry pick and do what suits me."

Dig a little deeper into the faith and it becomes apparent that some traditional approaches to mission will not work in Buddhist contexts.

For one thing, Buddhists have no concept of God so telling them that God loves them will have little meaning.

Desire – both positive and negative – is regarded as the root of all suffering, so the Christian concept of longing for or desiring God above all else does not have the natural appeal for them that it might have for those from Judaic or Islamic backgrounds.

John 3:16 and "For God so loved the world" might be an obvious starting point in other mission contexts, but for Buddhists "it's not only irrelevant, it's a turn off", Braschi said.

Similarly, the Buddhist understanding of life as suffering would make the Christian concept of eternal life a terrifying prospect.

It is not that these things can never be shared with Buddhists, Braschi and Piwonka stress. It is simply better to introduce some tenets of the Christian faith – like eternal life – at a later stage in the relationship.

For Buddhists, the best way to introduce the Christian faith is to start somewhere like Proverbs or Ecclesiastes, the books of wisdom.

Jesus' teachings in the Sermon on the Mount also resonate well with Buddhists, as do the parables in the Gospel of Luke.

From their experience of mission among Buddhist communities, Braschi and Piwonka have found it helpful to first present Jesus as a wise man and the Prince of Peace, before later introducing him as the Son of God.

They have also had positive responses when they have explained that Christians too have a form of meditation – meditation on Jesus and His word.

The most important thing for Piwonka, however, is to love the people.

"In witnessing to Buddhists as with any person, see that person. Don't see that person as an object of evangelism but get to know what's happening in their life.

"It's a relational thing, not just filling your head with knowledge about how to witness to them."

Karoen Poot, of the Netherlands, shared his experience as a mission worker in Thailand with the Mission-Net delegates.

He said that many Buddhists relate to idea of Jesus as someone who will take them out of bondage and captivity, and bring an end to all suffering.

Some Buddhists want to "try" Jesus in the sense of "What can he do for my problem?", he said.

"It's shallow faith initially, and it's patient work, getting alongside."

The love of Jesus Christ is something that he too saves for later. While many Buddhists know Jesus the man, it takes a long time for them to really accept Jesus as their Saviour – on average seven years.

He concluded: "You need a lot of love and a lot of patience. We must incarnate into the society and genuinely be interested in the society."