Interview with Ben Wong - Chinese Ministry Coordinator in the Anglican Diocese of Melbourne
Mark Simon speaks with Rev. Canon. Ben Lui Wong, Chinese Ministry Coordinator, Anglican Diocese of Melbourne, and Senior Minister, St. Timothy’s Bulleen and St Mark’s Templestowe Anglican Churches.
Mark: How did you become a Christian?
Ben: I was born in China, grew up in Hong Kong, then came to Melbourne for study. It was here I met Ivy, who later became my wife. She was a Christian, and in the early years of marriage, I just dropped her off at church but never went in. One day a woman specifically came to me and invited me in. During that first service I attended, a very strong voice came to my mind saying, ‘you will be like that person on the stage speaking to others.’ The minister encouraged me to get to know Jesus before taking steps to become a preacher! So I joined a course, and came to put my faith in Jesus, and 8 or 9 years later, I did become ‘that person’ proclaiming the gospel to others.
Mark: Have you always had a cross-cultural ministry, or did you grow into it?
Ben: When I first graduated from Bible College, I thought I would primarily use Cantonese and Mandarin, and reach native speakers of those languages in Melbourne. But when I became a Youth Minister in the Chinese congregation I needed to relate to Australian-born Chinese kids, who were using English as much as Chinese. So my vision widened. Now I am the minister of a multi-site church with English, Cantonese, and Mandarin services. If God had shown me that too early, I might have run away from it.
Mark: Do you think Chinese or other immigrants in Australia are more open to the gospel at the moment than Anglo-Australians? Why might that be?
Ben: Yes, I do think they are. There are two reasons I’ve observed. Firstly, as first or second generation migrants, they hold traditional values from their cultures in Asia or the Middle East or elsewhere. And those values around family, community and gender actually align better with the biblical perspective than with secular Australian culture. So when they hear the gospel and experience Christian community in a church, they think, ‘this is what I’m looking for, and how I’d like my children to be.’
Secondly, even though they aren’t believers in Christ, their view of the church is generally positive – a place that offers community service and good activities. But many Anglo Australians have a perception of church as boring, unfriendly and hypocritical, so they refuse to listen to the gospel because they think they know the message already.
Mark: How do you shape your services and activities to reach culturally-diverse people?
Ben: In my own church we have not tried to create a wide multicultural mix. I believe it is helpful for people to use their first language to worship and learn the gospel and share the experience of faith. So we contextualise our services and activities for particular audiences: Cantonese for those from Hong Kong; Mandarin for the mainland Chinese; and English for longer-term residents whose primary language is English. Each cultural group has distinctives such as how much a shared meal is the focus, or discussion time, or how formal the church service is.
Mark: Chinese New Year took place recently. How did you celebrate that in a contextualised way?
Ben: New Year is a great opportunity to invite Chinese people to celebrate a meal together. While in Chinese tradition a New Year greeting might emphasize prosperity, as Christians we want to share how Jesus brings peace and joy, as well as acknowledging people’s longings for health and wealth. So we can greet people with warm, familiar phrases but in our meal together and our general conversation we are demonstrating how the gospel has brought us peace, joy and love. So our community feels different, and they can observe that without us needing to state it in words.
Mark: It sounds like you take a lot of time on relationships before explicit gospel proclamation. Is that right?
Ben: Yes. We work very hard to have lots of time together in community, where people get to feel comfortable and come to enjoy the connections they are building before we explain the gospel message. The relationship is established first, and they can see that we are honest and caring and trustworthy. When we share the gospel they are eager to accept it, because they have already seen the positive difference it makes in our lives from spending so much time in our community. The response rate when we hold evangelism courses is very high, not because the course is so good, but because they have already experienced life in Christian community for many months (or longer for some people), and they think ‘I want to be part of that.’
Mark: What are your evangelism courses like? What materials do you use?
Ben: Every single time we meet we have a meal, we will spend hours together. The message is about half an hour, but we spend two or three hours together. So the main focus is the relationships and let our guests see what Christian life looks like. I have developed my own resources for the evangelistic courses, each one adapted to the audience. If the group is from mainland China, then the focus for the first two meetings is on the question ‘Does God exist?’ You have to prove God exists, and once you solve that issue, the rest is very easy. For westerners, they don’t really care whether God exists or not. The question is ‘what is the benefit for me?’ So the focus in the evangelism course is on how life as a Christian is a great thing for you personally and for your family. We look at the blessings (not financial) but relational and personal blessings when people believe.
Mark: Apart from meals and evangelism courses, what other activities do you use?
Ben: Playgroups have been quite successful. We recognised that there were a lot of playgroups in our area, so we researched whether we should start something. All the other playgroups operated in English, so when we offered one in Mandarin, it was very popular and we even needed a waiting list. From that playgroup, several people became Christians. More generally, we wanted to build up activities that would foster a strong community bond. We wanted to avoid only having a weekly service followed by a cup of coffee and people leaving. So we have a weekly Bible study in the church with a meal. After the combined meal, we then break up into small groups. Friday night Bible fellowship brings people together at church for four or five hours. Then our Sunday church service is held in the afternoon. People arrive mid afternoon, and only leave around 8pm. So over those two activities most people are at church for close to ten hours each week. It is the first priority in their weekly schedule - and that builds up the community.
Mark: how do you conduct follow-up for new believers from these diverse backgrounds?
Ben: For people with an Asian background, they generally want the leader to tell them the answer. They respect the leader’s opinions and will listen to them as a voice with authority. I explain the Bible’s teaching and how it applies in daily life, and there isn’t much discussion. By contrast, with Australianborn Chinese or with people from a western cultural background, you don’t give answers straight away. It’s more important to ask good questions, let them think and digest for themselves, and come to the answers through their own reflection on the Bible.
Mark: For people who aren’t currently active in reaching out to culturally-diverse communities, what are some first steps that they might take in this area?
Ben: Firstly, research your local community to find out the ethnic background of people moving into your area. Secondly, what resources are you putting into this outreach – people, meeting space, money? Also, have you worked to gain acceptance and support from an existing congregation? Thirdly, find a mentor or coach who has experience in crosscultural outreach who can help you refine your approach. Remember that not all Chinese cultures are the same. There are significant differences between Hong Kong, mainland China and Malaysian Chinese communities (to name a few), and you need the right person for each context.
Mark: Any final thoughts on building up effective cross-cultural ministries?
Ben: At a diocesan level and across the country, we need to improve training pathways for people from diverse cultural backgrounds. There are so many churches crying out for ministers or church planters who can reach migrant communities, but not enough leaders with the right training to take up these opportunities. We need to consider if there are barriers in the theological colleges and in our church structures and church traditions that deter non-Anglo candidates. I’d like us to learn from the cross-cultural ministry training done by CMS, for example. So that not only those going overseas gain cross-cultural ministry skills, but it is for local church ministers and members too. Cross-cultural ministry is one of the growth areas for our churches today. I’m excited to see more local churches getting involved and the gospel making an impact in many migrant communities across our country.