Supporting Article

Changing China, Changing Roles, Unchanging Commission

Foreigners in China Today


As we consider the ways in which foreigners might make a contribution to the welfare of Chinese society and to the growth of Christianity in China, we must first remind ourselves of the rapidly changing situation there.

“Positive” Changes

To begin with, there are far more urban churches than ten years ago, composed of both migrants from rural areas and educated people, many of them professionals. It would seem, too, that there are more Christians at all levels of society. More Christian literature, blogs, web sites, online training resources, and overseas training options make it possible for believers to grow in their knowledge of the Bible and in their ability to serve, and for nonbelievers to learn about the Christian faith. Likewise, there is more awareness of resources available from Taiwan, Hong Kong, overseas Chinese Christian publishers, radio and television broadcasting, and seminaries.      

All these developments, as well as an increased maturity and confidence, especially among younger urban church leaders, have resulted in a growing sense that they do not need Westerners to engage in evangelism as before. “We can do it ourselves,” they are saying.

“Negative” Changes

On the other hand, not all the news is good. From almost all directions we hear of disturbing weaknesses among Christians. Shallow faith, worldliness, materialism, and general busyness caused by the tremendous pressure to survive and to acquire “the good things of life,” limit the impact of the gospel upon professing believers. Evangelism with limited biblical content, poor teaching from the pulpit, and the influence of the “prosperity” message lead not only to a poor grasp of the core elements of the faith—not to mention the whole counsel of God—but also to a focus on earthly success and “happiness”—hardly the materials out of which sound, healthy Christians and churches can be built.

Meanwhile, small, intimate, house-church gatherings have been replaced, in many cases, by larger meetings, making deep fellowship, mutual encouragement, accountability, and spiritual “quality control” extremely difficult. The rapid expansion of the number of Christians has thrust immature people into positions of leadership for which they are not equipped. Most Chinese church leaders are overworked with little time for Bible study, meditation, and prayer. Following the traditional pattern of Chinese leadership, they rule over their flock in a hierarchical fashion, stunting the growth of new leaders and the exercise of spiritual gifts on the part of believers.

We repeatedly hear that the marriages of pastors are in trouble, sometimes because wife and children are neglected for “God’s work.” Nor do parents know how to bring up their children in a godly way. In fact, the greatest need in the church seems to be teaching and example of biblical family living. These and other weaknesses among Chinese Christians dull zeal for evangelism and make a credible testimony more difficult.

Within Chinese society, warp-speed urbanization and modernization have spawned fierce, dog-eat-dog competition. College graduates—the ones most likely to join urban churches—cannot easily find jobs. Housing prices, though ready to fall, are sky-high. Rising wealth has created a consumer culture exceeding even that of the West. Hedonism of all types, including pervasive sexual immorality, has produced a generation of “getters,” not givers.

Since early 2014, political pressures on the church have increased in some places as part of a general tightening campaign by the government. Strong anti-American propaganda and stricter ideological oversight in universities have made foreigners, especially Americans, more “radioactive” than ever. Increased restrictions on the Internet have rendered some forms of activity by foreigners, and even local believers, difficult.

In the West, the financial crises in Europe, very mixed signals about the American economy, and a growing emphasis upon social work rather than verbal evangelism are beginning to dampen the zeal of Christians to serve overseas along with the ability of the church to support them. In particular, various trends in the past few decades have gutted the heart of long-term missionary commitment and made lifetime dedication very rare. The result: few Westerners stay in China very long, and most do not learn the language well enough to communicate effectively.

Character Constants amidst Changing Conditions

All these changes, plus more that have not been mentioned, require us to rethink the kinds of foreign Christians who are still needed in China. Clearly, some kinds of people are not needed, if, indeed, they ever were:

  • Impatient, unprepared evangelists who do not take time to learn the language or culture and seek quick “decisions” for Christ.
  • Self-willed, independent agents who are not willing to work with Chinese believers or other Westerners.
  • Donor-driven “missionaries” who seek statistics for supporters back home more than long-term growth built on a solid foundation.
  • Well-meaning, but ignorant zealots who are not aware of either China’s long history and rich culture or previous and present attempts to reach them for Christ. Thinking they have to “invent the wheel,” they are often not aware of the thousands of books and other materials already translated into Chinese, especially in Taiwan, Hong Kong, and North America.
  • “Students” who do not really spend time learning Chinese but who focus on “ministry” to Chinese.
  • “Business people” who use their work visa as a cover for Christian ministry.
  • Short-term visitors who imagine that they can make converts in one quick trip.
  • Advocates for democracy and Western-style government in the name of Christ. These may be good things, but they are not essential to the gospel, and promotion of them only confirms the suspicions of the Chinese government.
  • Foreign money!

