Talk to a supporter of the Back to Jerusalem (BTJ) movement and you will hear that this is an exciting movement of God among the China church1 that is sending tens of thousands of missionaries as an “army of worms” across Central Asia all the way to Jerusalem.
Talk to other seasoned observers of the China church and they will say that the original BTJ vision has been “hijacked” and the current Western bandwagon is not a true representation of reality. The debate has been quite emotional with very strong words being used.2 The purpose of this article is not to engage in nonproductive discussion but to clear away some of the fog and suggest positive ways to move forward.
First of all, some basic facts and numbers:
- 100,000 BTJ missionaries is a vision that is yet to be realized. The 100,000 figure is not an estimate of missionaries currently sent out by the China church. Most observers believe that this figure is an aspirational one. It is a vision. Chinese Christians are responding to the vision, and some are in training; others have gone out from China in response to it. It is a vision that will be realized over a long period of time, and it requires training, preparation and the development of resources and support networks. Estimates of the time scale for these missionaries to be ready to leave China range from years to decades, if and when that vision becomes a reality. The total number of missionaries currently working both within and outside of China is estimated to be under a few hundred. On top of that, less than 1,000 are currently receiving training specifically for cross-cultural ministry.3
- The “Heavenly Man” is not an “official” spokesman for BTJ or the China church. Although many times in the last several years Brother Yun, known as the “Heavenly Man,” may have been introduced as a spokesman for BTJ or the China church, there is now open recognition that he does not represent either one in any official capacity, and that such representation in the past was incorrect.4
- There have been large sums of money raised to support BTJ. The total amount raised for BTJ has not been published. Probably, no one will ever know the exact amount.5 The amounts reported from different sources, estimated at millions of dollars, are too high for the benefit of the China church. To date, very little accounting has been given publicly. This issue has been a major stumbling block for the movement. As the Western church seeks to engage in BTJ, several important factors should be considered.
Who speaks for the China Church?
Many were confused when Brother Yun was introduced as the China church leader. Dr. Paul Hiebert, missiologist and cultural anthropologist, has introduced the concept of “boundary set” and “fuzzy set” that can help us understand this confusion. Most of the Western worldview is based on “boundary set” while many other cultures use “fuzzy set.” A “boundary set” perspective sees only black and white while a “fuzzy set” perspective recognizes many shades of gray in between.
Western Christians would be able to understand the China church more easily if it were a unified body with one theology, one administration, one main office and one spokesman. However, such a situation simply does not existnot even in the Western church. Neither Billy Graham, nor John Stott, nor Luis Palau can represent the church in the US, UK and South America. Christians in the West have deep theological divides over the charismatic movement, conservatism and liberalism. In the same way, the China church comes in all shapes and forms, from the extreme charismatic (borderline cultic) to ultra conservative (men and women sitting on opposite sides in the church) to very liberal theology (try Bishop Ding’s justification by love). The difference between a rural village church in Henan and a returnee church (the so called “sea turtle” churches) in Beijing is as big as that between Saddleback church in California and a struggling inner city congregation.
There is no official spokesman for the China church. On top of that, the structures and memberships of house church networks are not clearly defined. It is almost impossible to delineate the exact relationship between and within the networks. A certain congregation may consider itself part of network A today and switch to network B a few months later. Relationships and partnerships between networks also change. Take the case of the famous Sinim Fellowship; it is not clear if the Born-Again Movement is part of it. At the initial formation of the Fellowship, it certainly was. However, there were continuous concerns about the Born-Again Movement’s supposed emphasis on an extreme emotional experience upon conversion and accusations of sheep-stealing against it. Furthermore, the Fellowship has not been active as a coherent group for many months. So, it is difficult to gauge if the Fellowship can still be a channel to influence 65 million believers in China, as it once claimed.
Agencies or churches interested in BTJ need to take time to do some serious research and study about the church in China, to connect with others who are active in China, and to seek out those with a long history of China involvement and a wide range of work there. Many China-related agencies have regular prayer letters and newsletters that are helpful in understanding the needs within the country. A “China desk” or committee within an agency or church can help to formulate and guide a cohesive China strategy. ChinaSource is available to serve as a resource for those seeking help in these areas.
Theological Development of the China Church
Many are concerned about the suggestion that BTJ workers will be sent with no regard to local government policy and restrictions, particularly in the Middle East. The talk of a large number of workers being put in prison and sacrificing their lives is frightening to all of us. Such a plan is certainly not strategic and can hardly achieve the goal of taking the gospel all the way to Jerusalem. The history of the China church gives us some insight into how such an idea came about. The China church has suffered tremendous persecution for the last 55 years, particularly from the 1950s to the 1970s when the government adopted a hard-line religious policy. Thus, the main theological development in the house church today is the theology of the cross. In this context, there is also a glorification of suffering and martyrdom, almost to the point that one’s dedication and commitment is measured by the length of imprisonment. In addition, there are also the mistaken notions of “the further you go, the holier you are” and “walking the gospel to Jerusalem” (as in the original BTJ vision) “is superior to flying there.”
