The Taoist philosopher Chuang Tzu said, “Do nothing, and nothing is not done.”
Sound illogical? It is—to the Western mind, which generally sees action (doing something) as preferable to inaction (doing nothing). In fact, we often equate doing nothing with negligence—which usually makes the situation worse. Chuang Tzu’s idea that doing nothing can have positive results flies in the face of Western logic, which says, “Do nothing, and nothing gets done.”
In China, where the opportunities are many and the need of a billion people without Christ demands an immediate response, inaction—or doing nothing—would be unthinkable. Certainly much needs to be done. But upon closer reflection, Chuang Tzu’s dictum may indeed be relevant for those contemplating China involvement today.
Following the rush of Western evangelical ministries into Eastern Europe and the former USSR in the early 1990s, it became apparent that, for all their good intentions, many of these organizations were not well prepared.1 Specifically, they lacked an understanding of the culture into which they were entering, they had no previously established links to the existing church in the region, and very few of their people had language skills. This is not to say that no good work was done; simply that much more could have been accomplished had more organizations taken the time to prepare adequately.
In China the opportunity for involvement is immediate, and the desire of churches and organizations outside China for involvement is great. Thus, to spend time in preparation may be seen, at first glance, as doing nothing of worth or consequence to meet the pressing needs. However, without some knowledge of Chinese culture, outsiders will be hard-pressed to communicate the gospel or assist Chinese Christians in a meaningful way. Working relationships with the existing church are essential in order to truly participate in what God is already doing in China while preventing the kind of dependency and paternalism that was prevalent during the mission era in China. Finally, a willingness to learn the language signifies a long-term commitment to China and opens the doors to relationships that would otherwise be out of the question for a foreigner in China.
All of these take time; but, ultimately, it will be time well spent. In this sense Chuang Tzu was right. While it may appear on the surface as if we are doing nothing of immediate consequence in China, we can take the time and pay the price for preparation now. Or, we can skip this important step, only to find ourselves struggling to catch up (or simply dropping out) later, when even greater opportunities arise. Can we afford to do “nothing” for China? We can’t afford not to.
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