Churches from Outside China Ministering in China
The First Nightmare: My wife and I received an unusual call that day asking if we could help translate for a couple of Australians who were supporting a Chinese house church evangelist who was now having some problems. When we arrived we found not just a problem, but a huge mess. Apparently, the Australian couple, with little experience in China and limited language ability, had started their own tiny agency with the help of their home church. They were committed to identifying and financially empowering local individuals believing they were the key to the evangelization of the Chinese.
Unfortunately, when this couple picked the evangelist, they were not aware that he was already receiving a salary from a local house church. Consequently, when they started supporting him financially they effectively doubled his income. Then, when they gave him a motorcycle they unknowingly granted him celebrity status because of his newly gained wealth. In the past, when they had come to check up on him (unfortunately, they only did this every four months) he had wowed them with seemingly glowing reports of the ministry that was being accomplished, but this time was different. They could not find him at home and, when they finally tracked down his wife, she told them how he had left her and was having an affair with a young woman in one of his discipleship groups. If somehow that was not shocking enough, her next statement totally devastated them. "You've ruined our marriage with your money and the motorcycle you gave him. As soon as you take it all away, I'm sure that girl will drop him in a second and he'll come back to me." Unfortunately, when confronted that day the evangelist's heart was hardened by sin and he refused to give up his girlfriend. Deeply disturbed and with their heads still spinning, the Australian couple informed him that they were stopping his support (they were unwilling to take back his motorcycle). We took them to the bus station, and they dejectedly boarded their busleft speechless by the harsh realities and complexities of ministry inside China.
A Second Nightmare: Our house church friend sounded so deeply confused and discouraged that we decided to visit him. When we arrived, he described the bind he was in. The morale of the young evangelists under him was at an all-time low, and they were threatening to resign. He went on to describe his dilemma.
A year prior, he had met some leaders from a church outside of China that had offered to come several times a year to do Bible training workshops for his evangelists. The church leaders also said they would pay the annual rent for an apartment that would be used for the training. At the time, our house church leader friend was thrilled because this same apartment could be used to house several young evangelists, for their own leadership training seminars and for storage of Bibles and other Christian materials. To his dismay, when the church leaders came, each time their training was way too advanced for many of his simple evangelists, most of whom had never finished high school. The exegesis was so in-depth that some mornings they only got through four verses! It had now gotten to the point where the evangelists were refusing to come to the next five-day training session. Our friend had responded, "But if no one comes, they won't keep paying for the apartment!" In the end, he was able to strong-arm most of his workers into coming to the training, but in the months following that training a number of them transferred to another house church network while others left the ministry altogether to return to secular jobs.
These are a couple of tragic, but true stories that illustrate the harm that concerned, very well intentioned but inexperienced churches can do when becoming involved in China. These stories illustrate the first rule for any church wanting to be involved in ministry in China.
Principle 1: Carefully select a wise, experienced partner.
Both of the above nightmares would likely have been avoided if the churches had followed this principle. Almost everyone agrees on the benefits of partnership, but the catch for most churches is how to find a wise, experienced partner. Fortunately, with the development in recent years of the role of Strategy Coordinator (SC), this task has become significantly easier. An SC basically researches the spiritual and physical needs as well as the status of a people group or city, then develops, implements and coordinates effective, comprehensive strategies to see that group reached. Their work also includes mobilizing workers and prayer support from around the world and coordinating the development of resources like the Jesus film and other media in the native language of that people group.
The concept of Strategy Coordinator has now become well established in world missions and a number of the largest agencies have already trained and placed personnel in this role in China. A great starting place for churches interested in China ministry is to contact some of these agencies and determine which one has values, strategies and ministry locations that best mesh with their own church. A church can then find out among what people groups and cities that agency has active SCs, as well as the needs in those areas that the church is best suited to help with.
Working with an SC is a very wise strategy. It helps ensure that churches outside China are meeting real needs that contribute toward seeing indigenous churches established among a people group or city in China. A SC will normally link the church with national or expatriate workers in a specific area. Getting linked to these longer-term workers helps ensure that any people that come to Christ through short-term teams will be followed up and incorporated into a new or existing church. Also, if a church wants to be involved in training house church leaders, a SC normally will have made these contacts and have developed enough relationship with them to know what their real needs are. This helps churches avoid the nightmare scenario above where the training the churches were giving did not match the needs of the local leaders. In addition, SCs or particular field workers will, in most cases, have some experience in knowing how to handle the ever sensitive and potentially harmful issue of providing money to local leaders. They can guide a church in making wise decisions in this area. As the saying goes, "All of us are smarter than one of us," and the quickest way for a church to ensure that it gets involved in strategic, effective ministry is by choosing a good partner.
Principle 2: Partner in projects that will see churches started.
This principle in no way minimizes the validity or importance of social projects involving building schools or orphanages, providing water, or agricultural, animal husbandry or economic development projects that more and more churches and agencies are becoming involved in. Many of these types of projects have had a very positive overall benefit for the name of Christ in China. Nonetheless, many could have had a significantly deeper and more long-lasting impact if, from the beginning, they had been linked to some kind of church planting effort. Often the key to making this kind of linkage can again be found in going back to Principle 1: Find a wise, experienced partner. An SC or experienced partner will know the needs of their targeted people group or area. They will especially know of under-evangelized or physically needy areas where social projects can provide access to those areas and link a church with other long-term expatriates or nationals interested or involved in seeing churches started in those areas.
Dream Come True 1
In our part of China, an SC periodically was able to involve churches from outside China in mobile dental clinics. These clinics met a real need and consequently were warmly welcomed by the Chinese Public Health Bureau and the needy communities. The outside teams always had opportunities to share with local people and government officials that traveled with them. It illustrates again the tremendous benefit of working with someone who has the same vision as you, the contacts and savvy to put together these types of synergistic projects.
Dream Come True 2
In the beginning, our goal for short-term evangelism teams was to see them win a number of people to the Lord. Over time, we came to see that this goal was inadequate and too small, so we started having these teams come with the goal of seeing one or more house churches established before they left. Initially, this was a very intimidating goal for many but, as teams embraced it, they were thrilled to see that they actually were able to see house churches started before they left!
This goal change significantly impacted the way we trained the teams and the way they ministered. We began giving the teams training in how to start easily reproducible house churches. Because "what people learn first they learn best," we had our teams give great attention to what they modeled the first time they gathered the new believers together as a house church. We trained them not to model anything that a relatively new believer would not be able to quickly learn to do. Short-term team members avoided preaching and instead modeled participative biblical lessons where a facilitator merely asked a number of questions. The participants then worked together to find the meaning of the biblical text and applied it to their lives.
Great emphasis was also placed on new believers learning and sharing their testimonies as well as teaching at least two or more people what they had learned from the Bible each time they met. Because the teams kept things simple, the new believers were willing and able to take ownership of and begin leading the meetings after only a few times. You can imagine how rewarding it was for the short-term teams to get on the plane knowing that God had used them to plant an indigenous, house church led by Chinese believers! Of course these groups were still fragile, and the leaders had many questions, but because an SC had linked the short-term team to an area where there were other expatriates and nationals in place to do follow-up, these groups were able to continue to mature and reproduce.
More than 200 years ago, William Carey exhorted Christians to "Expect great things from God; attempt great things for God." This is an exhortation we Christians today would do well to heed. Since churches are the backbone of the Christian faith, we all need to expect that God's favor and blessing will be with us as we boldly attempt to plant churches by partnering with experienced workers on the field.