Chinese Filial Responsibility and Missionary Sustainability

Parent and Extended Family Issues and Their Effect on Chinese Missionary Sustainability

From the series Missions from China—A Maturing Movement

Chinese Christians who experience a call to missionary service sense the weight of an opposing great responsibility, the care of aging parents. The first of the five Confucian relationships is the parent-child relationship. As parents look after children when the kids are young, so children are supposed to look after parents when fathers and mothers grow old. These underlying Confucian values still impact modern China and great tension results for some Chinese missionaries and prospective Chinese missionaries.

As part of a study examining causes of Chinese missionary attrition, I recently interviewed eleven[1] Chinese long-term missionaries[2] using a questionnaire developed by the World Evangelical Fellowship.[3] Additionally, I conducted three focus groups with a total of 14 Chinese Christian doctors who had previously participated in short-term mission service to better understand issues of importance to prospective Chinese missionaries. Here I will explore the tension of Chinese missionaries related to parent and extended-family issues and then based on research findings, I will propose possible solutions.

Emotional Burden for the Chinese Missionary

The decision to serve God in missions may create strife with parents and other relatives. In some cases, intense emotional agony results from pressures Chinese missionary workers experience. Chinese children naturally want to bless their parents (MI#4),[4] but because of missionary service, sometimes Chinese missionaries experience a “bad feeling” in their hearts that they “don’t know how to take care of” (MI#8, 9). In many cases, given China’s only recently changed one-child policy which had been in place since the early 1980s, a husband and wife missionary couple may find themselves in great difficulty attempting to care for the health-care needs of four aging parents with limited resources (MI#4,6). In 2013, the father of one missionary couple was injured in an auto accident. Upon a hurried return to China, they found themselves without money to care for the acute needs of the father (MI#6).

Duty towards aging parents is a fundamental value among Chinese people. A well-known proverb in China says: “While parents are still around, children should not live far away” (FG#2). One prospective Chinese missionary posited a solution to the problem:

I feel if the parents are truly needy, one option is to come back. Another [option], I feel, is just like the Bible said: If one partner [missionary] cannot come back, then it is like what Jesus said to John on the cross, “Here is your mother”. And he said to his mother, “Here is your son.” So I might have brothers and sisters in Jesus in my home town. For example, if my mother-in-law comes, I might say to her (FG#12), “My mother has a lung problem and will be asking you for help. Could you have a look?” I feel in this way I might be able to help resolve the problem. (FG#8)

However, another focus group participant countered,

Even if another person can provide care in your stead, such that you go and leave your telephone number saying “call me if anything comes up,” this is still not the same thing . . . . Sometimes, even if you come back for an illness that is not at all severe and not requiring a major hospital stay—you may feel you are being a very good son or daughter. But your parents do not see it that way. Instead, they may be thinking, “We just need you.” (FG#6)

Many parents covet their children’s presence not only when significant problems arise. They want their children available to meet a host of lesser needs as well (FG#6). The need of aging parents of Chinese Christians is a problem that leaves potential missionaries perplexed.

Family Resistance to the Life Choices of Chinese Missionaries

Difficulties arising from complex family interactions often are exacerbated by the current reality that most Chinese missionaries have many non-Christian relatives (MI#1, 11). These relatives curse the missionaries, look down on them, and reprove them while pointing a critical finger about not taking care of their parents (MI#8, 9). Parents and relatives, not understanding the eternal outlook guiding a missionary’s decisions, put extreme pressure on the missionary to get a well-paying job, and be successful outside the framework of faith-based perspectives (MI#3). Parents want their children to bring them pride, to be the ones to “lift up their heads” (MI#11). In the face of the missionary’s faith-based sacrifices, relatives may purposefully set themselves against the gospel, which they view as the cause of their children’s disappointing life choices. One missionary revealed,

I tried to share the gospel with him [my older brother], but he wouldn’t accept it because he feels that I became like this because of my faith in Jesus. He simply won’t accept the fact that I made this decision. (MI#1)

Missionaries may fear visits to family during Spring Festival (the annual holiday where all families try their best to get together) or telephone calls to parents, knowing that they may receive pressure to marry (even to marry non-believers) or to otherwise comply with parental wishes that run counter to missionary priorities (MI#3). China’s missionary sending experience does not yet enjoy a generations-old climate of respect and acceptance for Christians leaving home for foreign lands, thus making it difficult for non-saved relatives and parents to understand and support.

