Supporting Article

Biblical Mandates, God's Calling, and Overseas Workers in China


If the foreign worker is in an area where there is little awareness of the gospel, then proclamation is still a primary task. If a church has begun to grow, then a mentoring role is very appropriate. As a group of churches further develops, the outside worker may need to shift from mentor to partner. If a particular group is growing rapidly and has stable, reproducing leadership, then it may be time for the foreign worker to move on to another field. Sometimes all of these situations can coexist in close geographic proximityespecially in urban areas.

The role of the foreign worker also depends on who the foreign worker is. Each foreign worker is uniquely called and gifted by God. Independent of context, the outside worker must remain faithful to God's call. When God directs an individual to do something, the wise course of action is to heed his voice. Our Father does know best.

In all situations, the foreign worker needs to maintain and deepen a learner-servant heart.

The Mandates

The foreign worker is motivated and bound to the outreach mandates of scripture. We are familiar with many of them. Even as China changes, the commands, noted earlier, remain constant: go into all the world; make disciples of all nations; love your neighbor; build my church. These imperatives flow from the character of God. From Genesis to Revelation, God's heart for all peoples of the world is evident.

  • Abraham (Gen. 22:18): "and through your offspring all nations on earth will be blessed."
  • Israel (Psa. 67:1-2): "May God be gracious to us and bless usthat your ways may be known on earth, your salvation among all nations.
  • The Church (Matt 28:18-20; Luke 24:47; Mark 16:15; John 20:21; Acts 1:8.): The Great Commission is given five times, each time with a different wording to be certain we do not miss the point.
  • The End Times (Rev 7:9): "there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language."

These imperatives and their expressions are as relevant today in China as they were 100 years ago or 2000 years ago when first given to the church. The scriptural imperatives still remain unfinished.

The Ever Changing China Mosaic

China is not a static monolith. People may disagree on whether or not there is "One China" politically, but there is not a single uniform China culturally, economically or spiritually. The picture you see depends on what part of this ever shifting, multilayered mosaic you view and how far you are from the surface.

From a distance, many trends emerge. These are not equally applicable across all of China but they are patterns relevant to numerous settings.

  • Increasing gap between the rich and poor
  • Rising personal income (especially in urban areas)
  • Global economic crisis still working its way through China
  • Migration from the countryside to urban areas
  • Changing family dynamics (consequences of the one child policy; families separated by economic migration)
  • Changing values regarding sexuality, marriage and divorce
  • Growing public discussion about values for individuals and society
  • Impact of internet and other media
  • Increasing openness of people to spirituality
  • Increasing tolerance of authorities toward spirituality

These macro perspectives inform long-term strategy and provide context for the specifics of what to do. But ultimately, the service the foreign worker provides and how it is carried out is best determined by the people he or she is relating to.

Situational Awareness

Is the role of the foreign worker changing? It depends on where the worker is and who he or she relates to. Foreign workers consciously or unconsciously make choices about who they are trying to reach and serve. For some it is a strategic decision based on research and analysis. For others, it is part of a mystical revelation from God. Yet others may be directed by relationships with locals or colleagues. Sometimes, living conditions and opportunities are decisive. With many foreign workers, it is a combination of several of these factors.

However the foreign worker chooses those he would serve, it is good to maintain a current situational awareness of those individuals and their context. For this, excellent language and cultural skills are essential. One or more trusted local partners who are not influenced by the potential for personal gain can provide invaluable insights.

One example of how those being served shape the ministry can be seen in the example of a team of local workers that traveled to Sichuan not long after the recent earthquakes. They found person after person, village after village, devastated, hungry and overwhelmed. Without any formal disaster response training, they discerned that the most Jesus thing to do was to take care of their practical needs for water, food, clothing and shelter. Beyond a brief identification of themselves as Christians or an occasional prayer, they did nothing overtly spiritual. Days and weeks later, they returned to many of the same areas and were able to do a great deal of direct sharing of the gospel and started many churches.

If the foreign worker is in an area where there is little awareness of the gospel, then proclamation is still a pri-mary task. Foreign worker Y brings people to faith in factory after factory. Everywhere he goes, he is passionate about telling other of Christ, training all believers to win others and to share their faith, obeying the Word, training still others.

If a church has begun to grow, then a mentoring role is very appropriate. Foreign worker N meets regularly with a local leader to pray and discuss local church situations. Together they look at the scriptures and decide next steps with specific individuals.

As a group of churches further develops, the outside worker may need to shift from mentor to partner. The same foreign worker N, partners with local leader D, to choose appropriate tracts. Together they find ways to produce and distribute large quantities of these printed materials.

If a particular group is growing rapidly and has stable, reproducing leadership, then it may be time for the foreign worker to move on to another field. The same foreign worker N and local partner S see each other only a few times each year. Over a meal, S shares what God has been doing in his ministry. Together they rejoice and praise God for his unstoppable work.

Sometimes all of these situations can coexist in close geographic proximityespecially in urban areas. One trend of note is the increasing tolerance of authorities toward spirituality of local Chinese. Many Christian leaders are finding ways that believers can be more visible. In more than a few instances, churches are seen as social organizations that contribute to societyand so they should be. While the authorities find it difficult to officially acknowledge that Christianity is the foundation of this benefit, they know a good thing when they see it. However, this implicit affirmation does not apply to foreign workers. High initiative with a low profile remains a key to their long-term impact.

In general, trends highlight needs. Needs are opportunities where the foreign worker can serve. However, they must always be filtered through biblical principles. Service does not equate to giving money. It is a dangerous assumption for the foreign worker to think that outside money is a great assistance to local needs. In most situations outside funds given directly to locals are a primary corrupting factor and distort, if not destroy, long-term healthy growth of the church.

The Worker

In addition to the local context and the needs of specific people, another major factor affecting the role of the foreign worker is who he or she is.

Each foreign worker is uniquely called and gifted by God. If the worker's dominant spiritual gift is evangelism, like a moth to a light, that worker will be drawn to those who have yet to believe. Foreign worker C leads a Chinese to a decision in her home, at the bus stop or in the classroom. Foreign worker K, with strong serving gifts, tends to be pulled to the practical needs of others. Independent of context, the outside worker must remain faithful to God's call. The Apostle Paul exhorts all believers to utilize their respective gifts (Romans 12:6-8).

In all situations, the foreign worker needs to maintain and deepen a learner-servant heart. To neglect this habit is to fall victim to the psychological warfare schemes of the evil one. It is all too easy to falsely presume the outsider is the expert and inherently more mature. The often insidious and subconscious assumption is that the Chinese church must look like my church, my tradition, when it grows up. The truth is that the outsider and local have much to contribute to one another.

Conclusions

Is China changing? Absolutely. Is the role of the foreign worker changing? Yes and no. No, in the sense that people still need Jesus. The local church remains a key expression of God's presence on earth. Multiplying obedient disciples and growing leaders are focal points of the Great Commission. Yes, in that individuals, churches and whole groups of churches change and the foreign worker needs to be responsive to their needs. Neighborhoods, villages and cities are in flux. Old opportunities may end; new and significant ones are ever emerging.

The foreign worker needs to remain true to his calling and gifts but responsive to the context and people he serves. He needs to vigilantly cultivate a learner-servant heart. Together with local brothers and sisters, these kinds of foreign workers will help meet the spiritual and practical needs of people all across China. Many more will come to faith. Local leaders will continuously be raised up. Churches will grow and multiply. In all these things, God will be glorified.

Image credit:  I Believe by Tommy Klayko, on Flickr

John Thomas

John Thomas has been a foreign worker in China for more than ten years. View Full Bio