With the growth of China’s economic and political power in recent decades, China’s becoming a missional country has been discussed and debated within the world of missions. The Back to Jerusalem (BTJ) vision has been shared broadly among Chinese churches and has raised much interest in missions among Chinese Christians. Over the past twenty years, with the growing openness towards the western border of the country, many Chinese Christians have tried at various levels to put into practice this vision. Frankly speaking, we are still at the beginning stage of joining the world family of missions. This article seeks to explore some current needs based on past experiences and lessons.
A Concrete Missions Strategy beyond Slogans
BTJ has become so well-known that every time missions is shared in a local congregation, some people are already familiar with the term BTJ. However, missions mobilization usually stops there. Over the past fifteen years, not many new hymns about missions have been composed by Chinese Christians. The few existing missions-related hymns are usually sung only at missions-specific occasions. Quite often the word “missions” is considered a “big” term for a project. The more missions is promoted as slogans, the more distant it becomes to daily Christian life.
Chinese churches need to make missions more concrete; a more concrete plan, a more concrete project, a more concrete expression of faith and a more concrete life-style are required. While it is not bad to use some big terms for missions, it would be more effective to start with smaller, practical changes in Christian life and the practice of faith. In order to achieve that, we need the following to be part of missions strategy.
- Prayer should be made by every congregation and individual asking God where he is leading in regards to specific mission needs. BTJ is a good idea, but not every Chinese church needs to distribute gospel tracts on the streets of Jerusalem. If this is true, then what should my/our involvement in missions be in this age as commissioned by our missionary God? How can we move towards that goal in our daily life? Indeed, in this age of information and technology, we are literally able to access any people group without making much effort.
- Churches need to work together practically for missions. Individual Christians with God’s calling need to dedicate themselves to mission work. Churches need to develop plans to support such individuals. Literature about missions needs to be published and circulated. Mission concepts need to be shared at all age levels. All of these things should be done in partnership across congregations and geographic cities.
- Missions should be considered a long-term process with a concrete strategy. What should be the step-by-step strategy for each given target? For example, most churches that have sent people into the Sichuan earthquake ministry have never considered a long-term plan. The maximum duration of any ministry that I have heard of is about three years. With such a short-term perspective, it is no wonder that we see little strategy for most of the field teams. The majority of workers are satisfied with a “fast-food” mentality level of resources and training (such as one week to learn childhood education skills, three days of counseling training, three days of instruction in community development and so on). Sending churches often expect quick results from mission involvement.
- Chinese churches need to spend time developing a model of mission mobilization and mission sending for today’s circumstances. It is fairly easy to copy what worked in North America and apply it to today’s China; however, it would not be effective. It is the task of Chinese churches to work this out for China. For example, how can Chinese missionary endeavors use any open, available, channels that China has in Africa and other countries? What laws are already available for Christians to use to protect themselves as they do mission work?
In summary, concrete, long-term, sustainable plans need to be developed and implemented among Chinese churches. Good, practical collaboration needs to take place among churches.
A Practical Training Process beyond Classroom Lectures
Over the past decades, almost every church network has been working hard on training programs for ministers to serve in their congregations. With the threat of cults and heresies very real, biblically-centered training has been the core of most training programs. As a movement towards missions takes place in China, current missionary trainers believe it is natural to add some mission-related subjects to current curriculums that will help to shape cross-cultural missionaries. During dozens of interviews with the trainers and graduates from such training programs, this thinking has been confirmed. However, this does not necessarily produce cross-cultural missionaries. To be frank, such training programs are not even successful in training ministers for today’s Chinese churches.
Another misunderstanding is who the missionary candidate trainees should be. During the 1970s and 1980s, most of the trainees did not even have junior high degrees. Today, many training centers are proudly able to announce that all their trainees are high school or even college graduates. It seems that the higher academic level the trainees have, the more successful is the missionary candidate training.
These two practices definitely have their value. However, cross-cultural missionary training has a unique purpose, and thus there are unique evaluation criteria for the outcomes. Cultural understanding should be the key indicator for missionary training with solid biblical training as a foundation. This two-pronged approach puts most of the training effort in the classroom setting which inevitably limits the development of some key areas. This author thinks the following aspects need to be considered in a cross-cultural missionary training program.
- A clear vision and calling. This should be the basic qualification for missionary candidatesand it is not necessarily “taught” in a missions class. Thus, a good missionary training program has to connect with good discipleship programs.
