Few words are used more frequently in Christian outreach circles today than “partnership.” While what exactly is meant by partnership can vary greatly, when uttered, this word often has the power to make both national and foreign participants smile. Everyone likes partnerships, right?
Our organization has been located in the same city in China for nearly ten years now. Many of our expatriate and local staff have been there from the beginning and, accordingly, we have gotten to know the local church leaders very well. In the last few years, the local church has taken to calling on us and inviting us to join them for a meal whenever foreign delegations visit their church. The first time this happened we were unsure as to why the local church involved us at all: perhaps they thought we foreigners would enjoy meeting with other foreigners? Perhaps they simply needed us to help translate? We attended the meal and spent much of the time talking with the guests about their plans for for partnering in ministry in China. But after the foreign delegates were safely on their way back to their hotel the Chinese pastors began to question us: What did these foreigners want? What were they offering? Were they trustworthy? Were they evangelical, or were they theologically liberal? The pastors felt comfortable with us, and so they used us to perform a simple evaluation of their potential partner. In business terms, they were doing their due diligence before entering into any kind of cooperative relationship. Since then, we have come to expect these phone calls—and to see the wisdom in this practice. This essay is an attempt to outline the nature and importance of this kind of due diligence in the forming of healthy cross-cultural partnerships for China ministries.
The Need for Due Diligence in Forming Church Partnerships
Why are foreign churches so quick to leap when so little looking has been done? The televangelist debacles of the 1980s combined with the dizzying proliferation of denominations and sects in America today have taught evangelicals here to look very carefully before they give their offerings. While church hopping has developed into an extreme art form in America, most Americans still attempt to evaluate churches before committing to regular worship or membership. Yet, it is surprisingly difficult to find a foreign Christian group working in China today that can say much about the teaching, politics, fellowship, life of the body, or even theology of the people they are “partnering” with. What knowledge we do possess is often based on hearsay and the questionable reportage we have encountered in the West.
Imagine a Christian family moving to a new city in America: would we expect them to automatically apply for membership at the local Community Fellowship Church because they have “heard” that Community Fellowship Churches are the real churches? No! We would expect them to listen to a few sermons (probably from more than one preacher!), attend a Sunday school class or two, and talk to the people in the pews. What are they reading? How active are they? Are they growing? What do they think of the church leadership? We would expect any new arrivals to spend some time looking into the various church-going options available in their particular city. In business terms, this is similar to the process of performing due diligence research on a potential partner before entering into a contractual relationship with him.
We should take church just as seriously in China as we do in our home country. The criteria for evaluation may be somewhat different—and, of course, the results of any such research must be locally determined and enculturated—but proper stewardship of all the resources with which God has entrusted His church requires that we look before we leap into any cooperative relationship. By doing some basic research, we can overcome our preconceived perceptions and develop partnerships that match the real needs and strengths of the local national churches.
The Chinese Context
One reason due diligence is rarely done (or done in a very limited fashion) by China ministries is that it is difficult. Language, cultural differences and the necessity that it be done for a specific local body of believers places this kind of work out of the reach of many of our current agencies. Yet, this is precisely what Christian workers do on other fields around the world. In general, the kinds of information necessary to consider when evaluating new and old projects, local churches and how best to cooperate with them, fall into three broad categories. After looking more specifically at the questions involved in each of these categories, this essay will conclude with a suggestion as to how best to gather this information. The historical background. Many events over the centuries have contributed to shape the unique aspects of Christian life and expression in China. These experiences are necessarily different in China—and in fact in each locality within China—from our experiences in our home countries. Christian professionals working in China must come to grips with the historical relationship between opium, missionaries and the role of foreign Christians in the Opium Wars. In addition, the 19th century issues surrounding treaty rights, religious cases and the use of gunboat diplomacy are symbolic of modern power issues that still resonate today. Given China’s current national ethos, all foreign Christians working in China need to examine their work in light of the historical role of lies, deceit and the use of covers in spreading the Gospel in China. A rich understanding of local missions’ history (particularly with respect to past denominational affiliations, pre-1949 relations between local congregations, and relations among local church leaders during the Cultural Revolution) is essential to handling any relationship with local believers in a responsible and sensitive way.
The current local regulatory environment.
