Difficulties with Church-Based Models in Chinese Missionary Sending

Understanding the Need for Mission-Sending-Organizational Development in China

From the series Missions from China—A Maturing Movement

The Chinese church wants to sustainably deploy long-term missionaries. Current church-based mission-sending models in China leave much to be desired; missionaries have unmet needs and missionary attrition is high. I recently interviewed eleven[1] Chinese long-term missionaries[2] investigating challenges experienced in the context of service. In these missionary conversations, I first used a semi-structured interview method relying on parts two and three of an instrument developed by the World Evangelical Fellowship,[3] and then followed-up with unstructured interviews. In this article, from the perspective of these interviewed Chinese missionaries, I will explore difficulties with current church-based sending models and propose benefits of distinct mission-sending organization structures.

The Church-Based Model

In China, the church-based sending model is the most common avenue for entry into service for missionaries (MI#4, 5, 6, 12).[4] Believers within the church sense a call to serve in missions. The church leadership may or may not concur in that call (MI#4, 5, 12). Hands are laid on the missionary in prayer (MI#5). In some cases, financial support may be promised that might make up a small proportion of the overall mission expenditure (MI#6). In other cases, little to no financial support is pledged (MI#4, 5, 12). The local church may have individual members who continue to faithfully remember the missionary in prayer (MI#10). In some cases, relationships may remain strong (MI#10). Much depends on the strength of the individual local church and its commitment to missions and to its missionary.

Though missionaries sent by a single church are subject to changes in mission emphasis occurring within that church, congregations can cooperate with each other in missionary sending. The Chinese church, however, is partitioned into numerous isolated and exclusive communities and has difficulty effectively pooling resources for the missionary task. Some Chinese pastors purportedly have the attitude, “I’m the only good one. I don’t need you to go outside [this church]. You need to listen to me teach and not to others” (MI#4). Even when finances are sufficient, division circumvents the pooling of resources that might facilitate sustainable missionary sending (MI#8). Differences in theology and ministry strategy are grounds for disunion between missionaries and potential sending churches. An individual missionary felt unable to cooperate with the Chinese churches he was contacting, one of which asked him to leave missionary service for one year in order to restudy theology under their direction (MI#6). Another Chinese pastor was upset that the missionary his church sent was not adhering strictly to Reformed theology. The missionary’s strong view of Israel’s eschatological role placed further strain on the relationship (MI#2). Other missionaries had no problems with their sending leadership’s theological position but felt that their strategy for sharing the gospel was not appropriate for the local context where they served (MI#8, 9). Missionaries from outside a local church sending system were less likely to be accepted for support or cooperation, regardless of cultural, theological, or strategic match. A prevailing “us” mentality limited openness to outsiders. When speaking about the lack of cooperation among deployed Chinese missionaries in a Muslim population in China’s northwest, one missionary claimed that although China does not have “denominations” per se, it already has “denominationalism”—different teams, basically “no communication” (MI#6).

For those related to a church-based mission-sending model, funds are made available for living expenses. But likely no support is earmarked for serious illness or for parents of missionaries who might need financial assistance (MI#6, 8). In such situations, the church may have the means and the desire to help, but there simply is no mission-sending policy in place for crisis management (MI#6). In other gloomier situations, promises of missionary support prove hollow, and nothing is done for the missionary aside from prayer (MI#5).

The churches attempting to manage the problems faced by missionaries on the field have few if any members with extensive mission experience, leaving them hard pressed to deal effectively with issues that inevitably arise. One interviewed missionary complained that when an area of difficulty was encountered, four or five people were assigned by the mission-sending leadership to study the issue. They met, consulted the Bible, and prayed, but did not solve the problem. Those with twenty years of missions experience in China are few.

Once there was a car that overturned on the way to [a named local city in a region of service]. Everyone got out by the side of the car and prayed. There was no real method of taking care of the problem—a brother died. The family came. There were questions about how to bury the body, how to inform the family. There was no policy regarding any of this . . . The sending church sent representatives. The family members came [and had many questions]. The family was so sad. Talking about all this was very difficult because at the same time care had to be taken because of security issues. There was no experience with this kind of problem. (MI#8)

There are problems with current church-based mission sending models in China.

Church leadership at times is unaware of the needs of mission and other worthy priorities (e.g., building the rural church) take precedence (MI#10). In essence, missionaries need support from their church family. As one missionary noted, “One person dances a one-man show. If only one dances, how long will he dance there?” (MI#5).

