One of the reasons for the lack of debate or discussion on training Chinese cross-cultural missionaries is that there is almost no dispute over the prevailing need for training. In fact, regardless of the kind of China work one is participating in, training in different forms is always involved. Therefore, when heated discussions of BTJ began to emerge, the issue of training simply was not perceived as an area of concern; it is just a matter of doing it. Sadly, it is exactly this kind of take-it-for-granted mentality that ultimately deprives us of the opportunity for a thorough treatment of this issue of such immense importance. Although it is undeniable that some of the discussions of BTJ have led to futile debates, it is also true that constructive discussions have helped capture the imaginations of the Christian community worldwide and bring the vision to a higher level of understanding as well as appreciation. It is my prayer that constructive, sensible and thorough discussions over the issue of training will emerge. As a result, effective training that is catered to the needs of Chinese missionaries will become available.
The Need for Training
The question of the need for focused missionary training is still arguable for many people. Some mission agencies do not even put appropriate training as a requirement for candidacy. When house churches in China began to send evangelists to the minority peoples, passion and vision were the major requirements for selecting and sending their young missionaries. Some churches may prefer general theological and biblical training, but they are still far from providing the knowledge and skills that are necessary for effective cross-cultural mission work. Others may see the importance of training but have to give in to the reality of inadequate resources and reduce training to a minimum. There is a missionary training center in Asia which used to provide a two year training program when it first started, but today the training has been reduced to three months. The current director, a career missionary who spent over twenty years in one of the Muslim countries in Asia, lamented the fact that the current training is more like a survival skill program. With tears running down his face, this faithful servant of God shared how painful it was to even think of the many mistakes he made during his missionary work back then and how much he wished he could help the trainees to be better equipped to avoid those mistakes in the future.
The trainees are like merchandise on a production line, each coming and going in three months’ time. Most unfortunate is that they are expected by their churches and mission agencies to be effective and productive once they have finished the training and land on the mission field! It has always puzzled me when pondering the fact that if Jesus spent three years training his twelve disciples to become church planters and missionaries (not to mention that one fell through the program and became a traitor), what makes us think that we can do a better job by finishing the training in three months’ time?
When missions expert, Stan Guthrie, studies the emerging non-Western mission’s movement, he writes about the alarming rate of attrition among Third-World missionaries: “During the Brazilian National Missions Congress in October 1993, participants were stunned to hear that of the 5,400 missionaries sent out in the previous five years, the vast majority had returned within a year. Worse, about ninety percent of the returnees did not go back. A Columbian missions leader has estimated that forty percent of all Latin American missionaries return from their assignments early and discouraged because of a lack of training, on-field pastoral support, and a lack of finance.”
Attrition is not just a Third-World missionary problem; it is universal. It seems that the lack of training is almost always one of the major factors that contribute to this problem. If there is one thing that the Chinese churches should learn from their Latin American brothers and sisters about world missions, it should be the importance of training.
Not too long ago, I met with a brother in Beijing who shared with me his missionary expedition. This young man was sent by his church network as a missionary to Tibet with only a one-way ticket in his pocket and a heart full of passion and love towards the people. He spent almost a year there without prior training or support of any sort, and very soon he found himself begging for food on the streets of Lhasa in order to stay alive. This is just one of many sad stories in the recent history of missionary endeavors among the house churches in China. In my personal interactions with different house church network leaders, I can testify that a situation like this is definitely not intentional; rather, it is a painful reality when facing the lack of resources and expertise for cross-cultural missionary training.
In spite of all the problems, the story of this young missionary to Tibet has a happy ending; the experience did not crush his spirit nor alter his calling. He was more committed to cross-cultural missions than ever before. When I met with him again about a year later in Henan (he went back home after the ordeal in Tibet), he had brought with him a young lady who is also committed to missions. They wanted to get married and receive training together before heading to the mission field again! When I prayed with this couple in that little hotel room, I felt I had a glimpse of the spirit of resilience and steadfastness that carried the house churches through all those years of persecutions and hardships. At that moment, the room became a sanctuary and prayer turned to worship!