Being misunderstood, especially by family members, is one of the hardest things for a prospective missionary candidate to endure. People will say things such as,

This is not good . . . . You are useless. You shouldn’t be doing this. What’s the point of living like that? You are weird. Do you see other people acting like this?! (FG#10)

 Mental illness at such a young age. (FG#1)

Some missionaries are accused of doing meaningless work (FG#2) or of wanting to go on a pleasure tour (FG#2), thus “shaking the confidence” (FG#13) of those contemplating a missionary career. In the face of such accusations, enthusiasm often wanes and fatigue sets in (FG#13). Sometimes even a single comment can profoundly and negatively impact a prospective missionary’s openness to continue considering serving as a missionary (FG#13).

Suggested Solutions

Chinese missionaries often find themselves living in sustained tension between the call to go to the nations (Matthew 28:19, Acts 1:8) and the command to look after one’s family (Mark 7:11-12, I Timothy 5:8). Though a one-size-fits-all answer for the many questions arising from this tension cannot be offered for every Chinese missionary, certain principles apply whatever the circumstance of relationship between a missionary and his or her parents.[5]

Seeking Parental Blessing

In some situations, a missionary might seek parental approval for their service, even in cases where the parents are not Christian. One interviewee felt that it was important to receive parental blessing from his unsaved father and mother before serving in China’s Islamic northwest (MI#3). Following Jesus may mean leaving father and mother (Matthew 19:29; Mark 10:29). This missionary’s contention, however, was that good relationships with parents would help him to feel peaceful on the field, and to not leave his home with a scar in his heart or with his parents hating him. In his case, he felt his parents were “reasonable people,” that he could put himself in their shoes, that he could communicate with them, that honoring parents was honoring to God, and that they would come around in time. Later, he was rewarded for his persistence by receiving parental blessing on his missionary service from his non-Christian parents and was able to call them three times per week from the field to keep the relationship strong.

Resourcing Financial and Relational Support

Some missionaries are blessed with siblings who are willing and able to care for the needs of the parents (MI#2, 5, 6), thereby lifting the missionary’s burden considerably. But for others not so fortunate, the sending church might sometimes need to provide financial or relational support to the missionary’s parents (MI#6). A fund could be set up to supply missionary parents with a monthly allowance that normally a working son or daughter would provide to their parents had they remained in China. One Chinese missionary suggested that ¥500, equal to roughly US$80 each month could be given to the parents of Chinese missionaries.

Because their son, for reasons of [serving] the Lord, went to another area or left the country, it is reasonable that the brothers and sisters in that church be considered his children. He lost one son, and he gains a lot of sons. This is rational. (MI#6)

In addition, a missionary sending organization, if one is involved, could contact local churches asking them to visit parents (MI#6). Christians in the supporting church might organize small gifts, or other kinds of care. One church member visited an interviewee’s pleasantly surprised parents in their home town, delivering eggs, providing personal care that the missionary herself was unable to provide from outside China (MI#10). Aid related to the needs of aging parents would be valued, especially during crisis situations where the missionary was unable to return home in time (FG#7). A contingency fund should be established to provide emergency support in the case of a sudden illness or accident.

Frequent Furloughs

Chinese missionaries feel a need to take care of family responsibilities. Frequent furloughs to see aging parents can help. Focus group participants hoped that a mission organization could provide a way for a missionary to make regular trips back to China to visit family (FG#11). Furloughs as often as every one-and-a-half years to two years (MI#3,4,5) would be welcomed by Chinese missionaries.

Without plans for taking care of the needs of parents, it is difficult to imagine how sustainable mission sending practice might take root in China. To the extent that parental issues are not resolved satisfactorily, the mission sending activity of the Chinese church will be significantly hampered in the years ahead.


Elkins, P., Lewis, J., and Van Meter, J. 2003. Three Part Missionary Tracking Guide. WEA: Missions Commission.

Yep, Jeanette, Cha, Peter. 1998. Following Jesus without Dishonoring Your Parents: Asian American Discipleship. Downers Grove, Il: InterVarsity Press.


  1. ^ One Taiwanese missionary was interviewed as well making the total number of interviewees 12. She was the spouse of a Chinese missionary.
  2. ^ I define a long-term Chinese missionary as a missionary from mainland China who has served cross-culturally in or outside China for more than six months.
  3. ^ Elkins et al., Three Part Missionary Tracking Guide. WEA: Missions Commission, 2003.
  4. ^ Missionary Interviewees are identified by a number, i.e. MI#1. Focus Group interviewees are also identified by a number, i.e. FG#3.
  5. ^ For a helpful analysis of this issue, see Following Jesus Without Dishonoring Your Parents: Asian American Discipleship (Yep, 1998).
Image credit: Natasha and Her Grandfather by Michael Mooney via Flickr.
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GJ (pseudonym) is a doctor working in China.View Full Bio

Si Shi (四石)

Si Shi (pseudonym) has lived in China for more than five years and has many friends who work in the medical profession.View Full Bio