China is home to many ethnic groups. Officially, China recognizes 55 ethnic minorities, but in reality, there are far more ethnic groups. Some groups do not even know their own origin, nor do they have their own written language. As a result, although these peoples are still an ethnic group, they may speak the language of other groups, or maybe just Mandarin.
As someone who grew up in the coastal cities of southeast China, I was mostly surrounded by Han Chinese and perhaps a few scattered members of ethnic minorities who have completely assimilated with Han society. Growing up in such a homogenous culture, I knew nothing of conflicts caused by different cultures or religions of other ethnic groups. In recent years, I began to serve among ethnic minority groups. Moving to the Northwestern Plateau, I, as a Han Chinese, have now experienced firsthand the difficulties of serving among ethnic minorities. I do not attempt to speak for all Han Chinese since even Han in the northeast are very different from Han in the southeast. However, I will share some of my feelings as a southeastern, coastal, Han Chinese.
The Context of Ministry among Ethnic Minorities
First, let us talk about evangelistic opportunities. In the eyes of northwestern minorities, central and coastal people tend to be better off. Many who come to the Northwest are business men. The minorities think that by befriending these business men, they will have opportunities to do business with them. For Han missionaries, business provides an identity and a good opportunity to build relationships with local people, assuming you are indeed doing business there and doing it honestly. Otherwise, the local people will become suspicious of you since they watch the way you live.
Young people and children of ethnic minorities generally receive a Han-style education. That is, they have become partially or completely “Han-ified.” Children watch Han television from a young age and unconsciously learn Mandarin. Not only can the young people speak Mandarin, but unlike older people, they more readily accept change. They willingly accept new things and enjoy exploring the outside world. Since they speak Mandarin better than their own dialect, the Han can communicate at a deeper level with them since there are no linguistic obstacles. Some of the young people go elsewhere for work.This causes changes in their lifestyle so that they better understand Han culture. Thus, for the missionary, the linguistic challenge is becoming less and less. However, this is no excuse for not learning a minority dialect since most people are still unable to speak Mandarin.
As education continues to develop in their areas, ethnic minorities are extremely willing to welcome teachers and volunteer university students. So, along with others, I can position myself locally as a volunteer teacher and build deeper relationships with local people while learning their culture and language.
Children have a purity of heart, and when they feel truly loved, they are more open to the gospel. Since volunteer teachers usually stay for longer periods of time, they can be there for the children in more meaningful ways. Parents of children, colleagues at school, and other leaders see how volunteer teachers live and work as Christians. It is this kind of solid testimony that expresses the reality of the gospel.
Unlike foreigners, Han Chinese living in ethnic minority areas do not need visas, nor do they need to report to the local police. Thus, they have greater freedom including mobility and manner of living.
Three Obstacles to Ministry
While I do not wish to be overly negative, there are obstacles to serving among ethnic minorities.
I think the greatest obstacle faced is a lack of unity among workers and teams. Chinese factionalism is very obvious in the mission field. Although everyone knows of one another’s existence, there is no working together. This splinters, even wastes, already scarce resources. Some mission fields, which former teams established through tremendous labor, have now been torn down by other teams. This is truly heartbreaking.
Chinese also tend to be less accepting of others. I have seen foreign mission groups pray together and partner with each other across denominations and country borders. For many years, they have prayed that the Chinese would take up the burden of missions.Yet, the Chinese are still afraid of contacting foreigners and drawing the attention of the government. God challenges us Chinese to have a kingdom mind and a unified heart. Without unity on the mission field, we will not see results. Mission work among ethnic minorities is very difficult because we, the workers, do not have a unified, accepting heart.
The ability to travel across China using Mandarin is indeed a convenience for Han Chinese. However, this becomes an excuse so that many Han mission workers avoid learning the local language. Many reasonable excuses abound, such as being too old to learn, lack of education, and the local language being too difficult. Some mission workers have been on the field for eight or ten years but are still able to have only basic conversations—or even none at all. Therefore, they focus their ministry on students who speak Mandarin.
Nevertheless, many people neither speak nor understand Mandarin, and language becomes an obstacle to their hearing the gospel. A people’s spirit and wisdom reside in their language. Only when their language is understood can their worldview be comprehended. Only then can one share the gospel in a way they will grasp. Otherwise, it is like holding the wrong key—one cannot open the door.
Some Han mission workers, especially women, are unable to adjust to life among the minorities. They may rent a house in the city and buy a car but only take a little time each month for mission work in the villages. Of course, village life is more difficult. Some places have neither electricity nor heating.Water needs to be fetched from the river, candles or kerosene lamps lit at night, and cow dung burned for warmth. Such a life is a great challenge for people who grew up in a city. There is also an issue of hygiene. Some workers are unable (or unwilling) to sleep on the villagers’ beds, use their blankets, or eat their food.
Consider what our Lord Jesus did: “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth” (John 1:14, ESV). Likewise, we should live among the minorities as our Lord lived among us. We need to live out the fullness of a Christ-like life. As we live like the locals, they will begin to accept us, respect us, and be willing to be friends with us. They will see our unusual lives and be attracted and transformed. The so-called hard conditions will no longer be big issues. May God help us and be gracious to us as we seek to serve him in this way.
The Necessary Theological Preparation for Serving Ethnic Minorities
We should be prepared to face a few theological issues. First, the locals might be a nomadic people who live a pastoral lifestyle. In their lives, they have experienced much of the lifestyle of the Old Testament. For example, following their exodus from Egypt, the Israelites roamed in the wilderness—pastoral areas with few people. In order to pastor their flocks, they had to walk over many mountains. Their cattle might wander off or be torn by wild beasts. The locals understand better than we do how the ancient Israelites lived.
Second, local minorities take sin very seriously. Because they are afraid of sin and its consequences, they constantly live in fear which affects their attitudes toward life. When they encounter misfortune, they think they deserve it and are unable to change it. This is a very negative perspective. For families that are well off, they think their fortune is the result of the virtues of the past generation, not the fruit of hard work.
To store up merit, these people will engage in various religious behaviors so as to gain merit and cancel out sin. The doctrine of “justification by faith” is unthinkable for them; their lives are constantly focused on salvation by works. So, we Chinese should help them see the hope that justification by faith brings. As a result, they will no longer be bound by their actions, thinking that only religious acts can save them from karma—their fate in a future existence.
Due to animism or pantheism, local minorities have difficulty accepting the concept of a one true God. They “believe” in Jesus and are very happy to treat him as one of many gods, but they find it quite difficult to think of him as the only true God. Only by helping them see and experience the power of God can they comprehend that God is greater than all the false idols.
Creation is another important area to consider. On the one hand, minorities are very superstitious. On the other, they believe science and think the world originated according to the Big Bang theory. On this point, we can, of course, use science to argue against their naturalistic beliefs concerning the world’s origins.
For all missionaries, Chinese or from any nation, the apostle Paul says: “And it is my prayer that your love may abound more and more, with knowledge and all discernment” (Philippians 1:9 ESV). Love comes first. Only as we love these minority people will they see from us, as Christians, a different kind of life.
The above comments cannot completely express all my observations. Because of our inadequacies and weaknesses, we need the Lord Jesus to mold us. May the Lord help each of us, Chinese and foreign, to be his servants as we work with ethnic minority groups. I truly desire that the day will come quickly when all nations will worship the Lord.