The difficulties with church-based mission-sending are not unique to China. Generally speaking, individual churches have had difficulty sustainably focusing outreach efforts on the unreached, since they usually, and rightly so, find themselves focused on meeting the pressing needs of their own parishioners.[5] Advocates of the “missional church” emphasize (appropriately) that the church should be understood as “missional” in its very nature, not just in its functional role.[6] This thinking may at times be taken too far, however, and thus Neill’s axiom cautions that, “When everything is mission, nothing is mission.”[7] Indeed, bringing the gospel to under-evangelized (“unreached”) peoples is seldom mentioned in the missional church literature.[8] In furthering the task of world mission, there is pragmatic and historic rationale for the existence and promulgation of mission sending structures that operate independently from the local church.[9][10][11]

Advantages of Mission Sending Organization

Mission-sending organizations that function independently of, yet in submission to, the church can deal with many of the unmet needs of the Chinese missionary and facilitate use of nine best practices in mission sending that I describe in a separate article. This kind of mission sending organization is just in the beginning stages of development in China and is currently difficult to find by missionary candidates. There are now reportedly a number of such working models.[12] Though most are linked with house church associations, there at least three mission-sending organizations functioning independently.[13] Field research underlined the necessity of developing mission-sending organization in China for sustainable mission sending (Table 1).

Table 1: The Importance of Mission-Sending Organizations
Highlighted the importance of mission-sending organization development. MI#3, 4, 5, 6, 9, 10, 12 
Deemphasized the importance, though not opposed to, the development of mission sending organization. MI#1- Commitment and calling emphasized.
MI#2- Mission-sending organization is a tool; relationship with God is primary.

Mission sending organizations could enlist the cooperation of churches for shared mission interests (MI#1, 5). Financial, spiritual, and practical help are all needed. Training for the local church on principles of financial support for missions could greatly improve funding prospects for missionaries (MI#4, 5). Given the current cultural difficulties faced by missionaries in raising support funding, a mission-sending organization acting as go-between might train believers to give to missions, stimulating support for missions in a way that avoids the appearance of asking others to support a “personal activity” (MI#5).

A communication bridge between the church and the missionary might protect missionaries in security-sensitive areas when they are pressured to divulge information (MI#6, 8, 9). One missionary stressed the importance of security in communication, claiming that the chief danger was “not across the river” (in the field of service), but rather with non-secure communication practiced by the sending team itself (MI#9). “Give us a paper report!” demand the mission senders who want to share with supporters what their “volunteers” are doing in the field (MI#9). But the missionary may feel that compliance would be unwise given security concerns, knowing that the more reports are issued, the greater the danger of compromising the ministry. Church leaders understandably want to tell the missionary’s stories to encourage the home church. They want to make the missionary “famous” (MI#8). But being well-known might cause difficulties for mission activity in sensitive areas. If the church places too much pressure on the missionary [to report on the work], the mission agency should absorb some of this pressure” (MI#6).

In some Chinese churches, leadership is paternalistic and dictatorial (MI#4). Sending-church leadership sometimes attempts to steer missionary strategy without listening carefully and humbly to field personnel. One church raised up five or six young people and sent them to the field to “help” one of the interviewed missionaries. Upon arrival in the field, the young people did not listen to the experienced missionary, but carried out their own plans. Further, they judged the missionary’s ministry approach as “not too good,” feeling that he needed to reform and do things more like they were accustomed to doing in their home church (MI#8). This missionary depended on the sending church’s resources, and thus felt powerless and vulnerable in speaking into the situation. In the end, he complied with the wishes of the sending church, but experienced difficulty in communicating honest feedback for fear that it would not be well received. A mission-sending organization might effectively bridge the communication gap between a missionary and the sending church.

In a future article, I will describe best practices in mission sending that can be employed once mission sending organization is operational.[14] Mission-sending organizations have advantages over church-based sending models as they are better able to train, send, support, and supervise foreign missionaries by coordinating the limited resources of multiple congregations. These advantages of the mission-sending structure generally result in greater missionary fruitfulness.




  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.
  5. ^ Craig Ott, Stephen J. Strauss, and Timothy C. Tennent, Encountering Theology of Mission: Biblical Foundations, Historical Developments, and Contemporary Issues, Encountering Mission. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2010, p. 201.
  6. ^ Craig Van Gelder, “From Corporate Church to Missional Church: The Challenge Facing Congregations Today.” Review & Expositor no. 101 (3): 425-450, 2004, p. 437, 446.
  7. ^ Stephen Neill, Creative Tension. London: Morrison & Gibb 1959, p.81.
  8. ^ Ott, 201.
  9. ^ Ott, 213.
  10. ^ Andrew F. Walls, The Missionary Movement in Christian History: Studies in the Transmission of Faith. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1996, p. 221.
  11. ^ Wilbert Shenk, Changing Frontiers in Mission. Maryknoll, New York: Orbis, 1999, p. 178.
  12. ^ Unnamed Chinese mission-sending leader.
  13. ^ Unnamed Chinese missionary.
  14. ^ Shi, Si, “Nine Best Practices for a Chinese Missionary Sending Organization: Strategies to Assist with Chinese Missionary Sustainability.” ChinaSource 2017.
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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