the shape of leadership

Who Will Go?

The priority of reaching Buddhists and Hindus with the gospel

Alan Johnson on August 9, 2023

My calling to cross-cultural missions began as I learned there are still large populations with little or no access to the gospel.

When my wife, Lynette, and I approached Assemblies of God World Missions (AGWM) leaders with a desire to proclaim Jesus in such a setting, they directed us to the Buddhist world.

In 1986, we arrived in Thailand, a nation whose population is 95% Buddhist and just 1% Christian.

That first year, while in language school, I attended weekly prayer meetings at the field chairman’s apartment. There I saw veteran missionaries weeping before the “Lord of the harvest” (Luke 10:2), asking Him to send more workers to join them in the task.

Such desperate prayers are common among missionaries to Buddhist and Hindu nations. Through the years, I have often heard missionaries in these places describe their work as overwhelming.

When I contemplate the massive populations of sprawling Asian cities or fly over vast expanses of land dotted by village after village without a church, the size and complexity of the task is indeed staggering at times.

Seeds sown in prayer are bearing fruit. Over the past four decades, a number of missionaries have arrived to help carry the load. Yet the need remains great.

Earlier this year, AGWM announced its Buddhist Hindu Priority. The vision of this five-year initiative includes a greater emphasis on prayer and funding for these missionaries, as well as a commitment to send 150 new, church-planting missionaries to minister among Buddhist and Hindu peoples.

I am grateful the Spirit is still calling and sending workers to unreached places, just as He did in the Book of Acts.


Why a Priority?

The Buddhist Hindu Priority takes seriously the two billion Buddhist and Hindu people who need to hear the gospel. It also recognizes the difficulty of communicating the gospel to people who are influenced by a Buddhist or Hindu worldview.

Hinduism dates to around 2000 B.C. Buddhism was founded by Siddhartha Gautama, who was born in what is now Nepal around the fifth century B.C. While there are differences, Hinduism and Buddhism share a number of beliefs.

For both religions, the heart of the human dilemma is a continual cycle of birth, death and rebirth called samsara. Driving this cycle is karma, a law of cause and effect.

Adherents of Hinduism and Buddhism seek to break free from the material world, which they believe is a karma-induced illusion. How to achieve such liberation and where that ultimately leads are points of divergence between the two religions.

Three major challenges will confront new workers who answer the Spirit’s call to go to Buddhist or Hindu peoples.

The first challenge is a lack of gospel access. When trying to explain the critical need of gospel access for billions of people, the pushback I often get is perplexing.

Preaching the gospel
to people who have no paradigm for such a message requires long-term commitment — and daily reliance
on the Holy Spirit.

One pastor I spoke with said, “Your neighbors are lost in Bangkok, and my neighbors are lost here in America. What’s the difference?”

Among those living in societies with little gospel access, an estimated 86% do not know a Christian personally. Whether a person is in Bangkok or Dallas, the condition of spiritual lostness is the same. What varies is the opportunity — the likelihood of meeting someone who can tell the gospel story in a culturally relevant way and lovingly invite listeners to follow Jesus.

When I talk with someone about Jesus in Thailand, I am often the first Christ follower he or she has encountered. After all these years, that reality still moves me.

This is precisely why we need to change our thinking when it comes to participation in God’s redemptive mission. Most church leaders and church members think about missions in terms of giving. More critical is our congregations sending those who are dearest to us — church members and family members — as long-term, career, cross-cultural workers, so they can become the first Christians someone meets.

What the apostle Paul said in Romans 10:14–15 is still true today. That is, people cannot believe in Jesus if they have not heard about Him, and they cannot hear about Him unless we send workers to proclaim the good news.

One AGWM couple has spent years living in a remote, mountainous Hindu region, traveling dangerous roads and hiking to distant villages. Most people they meet have never known a Christian or heard a Bible story.

