In May of 2018, CNN published an article “As Churches are Demolished at Home, Chinese Christians Find Religious Freedom in Kenya.” The title suggests that there is a great flight of Chinese Christian workers leaving their land for greener pastures in Africa. It conjures up images of baby Jesus fleeing Judea for safer grounds in Egypt, or the spread of the gospel due to persecution after Stephen’s death. However, the reality is that believers in China have long had a vision for the nations, including the nations of Africa. Yet, when we look closely at Chinese Christian workers in Africa, we see that the challenges are formidable. This article will highlight some of these challenges. It makes the point that, despite them, workers are making advancements for Christ’s kingdom.
Publicity Embarrasses the Chinese Government
The publicity surrounding the recent murder of two young Chinese workers in Pakistan confirmed in a New York Times article and recent protests in Hong Kong have caused the Chinese government to lose face over the issue of the global involvement of Chinese Christian workers.
At stake for the Chinese government is the much-vaulted claim that China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) delivers riches and enhances trade opportunities with China. However, we see many cracks in these claims; the last thing that Xi Jinping needs is a domestic debate over whether donations and support should be going to these nations when there are still many poor and needy people in China. He also does not want an international debate about the intent of the investment and the potential corruption that results. While these issues may make the disenfranchised Chinese nationals in African countries more open to engaging with Chinese Christian workers, they also put targets on their backs as potential threats to the BRI initiative.
A Mismatch Between Government and Popular Sentiment
In Ethiopia, the Chinese built a new headquarters for the African Union. The goal was for China to remind African nations that they are a good and generous friend and trading partner. Given this, you might think that the Africans would welcome Chinese people with open arms. However, you would be terribly mistaken.
Public sentiment within various countries has been negative for a long time. The bad reputation of Chinese people, whether warranted or not, presents an obstacle for Christian workers. In some countries, local people believe that Chinese are stealing their jobs. So, authorities may stop Chinese at the airport or local police may stop them for the purpose of extortion. In extreme cases, they have been victims of violence, such as kidnapping. Chinese Christian workers lack the support and training to deal with these types of crises. Conversely, as Christian workers lead Chinese nationals to Christ in these nations, the security concerns have become an issue in discipleship. One new believer, traumatized after being robbed, said, “In Jesus’ name, I will shoot the next burglar dead that tries to come into my home.”
Access to Chinese Workers
Given these challenges, state-owned Chinese companies and factories have been very careful about not allowing their workers to leave their work compounds; they are designed to shield African people from getting to know the average Chinese migrant worker. The rationale is that since the Chinese do not speak English, they will not be able to navigate cross-cultural communication with local Africans. In other words, China does not want to deal with potential threats of misunderstanding with local people. Workers are not allowed to take time off to go outside the compound; instead, they live as indentured servants until it is time for them to go on holiday or return home.
It is possible to have contact with English-speaking Chinese in managerial positions who are allowed to leave the compounds or with Chinese business owners. They are often educated and have left their families back home for the duration of their contract. To alleviate the loneliness experienced by these men who miss their families, the factory will often bring in prostitutes from China. Challenging men to be faithful to their wives is quite difficult. One Christian worker said that there are two things one should not ask a Chinese person in Africa: first, “What is your salary?” (a common question in China); second, “What is your family situation?” The problem is so pervasive that even those who hear the gospel or attend church find it very difficult to give up their life of sin.
There are many Chinese idioms that would suggest Chinese people know how to engage in cross-cultural communication. For example, 入乡随俗 (ruxiang sui su) carries a similar meaning to, “When in Rome do as the Romans do.” In reality, however, very few Chinese workers are taught about cross-cultural adaptation; unfortunately, that is true for Christian workers as well. They often end up offending local Africans and many end up returning home early because they are unable to adapt.
In one African nation, a Christian worker did not last more than a week. Several realities triggered his early departure. First, he realized that learning the language would be very difficult. Second, he saw other Chinese believers suffer from severe cases of malaria. Third, there were no good options for educating his children. For many workers from other countries, these would be considered simple cross-cultural adaptation issues that go with the territory of counting the cost and measuring one’s call to serve. Nevertheless, for this brother, who had not been adequately prepared, he simply could not continue.
