The people of China have historically been ambivalent toward knowledge and technology imported from the West. The ti-yong debates of the late-19th and early-20th centuries highlighted their desire to enjoy the practical benefits (yong) of Western learning while maintaining the essence (ti) of Chinese culture.
More recently, the rush toward Westernization that seemed to characterize the 1980s has been replaced by the “China Can Say No” spirit of the 1990s. Yes, China wants to modernize, but it does not want to merely copy the pattern of Western nations.
For the church in China as well, there is a certain degree of ambivalence when it comes to partnering with the church abroad. Generous offers of literature, training, and other helps are welcomed by a church that is stretched in all areas, yet one often hears later that the resources provided did not ultimately meet the needs. Several factors that contribute to this paradox are worth noting by Christians outside China who seek to assist their brothers and sisters inside.
Since the needs of the church in China are so great, virtually any form of assistance will likely be seen as an improvement over the current situation. As one observer stated rather bluntly about church leaders with whom he was acquainted, “They are so hungry they’ll eat rocks.” Unfortunately, this uncritical acceptance fuels the outsiders’ belief that they are truly meeting the needs of the Chinese church.
While Chinese Christians may appreciate the practical help given by Christians outside, perhaps more important to them are the fellowship and moral support which these contacts provide. Organizations and individuals outside China function as a voice for believers inside, rallying prayer on their behalf, calling attention to their needs, and indirectly strengthening their hand vis-á-vis the Chinese government. Rather than risk losing this important link to the outside world, Chinese Christians tend to go along with ministry initiatives suggested by foreign Christians in order to keep relationships intact.
Finally, traditional Chinese norms governing relationships with foreigners affect how Chinese Christians respond to assistance from abroad.
Since foreigners are viewed as guests while in China, it is natural for their hosts to respond favorably to the gifts and offers of assistance they bring. Particularly when China is just one stop on the whirlwind itinerary of a busy Christian leader, this gracious reception may be taken as an unconditional welcome of the ministry he or she represents. In reality, it is more likely a signal that the Chinese Christians appreciated the fellowship and desire further dialogue.
The missing ingredient in these relationships is time. Chinese hospitality has a wonderful way of making first-time visitors feel like old friends, but genuine friendships require many subsequent meetings in order to mature. Only then will Chinese believers be comfortable expressing their true feelings about the nature of their partnership with outside Christians.
Effectively partnering with Christians in China will require the building of long-term relationships that permit real dialogue on what is best for the church in China. In order to sincerely say “Yes,” the Chinese church must first be allowed to say “No.”
Image credit: Journal Entry (Joel Montes de Oca) by Chris Lott, on Flickr.
Brent Fulton is the founder of ChinaSource. Prior to assuming his current position, he served from 1995 to 2000 as the managing director of the Institute for Chinese Studies at Wheaton College. From 1987 to 1995 he served as founding US director of China Ministries International, and from 1985 to... View Full Bio