China’s unique regulatory environment greatly influences everything foreign Christian workers in China do; it also shapes a given Chinese congregation’s ability and inclination to act in society. To be ill informed about the issues involved is foolish. Awareness begins with an understanding of the Three-Self Principles (self-governing, self-supporting, self-propagating) and their development from the Apostle Paul’s writings by foreign workers such as John Nevius and Roland Allen. Their acceptance by evangelical Christian workers around the globe and stated purpose to avoid foreign dependence should also be acknowledged. It is also important to understand the difference between registered and unregistered fellowships in China, as well as the attitudes towards registration prevalent in the specific locality where the proposed partnership is to be located. Knowledge of the true nature of the interaction between groups of local believers and their particular Public Security Bureau (PSB) and State Administration for Religious Affairs (SARA) representatives is essential to any successful partnership: we must know what is and is not possible in the current context. Remember, all regulations in China are first and foremost locally enforced and interpreted—and this includes the appointment of pastors and other church workers. Of course, one’s place as a foreign Christian within this regulatory environment is often greatly influenced by the responsible and irresponsible activities of the foreign Christians who have come before.
Thorough evaluation of the local partner.
Any responsible due diligence report would be incomplete if it did not include an objective evaluation of the partner—in this case any government agencies and private organizations with which your specific project must cooperate, as well as any local church bodies with which you seek to partner. Degrees of corruption and levels of commitment are all worth assessing. In regards to the local church, this work is often difficult since the opinions of one believer are unlikely to provide the broad objective evaluation necessary. Issues to investigate include church programs, historical and personal relations between various groups of believers, theological trends, degrees of unity, leadership potential, local Christian attitudes towards Chinese culture and social life in general, teachings on various issues, and church finances. Depending on your specific areas of partnership, it is probably worth investigating the nature, availability and provenance of local Christian literature. By imagining that one is looking for a new church home in one’s own home country, many of the most important questions will naturally leap to mind.
This kind of information is basic to doing long-term, responsible, and effective work for the church in China. Of course, it is unrealistic to think that all this information could be gathered before entering into a partnership; but shouldn’t we try? At the very least, admission of ignorance on these issues should bring humility and reserve to much of what is being attempted.
Yes, But How?
In any society where hierarchy and bureaucracy are pervasive, knowledge functions as a highly valuable commodity not to be traded lightly. Accordingly, the kinds of information sought in any
due diligence valuation of a Chinese national church partner will require significant and wide-ranging relationships of trust in the specific Chinese community being considered. One of the most practical means for developing these relationships and acquiring this information is the placement of long-term Christian workers living cross-culturally in their potential partner’s locality. Whether it involves Western Christians being sent to live long-term in Chinese communities or Chinese believers coming to live for an extended period in our Western church communities, these exchanges must allow enough time for the visitors to develop linguistic and cultural fluency as well as the relationships necessary to maintain whatever partnering initiatives may evolve. For Western churches that are not in a position to send their own people, organizations and individuals already working in specific Chinese locations should be sought out to provide introductions and advice. With knowledgeable, locally invested cross-cultural workers acting as “marriage brokers” it should be possible to avoid many of the more common misunderstandings that have plagued partnership efforts in the past.
It is ironic that while foreign churches move away from emphasizing long-term service overseas, the role of the career foreign servant is still essential to the successful and responsible operation of most significant church-tochurch partnerships. In addition to surveying the local context with respect to the due diligence questions raised above, long-term workers living in the community can build the trust necessary to maintain a healthy long-term partnership. They are in a place to provide accountability for both sides and, to the degree that they have entered into fellowship with the local Christian community, these long-term foreign residents can provide valuable corrections to the foreign church’s misconceptions about the national church’s true needs and wants. At the same time, they can communicate the struggles and needs of the foreign church to local national Christians in a way that is sensitive and sincere, thus granting respect and dignity to both partners.
Is this too much to ask? Many foreign churches balk at the thought of asking, much less sending, someone to serve long-term overseas. But for our church partnerships to be valuable and productive, we need long-term servants to function as mediators between the two partners. It is the churches that should be sending their own people into such service. If we really wish to serve alongside national churches in China as partners in ministry—if we truly wish to make local Chinese pastors smile—what better way to demonstrate our love and hope for them than by surrendering our lives and entering into theirs.