This is typical of ministry in Buddhist and Hindu nations. Preaching the gospel to people who have no paradigm for such a message requires long-term commitment — and daily reliance on the Holy Spirit.

The Church needs God’s heart and vision for the Buddhist and Hindu peoples — and a willingness to go and send as He directs.

The second challenge is one of worldview. The Buddhist and Hindu worldviews are extremely complex, which complicates the task of explaining the gospel and making disciples.

During my early years in Thailand, I was constantly having to go back to the drawing board and figure out how to explain something from the Bible in a way that would make sense to a Buddhist.

For example, in Thai the most common word for sin is bpaap, which carries connotations of demerit, evil or wrongdoing. However, the idea of breaking relationship with God is not present. Bpaap is simply the negative side of karma.

Years ago, I spoke with a Thai woman whose epileptic daughter had a seizure, fell into a pool of water, and drowned. The woman attributed the tragedy to kamwen, a retributive form of karma. She assumed her daughter’s death was the result of some evil she or her daughter had committed in a present or past life.

The most fundamental elements of the gospel — God’s love, Jesus the Son, atonement, judgment, and eternal life in God’s presence — are particularly difficult for Buddhists and Hindus to comprehend. From their perspective, the world is an illusion, all actions have consequences that play out over thousands of lifetimes, and liberation is an individual pursuit for which no help is available.

Buddhists and Hindus believe they already have a kind of eternal life, and this is exactly what they are trying to escape. They need the Holy Spirit to help them understand God’s truth.

The third challenge has to do with social barriers. As challenging as gospel communication is in the Buddhist and Hindu worlds, the biggest barriers are social ones.

These highly organized religions also involve intricate social systems. Being Buddhist or Hindu is not so much about what a person believes as it is a way of life and a sense of personal, familial, and ethnic or national identity.

We need cross-cultural
workers who can
come alongside local
Christians, helping
them develop healthy indigenous church movements.

Buddhist and Hindu people can believe everything or nothing. They can strictly follow religious precepts or transgress them all. They can visit temples and observe religious rituals and festivals or limit their participation to family births, weddings and deaths. In most cases, a person is not considered less of a Buddhist or Hindu because of their beliefs and practices.

However, it is a different matter when someone decides to follow Jesus. To Buddhists and Hindus, members of their communities who convert to Christianity are leaving their ancestral ways, discarding their ethnic or national identities, becoming foreigners, and shaming their families.

This can lead to some tense situations. At a house group I worked with, members brought a newcomer who started manifesting demons. After we prayed to cast out the spirits from the young woman, she calmed down and talked with us.

The believers encouraged this woman to trust in Jesus and pray to Him. They knew she would need Christ’s power to remain free from demonic influences.

When some members of the house group later went to visit this woman at her home, the woman’s parents blocked the door. The parents said they would rather have their daughter demonized than living as a Christian.

The Buddhist Hindu Priority addresses such challenges by sending long-term workers to live among people who have little access to the gospel so they can bear witness to Jesus. Sincerity cannot make up for a lack of training or commitment to remain in the community.

Workers must embark on a lifelong journey that includes growth in spiritual formation, language skills, cultural competence, and biblical missiology.

Spirit-filled missionaries who prioritize such essentials will be prepared to preach the gospel in these difficult places. Even more importantly, they will be able to help local Christians reach their Buddhist and Hindu neighbors for Jesus.

Trained missionaries can also help local Christians find appropriate ways to remain connected to their families and societies while faithfully following Jesus.

Years ago, Western missionaries in Buddhist and Hindu nations often encouraged converts to reject everything that had any connection to their birth religions. This led Christian communities to withdraw from society and use culturally insensitive and ineffective evangelism methods.

We need cross-cultural workers who can come alongside local Christians, helping them develop healthy indigenous church movements.


What to Do

In Announcing the Kingdom, Art Glasser suggests the scope of Jesus’ missional mandate was the reason for the prayer meeting in Acts 13:1–3. The realization that the job was too big for one church network drove the believers to prayer and fasting.