Incorrect Expectations and Lack of Support
Christian workers sent from China often deal with misperceptions of the type of work they will be doing. Most sending agencies in China believe that workers are being sent to the Muslim, Buddhist, or Hindu worlds, not to the Chinese in the destination country. Furthermore, in some African nations, especially in sub-Sahara, the majority of the populations is Christian.
Still, many of those sent out feel called to reach the Chinese in these countries, but because of these misperceptions, often they are disillusioned with the lack of support they receive from their home fellowships and sending organizations. They feel as if they have been forgotten, and no one is interested in hearing how their work is helping to equip Chinese with cross-cultural skills to reach unreached people groups back home. In fact, it is the Chinese workers and migrants who themselves are an unreached people group. Educating the Chinese church is a priority in terms of framing the needs for Chinese Christian workers in these countries.
Difficulties for Chinese Christian Workers to Keep a Visa
Another challenge for Chinese Christian workers is the high entry barrier for long-term visas in African countries; there are only a few options. Student and tourist visas are obviously very limiting in terms of duration and cost. The next obvious option is a religious visa, but that assumes that a worker will be sponsored by a denomination or religious organization that is already recognized by the host country. Some countries also require Bible degrees from accredited schools. These are hard to come by for Chinese Christian workers because their theological education was received in underground training centers with no legal standing for providing certificates. Those with seminary degrees from overseas schools will have an easier time.
Another way to obtain a visa is by starting a business or non-profit NGO. The Business as Mission model (BAM) is popular among Chinese workers because of the perceived benefit of being able to support oneself. This is important as the situation in China gets harder for house churches; sending and supporting missionaries is increasingly difficult. This avenue may provide multiple visas for a team to be formed, potentially bringing more benefit to the community.
The reality, though, is that there are many challenges to starting a business or NGO. A person needs capital, an entrepreneurial sense, and accountability, things that most Chinese Christian workers lack. Even if they are successful, there is the challenge of balancing time spent on their work with time spent in outreach. Presence in a country does not equate with effectiveness, so those who do end up going this route often struggle to keep the business or organization afloat, let alone being effective in their ministry. Christian workers who take this route need to truly build a solid team with varying gifts and resources in order to be successful.
The last type of visa is an employment visa. This may make the most sense on a number of levels. A Christian worker can negotiate working with Chinese business owners to extend employment to them, assuming there is a fit. The problem is that most countries have a high unemployment rate so work visas are reserved for those with high-level skills who can do jobs that an average local person cannot do. However, most Chinese businesses want to work with Chinese people instead of Africans, and they need workers who are not engineers. In some cases, they work through an agent who has connections with the local government and has an agreement to allow their applicants to obtain “engineering” visas even though they do no meet the requirement. This presents a dilemma for the Christian worker: “Am I going to lie in order to do the Lord’s work”?
The Itinerant Nature of Migrant Workers
A big challenge is the itinerant nature of the Chinese community in Africa. Many who attend church and discipleship classes one year may not be there the following year. In some ways, this work often mirrors college ministry because the window is short to work with most of the believers who may be going back home.
Christian workers coming to China need to have a kingdom mindset. Local Chinese churches will need to establish partnerships to devise strategies to help meet needs. Christian workers will need to delegate tasks to others in order to raise them up for future discipleship and team-building. Finally, Chinese Christian workers will need to come up with creative ways to continue to build on momentum that is empowered and guided by the Holy Spirit while constantly having to say, “I’ll see you back in China.” To those he says “good-bye” to, progress in their walk with Christ will have to be seen from afar.
God is moving in the Chinese church, and many are joining the work of making disciples of all nations. Although the challenges are real in Africa, God is still asking his church to send out workers because the harvest is here. Despite the challenges, the reality is that many Chinese Christian workers do plant churches. Amazingly, God works in powerful ways, providing workers with divine encounters for sharing the gospel, making disciples, and raising up new leaders in the church. May the Lord bless the Chinese church as they do all they can to send beautiful feet that brings good news!
Christopher Lai (pseudonym) has served in East Asia for more than a decade helping Chinese to establish their own sending bases so that they can serve both domestically and internationally in cross-cultural contexts. He believes the next wave of kingdom workers will be those from China. Lai, with his wife... View Full Bio