On the other hand, despite—and because of—the changing scene in China, there is still a great need for certain types of foreigners. Still needed:

  • Dedicated Christians who will take seriously the Great Commission and do all they can to become effective Christian witnesses in China. This includes solid grounding in the Bible, deep piety, and learning as much as possible about Chinese history, culture, and contemporary society. China: Ancient Culture, Modern Society, by Peter Yu and this writer, was written to be an aid in this area.
  • Young people who will dedicate their lives to work among the Chinese and take the time to learn the language well.
  • Teachers, especially of English, but also of other subjects, who are committed to excellence in their work and to a lifestyle that is visibly God-centered and grace-filled.
  • Skilled workers in the medical field and other mercy-related areas.
  • People whose marriages and family life can be a model to Chinese.
  • Mature Christians who will spend several weeks, months, or even years in China contributing their expertise but also becoming real friends to their colleagues.
  • Business people who exhibit integrity, honesty, fairness, and love in all they do.
  • Friends and mentors for Chinese Christians, including pastors and church leaders.
  • Tourists and participants in short-term vision (not “mission!”) trips who come to look, listen, learn, and love those whom they meet, and to pray.
  • Well-trained theologians who know enough Chinese language and culture to work alongside Chinese Christians who are seeking to bring the light of the Scriptures to bear upon their cultural heritage.

In short, if what we have said about the state of Chinese Christians and churches reflects reality, then godly foreign believers who exemplify biblical values and priorities at home, school, and work can make a major contribution towards strengthening the testimony of Chinese believers and those who try to shepherd them.

Changing China, Unchanging Commission          

These same foreigners can also serve as much-needed evangelists. Despite what many are telling us, no matter how many Chinese have heard the biblical gospel, there are still hundreds of millions who have not.

Let us suppose that there are 100 million Chinese Christians (though this estimate is high); that each one understands the basic core of the Christian message, as summarized, for example, in the Apostles’ Creed (though this seems not to be the case); that each one can articulate the good news clearly (though not all can) and each has told at least one person enough about God to make informed repentance and true faith possible (again, this is unlikely); and that the daily lives of Christians are so different that others are drawn to ask, “Why? Where do your love, joy, peace, and righteous living come from?”

Let us further suppose that the efforts of pastors and evangelists, along with the countless Christian web sites and blogs, have brought a coherent biblical presentation to another two hundred million people. That would give us a total of 400 million (including existing believers) who have heard the gospel within the past few years. Now let us double that figure, just in case we have severely underestimated the combined witness of millions of believers. That still leaves us with at least 700 million Chinese—double the population of the United States—who have not had a chance to learn about God, Christ, salvation through faith in Jesus, and the new life that is mandated by Scripture and made possible by the indwelling of the Holy Spirit!

Can anyone still say that there is no need for more Christian witnesses, even foreigners, who live as true followers of Christ and, when appropriate, communicate the essentials of the Christian faith to interested Chinese friends, neighbors, coworkers, classmates, and fellow passengers? But evangelism, like edification of Christians, must be done slowly, quietly, patiently, prayerfully, personally, and mostly through friendship and godly living. China needs people who will listen, pray, be friends, and model godly living.

In particular, Chinese Christians will greatly benefit from watching Christian couples relate to each other in love. As husbands care tenderly for their wives, honoring them and exercising servant leadership, the traditional Chinese view of men’s role will be challenged. As wives demonstrate respect, meekness, and submission to their husbands, the common practice of wifely nagging, henpecking, criticizing, and openly rebelling against husbands likewise will be confronted with a different paradigm.

In the same manner, as Christian parents exercise both firm discipline and unconditional love, coupled with consistent teaching of God’s Word and mutual respect in the home, a huge gap in current Chinese society will be filled by this powerful counterexample to extremes of neglect, indulgence, and pressure to succeed that inflict serious harm on children.

Since Chinese tend to be both very practical and highly observant, what we are will speak more loudly than what we say, and will contribute immeasurably to the growth of the Christian church in China. If they observe Christians who are secure in the love of God, walking the way of the cross, and filled with joy and hope, they will not fail to notice and ask questions.

There will always be a need for foreigners like this!

Image credit: Joann Pittman
G. Wright Doyle

G. Wright Doyle

G. Wright Doyle is the director of China Institute (www.reachingchineseworldwide.org) and Global China Center (www.globalchinacenter.org), the editor of Biographical Dictionary of Chinese Christianity (www.bdcconline.net), and co-editor of Studies in Chinese Christianity, published by Wipf and Stock. For more on effective ministry among Chinese, see Reaching Chinese Worldwide,... View Full Bio