Significantly, the Spirit’s answer was sending forth people for the work to which He had called them.

The complexities of gospel access issues, worldview challenges, and social barriers in Buddhist and Hindu worlds all speak to the need for highly trained, language and culturally competent, Spirit-filled, apostolic church planters.

These workers will come from churches that remain committed to the Great Commission. There are three ways to make your church a seedbed for producing new missionaries for the Buddhist and Hindu worlds.

First, ask the Spirit to give congregants a sense of Christ’s compassion for the multitudes of Buddhists and Hindus needing to hear the gospel (Matthew 9:36). A missions emphasis must start with spiritual brokenness before the Lord.

The Buddhist Hindu Priority seeks to raise up 50,000 intercessors across the United States as pastors lead their people to pray earnestly to the Lord of the Harvest.

Ask the Spirit to give congregants a sense of Christ’s compassion
for the multitudes of Buddhists and Hindus needing to hear the gospel (Matthew 9:36).

That prayer will lay the groundwork for reaching the financial goal of raising $15 million and the personnel goal of recruiting and training 150 new career workers.

Second, pray and talk specifically about the need for workers. Pray personally and corporately that within the next five years your congregation will send at least one career missionary to join a church planting team in the Buddhist or Hindu world.

Add to your prayers advocacy for the Buddhist and Hindu worlds. Talk about this goal, preach about the need, and provide opportunities during services for people to respond to God’s call.

Address young people in youth and college groups, encouraging them to consider a career in missions and praying for the Lord to guide them according to His will.

Invite missionaries from the Buddhist and Hindu worlds to speak during services and small group gatherings.

Pray for spiritual breakthrough among Buddhist and Hindu peoples. Ask God to speak to them through dreams and visions, signs and wonders, and divine appointments with missionaries and local Christians. Pray also that new believers will be bold in sharing their faith.

Finally, embrace your church’s role as a seedbed for the growth of cross-cultural workers to unreached places. People from your church can become part of the answer to prayers for new missionaries.

A heart for evangelism and discipleship often begins at home. Teach and encourage people to engage with non-Christians of all kinds. Start by prayer-walking neighborhoods, keeping lists of the names of people you meet and interceding for them.

Encourage church members to befriend Buddhist and Hindu people wherever they encounter them.

Joe Gordon, a veteran missionary with experience in both the Buddhist and Hindu worlds, encourages Christians to invite Buddhists and Hindus into their homes and lives. He says sharing personal testimonies can lead to deeper spiritual conversations.

Although Americans are often hesitant to discuss faith with someone from a different religious background, Buddhists and Hindus expect others to talk about their beliefs. In fact, Buddhists and Hindus admire religious devotion.

Gordon says, “Start with, ‘Look at how amazing Jesus is.’”

This is good advice for sharing Christian faith with anyone. Too often people start with differences, which quickly become conversation closers.

Christians in Buddhist and Hindu nations know that condemning idolatry outside of a relational connection will not only end a conversation but make a relationship impossible.

This is why we teach our new missionaries to engage people naturally, not in a pushy or aggressive way. We tell them to talk about Jesus early and often, letting others know we are Jesus people and Bible people.

Ask the Spirit to guide you and your congregants toward effective on-ramps for spiritual conversations. A willingness to learn and ask questions is a great starting place.

As you build relationships with Buddhist and Hindu people, talk about what Jesus has done for you and others. Offer to pray for them when they open up about problems or needs, and believe God for signs and wonders to confirm the gospel.

If we do these things, I believe we will see people come to faith, our churches renewed, and new global workers called to Buddhist and Hindu peoples.

The 150 new workers the Buddhist Hindu Priority seeks to recruit are just the firstfruits of this initiative. They will multiply as churches experience fresh inspiration from the Spirit to take the gospel to those without access both near and far.


This article appears in the Summer 2023 issue of Influence magazine.

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