To address that problem, missionaries around the world are creating sign language Bibles composed of short videos that use sign language to tell Bible stories. Liv Reed, a former missionary to the deaf community in China, explained that sign language is more like a movie than a book. Rather than going verse by verse, preachers need to explain the context, setting, and characters before telling a Bible story, whether it’s the feeding of the 5,000 or Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians.
In one video created for deaf Chinese believers, a man stands in front of a dark background signing the parable of the house built on sand. An onscreen graphic compares the sturdy foundation of the house built on the rock with the shifting foundation of sand. Without captions or sound, the videos are difficult for those unfamiliar with sign language to understand—a benefit that allows the videos to get past government censors. Currently the teams in China have created 300 video stories, uploaded to social media sites like WeChat and accessible to anyone with a smartphone.
As Liv Reed and her husband Peter (their names are changed for security reasons) ministered in China, they saw that many Chinese deaf people struggled with feelings of worthlessness. Under the long-standing one-child policy, which the government recently revised to a two-child policy, parents with one shot at producing an heir desired only healthy children. Because deafness is not observable until age 2, deaf babies are not aborted. But if the parents bring the deaf child to the family planning bureau, they are allowed to apply for permission to have another child since “this isn’t the child I ordered,” Liv explained sarcastically.
Yet she believes God redeems the rejection of the deaf community. Because Chinese officials don’t value the deaf, she said, “the gospel can really travel unpersecuted among these people.”
The Reeds remember one sunny Sunday when they held a church service at a local park. As Peter signed a message to the attendees, a crowd of onlookers gathered to watch. A few police officers came to observe, but as the church members were not holding Bibles and the officers couldn’t understand sign language, they seemed more amused than concerned. They soon left, and the deaf church continued to preach the gospel in the most public space in the city.
The official Three-Self churches in China have interpreted services for deaf people, but the sermon structure is not intuitive to the deaf, and deaf believers are unable to communicate with the rest of the church body. It’s also difficult for these types of groups to replicate: Missionaries like the Reeds encourage the creation of deaf churches led by deaf pastors who go on to plant new churches.
“We seek to have the deaf church stand on its own, separate and independent from hearing churches,” said Amy Dixon, a deaf missionary who has been in China since 2011. I spoke to her over the FaceTime video app with Liv interpreting. Dixon said deaf people connect and communicate best with other deaf people: “When hearing people are placed in proximity to deaf people, they take over by default.”
Dixon (not her real name) helped plant a church with four leaders and eight core attendees that has gone on to plant other churches. Deaf Christians are eager to evangelize others in their tight-knit deaf communities, leading to the growing need for more pastors, she said.
“In China, deaf people are very rejected, looked down upon, and thought of as worthless,” Dixon signed. “Deaf people need love, and they need the message of hope found in the gospel that God does not discriminate, that you are as valuable as a hearing person, and that the gospel is available to you regardless.”