China’s Ambassadors of Christ to the Nations: A Groundbreaking Survey by Tabor Laughlin. Eugene, OR: Pickwick Publications-Wipf and Stock, 2020. Paperback, 168 pages. ISBN-10: 1725257963; ISBN-13: 978-1725257962. Available from Wipf and Stock and Amazon.
I have a colleague who always wants us to put things we need her to pass on or send out on the front of her desk so that she can see them and remember to do what is necessary. Her mantra is, “Out of sight, out of mind.” Our missionaries are often “out of sight, out of mind.” We only see them at the time of their commissioning service, and when they return for home assignment. In between, there is a big gap. This gap is being filled by what we know as member care. Many of China’s missionaries are being sent to different parts of the world; yet their member care is weak. However, their back-home leadership is concerned about member care and can learn from more experienced sending organizations.
About the Book
Tabor Laughlin, the author of China’s Ambassadors of Christ to the Nations: A Groundbreaking Survey, received his PhD in intercultural studies from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. Laughlin converted his dissertation for publication under the Evangelical Missiological Society Monograph Series. The purpose of his monograph is “to explore the experience of Chinese missionaries, factors contributing to building relationships cross-culturally, and the extent to which Chinese missionaries’ experiences contribute to their retention on the mission field” (p.1). The contents include: an introduction, literature review, research methodology, presentation of findings, analysis of findings, and finally, the conclusion and recommendations. This structure shows proper research that can contribute to the topic of Chinese missionary sending being done by entities in China.
Laughlin interviewed twenty-five missionaries from mainland China who are connected to house churches. They have been serving outside China and ministering among non-Chinese host cultures for at least two years. His findings include the basic information of the interviewees and focus on cross-cultural relationships and adaptation. His research coalesced into two questions as mentioned on page 105:
- How have Chinese cross-cultural workers succeeded or struggled in cross-cultural relationships?
- What prefield and on-the-field experiences have contributed to Chinese cross-cultural workers’ retention in cross-cultural service?
These are some critical questions related to member care for missionaries. The two questions address the issues and uncover factors that will enhance the process of member care.
In the findings, Laughlin mentions that while the needs of Chinese missionaries are similar to those of missionaries from other sending countries, they are closest to those of the Korean missionary movement. Both are from East Asia and have monocultural backgrounds that emphasize filial piety. On the other hand, China has a closed, authoritarian government which restricts religious freedom. While in a cross-cultural setting, missionaries from China can remain in the field and build cross-cultural relationships while learning the language; self-disclosure and mutual trust within the host culture can take place. Furthermore, while prefield training helps missionaries get to the field, they would like to receive more technical or business training for sustainability in their financial matters.
Reliable but Not Dated
I am amazed by Laughlin’s effort to interview twenty-five missionaries serving outside China. It shows his affinity with the practitioners on the ground—trust is an issue. His experience in missionary sending is also an advantage allowing him to design the interview comprehensively. On the other hand, as I read this book, I struggled with what the date of this research might be. The duration of the research is not stated. From the bibliography, the latest reference was published in 2017 (The Souls of China by Ian Johnson, p. 155). Therefore, a simple estimation would be that the research was carried out before the world entered the unprecedented phenomenon of COVID-19. Since the Chinese church is sensitive to social change, the timeline is essential for readers to be able to adjust their expectations in reading.
East Asian Filial Piety
One exciting discovery is about the impact of filial piety on Chinese missionaries. The Chinese missionary movement can learn from the Korean missionary movement about how to handle this issue. Laughlin correctly recognized its importance because of Chinese culture and the “one-child policy” (p. 109). Adult children have an obligation to care for elderly parents. Therefore, the worst-case scenario for a Chinese adult couple would be taking care of four elderly parents and one child. Sometimes, the adults have low incomes and cannot sustain the family’s welfare. This would be a great cause of concern for a family wanting to do mission work, as neglecting the care of the parents would be seen very negatively. On the brighter side, since Chinese live in community, relatives and cousins will often take care of each other’s families. In addition, if the missionary is from a Christian family, the pressure to take care of their elderly parents will be less. The peers in the family will understand the mission being carried out by the missionary.
