Interview

My mistakes as a young missionary: Former Navigators National Director Jim Chew

Joanne Kwok and Kenneth Chew // October 25, 2019, 6:47 pm

Jim chew missions

Jim Chew was called home to the Lord on Thursday, October 24, 2019. He was 81. The former national director of The Navigators Singapore last served in The Navigators of New Zealand as Asia-Pacific Missions Mentors with his wife, Selene. He passed away after a long battle with lung cancer.

In late 2016, Jim Chew sat down for a wide-ranging interview with Thir.st. In this article, he reflects on what he’s learnt from sharing the Gospel across cultures.


When you’re with anybody, forget any kind of agenda you have and learn to love them first. Reach out because you truly care – they can see it!

I learnt this the hard way. In my younger days as a “missionary”, I took a very different approach. I charged in with the four spiritual laws from the start. This was wrong because I had to start from where they were.

The life of Jesus is our supreme example of how to relate not just to people in general, but also personally and specifically.

Of course Jesus was very unique in that He could see the hearts of men before engaging them. You and I can’t. But conceptually, we need to learn from how the Word was made flesh (John 1:14) when He came.

I often think of how prostitutes and tax collectors felt so comfortable around Jesus and how to emulate that. It’s not just what you know, but also how you relate. We must learn from Jesus – and that involves unlearning some things.

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For the “cross-cultural missionaries” of today, that is a big concern for me (not engaging people on a cultural or emotional level). We’re forgetting that besides obedience, the heart of evangelism is compassion and empathy. They must come together as we speak the truth in love.

We really need to learn to relate to other cultures, especially because Singapore is multi-religious. The issue here is not “Church-ianity” or religious Christianity. You can’t fit people to the mould. The main issue is Jesus.

A friend of mine from university thought it was extremely radical of me to suggest he didn’t have to turn from his own culture to follow Jesus. I told him that there is religion and tradition – but Jesus is a person. 

So often, we can get all entangled with non-essential stuff like tradition, Church-ianity, being religious and speaking in a certain way that we miss the point. People will get there when you meet them where they are.

DON’T BE AFRAID OF “WASTING TIME”

To understand other worldviews, what was most helpful to me was not my studies of anthropology, but when I was simply “wasting time” with people.

If you talk to Singaporeans about wasting time, you may find that people can be so uptight and fearful of unproductivity. But I think “wasting time” is a great way to meet people where they are.

Before you share your worldviews, enjoy the person you’re with and give them the opportunity to enjoy you.

Ultimately we need to wrestle with what sparks the passion in people to respond to the Gospel. When it really resonates with you, you will figure out how to share it with others.

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MEET PEOPLE WHERE THEY ARE

The apostle Paul was so contextual.

When he was with the Jews, he waxed lyrical about the Torah, but in Athens, he quoted not scripture, but the philosophers and poets of Athens. I love how he was always so relevant to his audience.

Some Christians still accuse him of backsliding and watering down the gospel, but I admire him because he knew how to make the Gospel relevant anywhere. Jesus Himself did so too with his parables.

If you look at the life of Paul and his group in Thessalonica, he was also not just out there to “share the gospel” as most people are taught. The Thessalonians grew to like him and listened because they respected and identified with him (1 Thessalonians 1:5).

Besides obedience, the heart of evangelism is compassion and empathy.

When the Good News came to them it came not just forcefully in the “power of God and the work of the Holy Spirit”, but through the testimony of transformed lives. You might think of Paul as a kind of “full-time missionary”, but he worked and lived an exemplary life among his audience.

How do you reach an entire generation for Christ? It’s always about context and relationships.

In my work, we led students to Christ. We walked it out in their context, but the goal was always their families. We’re all connected, so I’d make it a point to connect with the parents of students too.

Every time a student comes to Christ, I’d encourage them to start praying for their families. Sometimes it would involve praying for a matriarch or simply reaching the ones who were open.

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They were so keen on seeing their parents and siblings come to faith. It was focused, deliberate and exciting.

So you see, certain things change, but the principles of being intentional and relational do not. Since biblical times, we see that the Gospel flows primarily through relationships – families, colleagues, classmates – not just mass crusade events.

I’m not against outreach activities – there is a place for that – but they must be part of the long-term process of sharing life. 

People see me as radical. I don’t know if I am, but all I know is that the Bible is my basis. The question then becomes: How do you bring this unchanging truth into every space? 

Christ is the unchanging Rock, but you’ve got to learn how to apply and engage the unchanging truth – the same yesterday, today and forevermore – to the generation you are in.

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We used to gaze at the high-rise residential blocks around us and dream. In the 1950s, there were fewer than 60 churches in Singapore, but now we’ve got hundreds… God is definitely moving here. God began to make those dreams come true.

The work is far from complete, and we’ve got fresh challenges for every generation, but we must keep plowing.

Psalm 145:4 (NKJV) says “one generation shall praise Your works to another”.

Psalm 78:6 says “so the next generation would know them, even the children yet to be born, and they in turn would tell their children”.

My vision and prayer for the Church is to see followers of Jesus next door to everyone and everywhere. That there will not be a single person in Singapore who does not know a true follower of Jesus.


To read the other stories from our interview with Jim, see: 

Parting thoughts: The late Jim Chew on his hopes for the next generation

The late Jim Chew on how he discovered his call to full-time missions

THINK + TALK

  1. What does sharing the Gospel mean to you?
  2. How can you be more intentional and relational?
  3. How can you best communicate the unchanging truth in new and relevant ways?
  4. What are your dreams for your generation and Singapore?