Reaching Buddhists with the Gospel
Review of 'Change the Map' by Mark Durene
The Great Commission (Matthew 28:16–20) includes three elements: authority, mission, and presence. The authority and presence are Christ’s, but the mission is Christians’. Christ commands us to “make disciples of all nations,” incorporating them into the Church through baptism and forming them in His own image through teaching.
The problem Christians have faced since the beginning of the Church is the plurality of religions. These religions include their own accounts of divine authority, communal mission, and spiritual presence. This is especially true of the world’s other two “missionary religions,” Buddhism and Islam — which, unlike other religions, quickly spread beyond their geographic and ethnic origins.
The gospel’s encounter with Islam has been a matter of concern for centuries among Great Commission Christians. Even today, the average believer knows at least the rudiments of Islamic theology and practice. That does not seem to be the case with Buddhism, however, which is the world’s fourth largest religion (after Christianity, Islam, and Hinduism).
The aim of Mark Durene’s Change the Map is to “stir readers’ hearts with concern and passion to reach Buddhist people with the gospel message.” Durene is a veteran Assemblies of God missionary to Thailand, over 90% of whose residents are Buddhist. (Only China has a larger Buddhist population.) Drawing on his church-planting experience in Chiang Mai, Durene helps readers understand what Buddhism teaches, how it has shaped Thai Culture, and what are best discipleship practices in that cultural environment.
Durene does this by wrapping this information in narrative form. The book is not a memoir, but Durene uses his personal experiences with Thai people as the occasion to inform readers and inspire action. This makes the book relatable and readable.
Several lessons about best practices for reaching Buddhists stand out. First, Thailand has a very different spiritual environment than North America and Western Europe. Its culture is suffused with spirits, who must be respected. This is reflected in the “spirit houses” at the gates of many homes, of household shrines for ancestors, and of religious practices that accompany major events, such as funerals, new buildings, and housewarming parties.
This spiritual environment is alien to Western secularism, but not to the New Testament. Buddhist spirituality is similar to the Greco-Roman polytheism the first Christians faced. The Bible is thus a vital sourcebook for missionary practice. Pentecostal spirituality is a missional plus in that culture, especially persistent prayer. Indeed, Durene believes that prayer is the greatest key to spiritual breakthrough in the Buddhist world.
Second, Buddhists are indifferent to Christianity. According to Durene, Thai people are incredibly hospitable and don’t mind Christians. However, they don’t see any need to convert because Buddhism is older than Christianity. (Buddha lived several centuries before Christ.) Moreover, to be Thai is to be Buddhist, so conversion is looked on as something akin to ethnic betrayal.
Pentecostal spirituality is a missional plus in Thai culture, especially persistent prayer. Indeed, Durene believes that prayer is the greatest key to spiritual breakthrough in the Buddhist world.
Third, discipleship begins prior to conversion. The Great Commission mentions “baptizing” before “teaching,” but according to Durene, a lot of teaching — years of it, even — precedes baptism. Baptism is the capstone of discipleship rather than its cornerstone.
This is not a new insight. Gerald L. Sittser made a similar point about the second- and third-century Christian encounter with Greco-Roman polytheism in his book, Resilient Faith. As I wrote in my review of that book, “the early Christian movement assumed that idolaters needed a rigorous form of discipleship, the so-called catechumenate, to mold converts into the faith and life of Jesus Christ.” This happened before baptism, to ensure that converts knew the content and cost of faith.
Much of this pre-baptism discipleship involves helping “seekers” (Durene’s term) practice a form of Christianity that is contextually appropriate in their culture without being syncretistic. This is not easy.
Durene offers an example of the dilemma from a ministry building project. At one point, the Buddhist construction workers refused to continue unless Buddhist monks came to bless the “property spirit” of that location. The Christians could not allow that to happen without accepting the spiritual worldview and practices underlying it. They negotiated with the workers, who eventually accepted a Christian dedication ceremony for the property.
Fourth, missionaries must receive and give hospitality. Americans are used to getting their way, but missionaries from the West are guests in countries that are indifferent to Christian faith, if not hostile to it.
One of the remarkable scenes Durene relates concerns a children’s center he and several Thai Christians founded in a village outside Chiang Mai. At a city council meeting, villagers, encouraged by the Buddhist abbot, expressed nearly unanimous opposition to the center. Durene listened to the criticism politely, respectfully bowed to the council, and left the meeting without defending the center, even though the center had a legal right to operate.
Eventually, after discussions with Durene, the Thai Christians nevertheless decided to open the children’s center, and it became a valued partner in the community. That may seem to violate the fourth lesson about hospitality, but it actually teaches a fifth: Christian mission to Buddhism must be indigenous.
Durene was genuinely troubled by the villagers’ opposition, enough that he considered not moving ahead with the center. But the Thai Christians who lived in that village made the decision for him. Contemporary missiology holds that missionaries need to establish indigenous ministries that are self-supporting, self-governing, and self-propagating churches. Because missionaries are outsiders to a given culture, converts — who are insiders to that culture — need to take the lead, which is what happened in this case.
I mentioned earlier that Durene’s aim in Change the Map is to “to “stir readers’ hearts with concern and passion to reach Buddhist people with the gospel message.” At the end of each chapter, he offers readers a helpful one-pager of “Spiritual Insights and Prayers,” which includes prayers for Buddhists, missionaries, and readers themselves.
Durene ends the book with an invitation for readers to join the Change the Map movement, which they can do by going to ctm.world. His goal is to have 25,000 American believers praying for Buddhists through the Change the Map movement.
I recommend Change the Map to all Great Commission Christians, but especially to fellow members of the Assemblies of God tribe. May our prayers and actions truly impact the Buddhist world for Jesus!
Mark Durene, Change the Map: Impacting the Buddhist World through Prayer and Action (Springfield, MO: Assemblies of God World Missions, 2021).