- Cross-cultural sensitivity. The passion for another culture is to some extent God’s gift to a missionary. Missionary candidates can be exposed to various cultures during training programs and thus develop that passion and sensitivity. Cultural sensitivity also involves the ability to learn new ways in a new culture.
- Self-reflection on Chinese culture. This is important because missions mean sharing the gospel rather than selling Chinese culture. This self-awareness is based on solid biblical understanding.
- Life-skills for sustainable missions. These skills include those necessary to obtain gainful employment and using creativity in a new environment.
- Intentional discipleship approaches. In the term “discipleship” we include both evangelism and leadership training as different stages of the discipleship process.
As can be seen, all of the above characteristics have little to do with the academic level of achievement; rather, they must be acquired and tested in real-life situations. In one sentence, missionary training needs to be expanded beyond the classroom. In China’s situation, it is the missionary trainer’s responsibility to develop models that bring the trainees out of the traditional classroom. An effective missionary training program is less likely to be secretive.
A Field Coordination Infrastructure beyond Just Sending to the Fields
Over the past two decades, Chinese churches have sent missionaries to less-evangelized provinces within China and to other countries. Initial studies indicate two major components of the sending structure that are missing, namely, a plan for missionary care as well as for field coordination (the area director’s role). The missionary care program is partially covered by the church’s partnerships and partially addressed from the on-field coordination side. This allows us to discuss it as one need: effective field coordination.
Most missionaries are sent to the field because of their passion for a people group or a specific country. Being the first Christian worker on a particular field, it is natural for that individual to encounter all the struggles. However, if the missionary workers that follow must deal with the same problems, it is due to a lack of field coordination. In general, field coordination handles (sometimes only partially) the following issues.
- The orientation of new missionaries to the field.
- The distribution of assignments in the field. This involves providing direction in ministry, working in collaboration and partnership with other workers on the team and/or with other agencies and providing job evaluation.
- Field pastoral care for the workers and their families. This includes financial sustainability.
We suggest the following solutions for these needs:
- Establish partnerships with existing on-the-field mission agencies and indigenous ministries or churches. These agencies will be able to direct Chinese churches to the fields with the greatest needs and advise how mission work should be done in those fields.
- Train field coordinators starting now. We propose sending special observers with specific tasks to the fields. These observers are to work under existing indigenous ministries to serve whatever needs they may have. During this process, these observers will become “spotters” for Chinese churches regarding missions. They will also focus on collaboration and partnerships for future missionaries from China.
These solutions are possible and, to some extent, necessary, because today within the 10/40 Window there are indigenous Christians in almost every country. God has already begun to workbefore missionaries even arrive.
A Missiological Reflection on the Chinese Church beyond the Mission Task
We also need to reflect on how God has shaped today’s church in China. It is not hard to say that the level of mission involvement reflects the level of local gospel ministry. Missions is not just a task or project; rather it is God’s calling to Chinese churcheseven before China becomes economically strong. Without reflection on the status of Chinese churches today, we would be ignorant of what God is doing in us and through us.
Honestly speaking, the status of the Chinese churches is not necessarily optimistic. There are large numbers of new converts reported; however, the impact of the gospel on the community is still minimal. Atheistic teaching has been present in China for more than a century. History and values have been distorted to some degree within the basic educational systemand we grew up in this environment. With a history of more than three thousand years as an empire, Chinese, especially Han Chinese, are quite ethnocentric. We implicitly despise people who are different from us. Throughout the past half century, Chinese churches have been under great pressure from the government. Naturally, we hesitate before someone with great authority. In addition, churches have been fighting heresies and cults; community involvement has often been neglected or a low priority. How then should Chinese churches be witnesses of the gospel against such a background?
The answer will inevitably affect the course the Chinese church takes regarding missions. The discipleship training program will shape the future generation of Chinese missionaries. A practicum in China will provide first-hand experience to missionary candidates. The missiological and theological emphasis of the Chinese churches will naturally become their missionaries’ emphasis in their mission fields.
This task needs the collaboration of Chinese pastors, theologians and missiologists. So far, there are gaps among these groups. For Chinese churches to join in with other of God’s people in the endeavor for world missions is still a long ways off. It is a huge taskbut also a huge honor. May the Lord bless us!
Image Credit: Joann Pittman
John Zhang (pseudonym) is a member of a national mission agency in China focusing on partnership development across ministries. John has been involved in mission mobilization, leadership training, and field strategy development with a broad range of ministries for about 20 years. He serves in several agencies at the board …View Full Bio