I have no doubt that many of the house churches in China are committed to global missions. I believe with all my heart that God is going to use the Chinese to play a part in his master plan of world evangelization. However, let us be vigilant and stand in solidarity with the churches in China by partnering with them in preparing well-trained cross-cultural missionaries. I think Denis Lane’s observation says it all when he writes about training missionaries for the Two-Thirds World:
In the past when we had no alternative but to go in our ignorance and in the strength and power of the Lord, God honored those who would launch out. Their sense of call and commission was incredibly strong, strong enough to overcome disease, loss of wife and family, persecution, learning a language with no help at all and starting from scratch in a highly hostile environment. There may be some places left where such ministry is called for, but by and large today’s world is totally different. We do not bring honor to the Lord by launching out in naivety, when means of preparation are available to us. God’s work calls for the best preparation.
The Challenge of Training
Understanding the need for appropriate and adequate training is one thing; actually doing it is another. Anyone who is directly involved in this endeavor knows very well that there are a lot of challenges. They range from the background of trainees to the lack of qualified trainers and adequate Chinese training materials. Just think of how great a task it is to turn a junior high level trainee who is monocultural (having no, or very little, exposure to other languages, worldviews and culture) with few career skills into a mature tent-making missionary. He or she is expected to live and think cross-culturally and missiologically in a highly hostile environment.
The lack of qualified trainers makes it even harder. There are few experienced cross-cultural missionaries who understand the Mainland Chinese culture, have the ability to communicate in fluent “Mainland Mandarin” and are also capable of teaching and mentoring. Even when we have the right trainers, it is hard to find training materials in the Chinese language. The most comprehensive Chinese bibliography on missions in the world is about to be finished, thanks to the hard work of several mission leaders in Hong Kong. We learn from the book list that there are only a few more than four hundred titles of mission books in the Chinese Christian world. Many of these are testimonies, translated works and printed in traditional Chinese characters. There are not many Chinese books available that are really about mission strategy, anthropological and cultural studies or even the history or theology of missions. It is quite depressing for any trainer who wants to teach this subject of cross-cultural missions, particularly when it is so difficult to find appropriate materials. The reality is that when we look at the issue from the larger Chinese context, the whole infrastructure of global missions that includes missiological teaching, writing and research is still under construction.
The undertaking of the project of training is massive. Just naming a few challenges is enough for us to see the immense magnitude of it. Though it is like an uphill battle, it is also a battle we cannot afford to lose. No one has all the answers to these problems. The Chinese saying of “finding rocks to step on while crossing a stream” captures the essence of the current situation well. It is a path that no one has ever taken, and the things that many of us are doing now are just “finding rocks to step on.” Just as the Chinese word for crisis is made up of “danger” and “opportunity,” I believe that if we are willing to commit ourselves strategically to training, give enough time and patience to prepare the Chinese church at-large, utilize wisely our unique Chinese culture and status around the world, engage the wealth of resources among the worldwide Chinese Christian community, then we should be able to rise above the challenge and seize the opportunity of bringing glory to the Missio Dei.
Are We Ready?
There is a frequently raised question: “Is the church in China ready for global missions?” I always answer by saying that the issue is not whether the church in China is ready, but whether the worldwide Christian community is ready to embrace this new missionary movement. Likewise, on a worldwide scale, the question is not if China is ready for her economic and political development, but if the global community is ready to receive her as a partner and a friend. Thomas Friedman states, “The world is flat.” In other words, we are in a new world, and we are desperately in need of a new paradigm. This is true of the socioeconomical and political worlds as well as the world of missions. One of the challenges to mission leaders around the globe is the capacity to think intentionally and creatively so that partnerships and interfaces for global missions between the East and West, and the First-World and Two-Thirds World can be built. I believe that one of the starting points to engage in such an endeavor is to respond to the need for training a new generation of global workers.
L. K. Chiu is involved in training mainland Chinese for cross-cultural Christian service as well as pastoring a local church in North America. © 2006 by L. K. Chiu. Reprinted from ChinaSource, Spring 2006, Vol. 8, No. 1.
Image credit: Puzzle Piece by walknboston, on Flickr