We all appreciate the dedication and commitment demonstrated by the China churches. The Western churches should learn from the China churches on these matters. Nevertheless, the China church must also understand that the theology of the cross cannot answer all the questions of the Muslims. Moreover, a triumphal, high profile approach highlighting suffering and martyrdom is not beneficial to the cause of the movement. The most constructive approach is to work alongside the China church, to derive a workable plan within its context recognizing its strengths and weaknesses.
The Role of the Overseas Chinese Church
The overseas Chinese church is in a unique position for exploring opportunities in China. It has extensive kinship relationships that the Western church does not enjoy. Its members speak the language and are not a visible foreign group in most parts of China. Many overseas Chinese Christians are already involved in training in China and are well connected with the house church networks.
Western churches should seek to partner with the overseas Chinese church on BTJ. Good models and principles of partnership have been presented by many groups since the idea was first brought up in the 1980s and the 1990s. In a three-way partnership (the China church, the overseas Chinese church and the Western church), it is entirely possible that the most effective ministry for the Western Christians is that of prayer.
We must realize that this work can only be done by the China church. No one, not the Western church nor the overseas Chinese church, should own the BTJ movement. All the plans should have an exit strategy whereby, eventually, the China church can take over the ministry.
Missing Links in the BTJ Movement
The BTJ Movement has been compared to a chain with many rings linked together. The problem is that all of the rings are incomplete, and many of them are missing altogether. These missing links include:
- Need for training schools. While there are many training schools in China, very few of them have an emphasis on cross-cultural workers. Quality training programs do not materialize overnight. A good portion of those currently active in cross-cultural work should probably work as trainers and teachers to multiply the next generation of workers. There have been some attempts by the Western church to set up mission training schools in China with only limited success. Perhaps the overseas Chinese church can partner with the house church networks to set up more training programs that are culturally appropriate.
- Need for training material and curriculum. So far, very little material is available in Chinese for the training of cross-cultural workers. Of the 400 plus titles on the subject, many are translated from English and quite a number are testimonies. In order for the movement to mature, much more original training material needs to be written. This, however, will take many years, even decades. Is it possible for existing mission training curriculum to be translated and used in China? The news that the course material from Perspectives on the World Christian Movement will soon be published in Chinese is encouraging. However, what is probably needed is the translation of a whole set of Master’s degree level training material.
- Need for sending structure. There is no structure within China for sending out cross-cultural workers. However, sending agencies have been established in the overseas Chinese church for cross-cultural workers; quite a few of these have extensive experience. These agencies can provide a framework for the China church to follow. Policy manuals, financial guidelines and personnel structures all need to be established. It would be good if several representative samples of such manuals could be collected and made available to the China church.
- Need for placement programs. Given the current state of affairs, it is unrealistic to expect large numbers of workers to be sent outside of China in the near future. However, even within China, there are many opportunities for cross-cultural work. The majority Han house churches are often blind to such opportunities. The Hui people, a Chinese Muslim group, is a hidden and unreached people group. Literally in the backyard of some of the major house church networks in Henan province, there are one million Hui people. Yet, these networks have invested very little effort to reach them. How can their interest in missions be channeled to these unreached people that are easily accessible to them? Perhaps expatriate Christian workers among the minorities can consider taking on Chinese believers as partners.
A Way Forward
Given the controversy and image of the label “Back to Jerusalem Movement,” perhaps it would be better to adapt a more descriptive label such as “China’s Cross-Cultural Colleagues” (4C Movement) or “Mission from China Movement” (MFC Movement).
Finally, by conventional wisdom, China seems to be an unlikely candidate as a major player in missions. Yet, if history is any indication, the growth of the China church since 1949 is evidence of God’s hand at work. Such growth was particularly spectacular when there was no outside (missionary) help, when there was significant persecution, when few signs of Christian activity could be detected and everyone thought the China church was dead. However, none of us is called to be in the driver’s seat; that seat belongs to God. Rather, we are commanded to look at the fields and see the plentiful harvest (Matthew 9:37). Our most logical (easiest, perhaps) response may be to give money. Instead we are to pray and ask the Lord to send out workers. Let this be our first response.
- In this article, the term “China church” will be used to denote the church in China, especially the house church. The term Chinese church would include both the church in China and in the overseas Chinese community.
- On the one hand, the book that sparked the current BTJ debate has been labeled “a blockbuster that could affect world missions more than anything written since Roland Allen’s Missionary Methods, St. Paul’s or Ours? On the other hand, the Heavenly Man, the chief promoter of BTJ in the West, has been labeled a “con man” by many house church leaders in China, a charge strongly denied by the BTJ supporters. See the www.BackToJerusalem.com and www.JesusReturn.net websites for differing views of BTJ.
- Press Release by BJ Foundation UK, December, 2005 and estimates by Tony Lambert, OMF.
- Press Release by BJ Foundation UK, December, 2005.
- One Western source had sent over $500,000 to various BTJ efforts by the middle of 2005.