Cross-Cultural Relationships and Personal Experience
From the perspective of member care, Laughlin mentions that “one common reason for missionary attrition for Chinese is failure to adjust cross-culturally and establish relationships with people of the host culture” (p. 1). The literature review also starts with the topic of building effective cross-cultural relationships and missionary attrition (p. 15). Yet, what is an excellent measure to prove the validity of this statement? Cross-cultural adjustment and relationship building are hard to identify; they are a broad spectrum and not easy to pin down. Also, adjustment and relationship building need time to develop; they are a process.
This process varies based on many factors, most of which Laughlin has covered. However, personality traits and life experiences are also factors. A person’s personality and life experience will affect their ability to cope with stress. While this research can identify the problems and factors of the issue, it cannot represent what each person is going through. For example, Laughlin describes seven or more elements in making close relationships (pp. 80–82), yet each factor is not represented with substantiating numbers. Laughlin has to analyze and use other mechanisms to check the factors’ validity. Perhaps prefield training and on-field support (and postfield debriefing) are more valuable in providing support for cross-cultural workers.
For Chinese missionaries to cross cultures, other issues exist. One of the critical issues is the social setting from which missionaries come. Since China’s government is authoritarian with high sanctions, there is a difference in religious adherence when compared to other countries that have certain levels of religious freedom. One’s background and life experience are connected to the nation’s authority. Most Chinese Christians, if not all, are aware of the government controlling the church’s activities. China is a country without Google and Facebook! This has influenced how the Chinese interact with people of other cultures. If missionaries from monoculture societies (Korea and Japan) need to overcome many cultural barriers, Chinese missionaries require even more effort to cross the same obstacles. Laughlin has made this observation clear and sharp.
Similar Yet Different Training
Thus, prefield training and on-field support for Chinese missionaries must differ from that of missionaries from other backgrounds. Laughlin mentioned prefield vocational training which is helpful; perhaps prefield cultural orientation is even more needful. There is much prefield cross-cultural training for Chinese missionaries taking place outside China; this not only avoids security sanctions but is also beneficial for cross-cultural experience. The prefield training for Chinese missionaries might be longer as there are more matters to cover. However, the other aspect of their learning is always active—they would like to put their new knowledge into practice as soon as possible.
In addition, a strong distinctive of Chinese Christians is sacrifice and suffering. They are willing to endure tougher training in order to better serve in the kingdom of God. To make the training effective and efficient, it should be in partnership with overseas Chinese Christians. Overseas Chinese Christians understand the cultural background of mainland Chinese missionaries and have experience living cross-culturally. Their partnership could minimize hindrances in training.
A Missionary Mentor?
For on-field support, an emerging topic is the missionary-mentor: more experienced missionaries will mentor new missionaries on the field. To mentor Chinese missionaries, a mentor must not only know the culture of the field but also needs to comprehend the culture of the Chinese missionaries. The mentor needs to stand in the gap to eliminate unnecessary barriers for the Chinese missionaries to live in a cross-culture setting.
In conclusion, Laughlin has made a great effort to interview Chinese missionaries. He detects some issues closely related to Chinese missionaries, like the issue of filial piety which most Chinese (not only in China) still adhere to. He could have utilized the Chinese church’s historical background to understand various influences on Chinese missionaries. Since Laughlin is aware of various influences on the Chinese, he could have been more daring in proposing creative ways to walk alongside them. Nevertheless, this book could be an excellent start to understanding the emerging missionary member-care movement coming from China.
In addition, readers should also consider learning about this movement from original Chinese literature. With the rise of Chinese Doctor of Missiology programs in Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Malaysia, China’s Chinese mission leaders are expressing their voices through research and writing.
Editor’s Note: A Chinese version of the dissertation that the book is based on is available in the ResearchShare section of the ChinaSource website.
Our thanks to Wipf and Stock for providing a copy of China’s Ambassadors of Christ to the Nations: A Groundbreaking Survey by Tabor Laughlin for this review.
Jesse Carroll (pseudonym) is part of the Chinese diaspora and grew up in a country in Southeast Asia. He received his PhD; his dissertation is titled "The Gospel Travels along the Silk Road Again: An Assessment of Gospel Transmission along the Ancient and New Silk Road by Chinese House Churches." …View Full Bio