In the 1990s, the numbers of new Mainland Chinese believers in North America (as in China) multiplied rapidly. Disillusionment after the June 4, 1989, Beijing tragedy, followed by the further opening up of China to international exchanges, created the greatest openness to the gospel among highly educated Chinese in decades (perhaps ever). However, the majority who turned to Christ chose not to return to China, but to settle into jobs, family and church life here. Believers joined existing Chinese churches that provided Mandarin services (often along with Cantonese and English), which in turn started up new Mainland Chinese churches. By the year 2000, pastors born in the People’s Republic of China (PRC), evangelists, apologists and lay leaders began to take the lead in outreach to Mainland Chinese in North America. No longer was such outreach based solely on campuses but was shifting to fellowship groups and young church congregations. Their outreach touched not only scholars but business people from China and other professionals in the U.S. for short periods, retirees visiting their families, and even diplomats, military personnel and newly immigrated workers. Following are snapshots of the most important trends.
Ministry to Chinese from the PRC began with campus evangelism, and this remains its mainstay, including discipleship through personal friendship and cultural events, practical support, and Bible studies often combined with English language study. This is supplemented by holiday conferences and retreats, and special programs for youth and retirees. Key actors include the traditional American campus ministries and ministries to internationals, all of which have become increasingly focused on Chinese graduate students and visiting scholars—the most responsive among all internationals. These organizations receive support and ideas from, as well as provide leadership for, the Association of Christian Ministries to Internationals (ACMI). China Outreach Ministries (COM) serves only
Mainland Chinese, with staff members working on 30 college campuses. Overseas Chinese organizations have developed branches focusing on Mainland Chinese outreach. For example, Ambassadors for Christ (AFC), in addition to its traditional work of campus ministry, mobilizing Overseas Chinese for missions, and providing Chinese language materials, has started a new initiative for outreach to Mainland Chinese, as well as other Chinese, to and through professors.
Many of these organizations have Mainland Chinese Christians on their staff and leadership teams. Prominent Mainland Chinese evangelists such as Feng Bingcheng and Yuan Zhiming have powerful impact as guest speakers for outreach events, and their audio and videotapes, films and written testimonies (especially Song of a Wanderer — Beckoned by Eternity) have brought in a rich harvest not only in North America but in Europe, Asia and inside China. Other players in campus work include denominations (Southern Baptists, Presbyterian Church in America) and many local churches that host fellowship groups, along with individuals and families who open their homes.
Discipleship and Missions.
Mainland Chinese fellowship groups and churches became more and more central in outreach and nurturing of new believers during the 1990s and most discipleship among the Mainland Chinese now takes place there. Of the approximately 1000 Chinese churches in North America, at least half—the larger churches—are experiencing a sea change in focus, with Mandarin congregations evolving from being majority Taiwan-Mandarin to majority Mainland Chinese. New Mainland Chinese churches are also being started.
Chinese churches in North America (as well as in East and Southeast Asia, Europe and Latin America) are highly evangelical and either independent (50 percent of U.S. Chinese churches) or members of non-hierarchical denominations, such as the Southern Baptist Convention, which grant much autonomy to local churches. Church leaders are typically strong leaders, stemming from China’s authoritarian culture. There is a strong legalistic emphasis on the Christian life and a strong pressure to conform to the views or ways of doing things of the pastor or the majority in the church. The members of the church are urged to be submissive followers and lay service is viewed as distinctly second best to full time ministry.
Members tend to be highly mobile, having lived, studied and worked in several countries on different continents and will have relatives in Chinese churches all around the world. A typical large Chinese church in North America is likely to provide services in Mandarin, Cantonese and English for members from Hong Kong, Taiwan, and Southeast Asia, Mainland Chinese temporary visitors or recent immigrants from several Mainland provinces, and English-speaking youth born in America.
The mix of cultural backgrounds, though, adds complexity and sources of friction for there are notable differences among Mainland-born Chinese, American-born Chinese, Overseas Chinese and Anglo-Americans. Yet at the same time, the strong ethnic and cultural identity of Chinese Christians in general, with the added influence of secular Chinese nationalism leads to a narrow focus on “the Chinese church” vs. the universal body of Christ.
The cosmopolitan, evangelistic, and independent characteristics of the Chinese churches make it easy to develop various informal but resilient transnational ties with Chinese churches and agencies of all denominations and localities. Chinese pastors often travel to visit former professors or mentors and speak in other churches or at conferences. They do training in the PRC in partnership with churches and agencies in Asia. The growing number of Mainland Chinese fellowships and churches has a strong burden for missions, including to the Mainland. In this, they are following in the footsteps of the Overseas Chinese churches that have helped give them birth. Missions will have a high percentage of the overall church budget and the churches will often have “daughter” fellowships and churches in the U.S., as well as mission churches in places as far-flung as Kazakhstan. Increasingly, the laity are getting directly involved in missions as well.
By the mid-1990s there were efforts to provide more advanced and intensive training and spiritual formation for new Mainland Chinese Christian pastors and lay leaders. Prominent Overseas Chinese organizations took the lead. Examples include the two-week annual Schools of Servanthood in 1996 and 1997 and the Overseas Chinese Christian Ministers’ Conference, an ongoing network of Mainland Chinese ministers for which Pine and Esther Wang of Christian Life Quarterly now provide leadership. Another network, North American Mainland Chinese Mission (NAMCM) has since been started by a group of Mainland pastors who have worked with American organizations to sponsor annual outreach and leadership conferences. Mainland pastors have also been nurtured within denominational structures such as the Chinese Association of the Christian and Missionary Alliance USA and the First Evangelical Church Association.
For more formal training, Stephen Tong Evangelistic Ministries launched an annual summer “Reformed Institute for Christianity and the 21st Century,” which has inspired and trained Mainland Christian leaders. The Chinese Studies Program of Regent College (Vancouver) provides coursework and publishes the Regent Chinese Journal, an academic journal written in Chinese that is devoted exclusively to the dialogue between Christian faith and Chinese culture. Seminaries such as Westminster, Reformed, Fuller and Chinese-speaking U.S. seminaries are educating growing numbers of Mainland students, including those from churches in China, adding to the programs already available in Asian seminaries. Provision of scholarships has been essential for this.
Mainland Chinese Christians have made a major contribution to the translation, upgrading and creation of apologetic Christian literature and other media, a central tool for evangelism and outreach given the strong Chinese literary tradition. The pioneering Overseas Campus was begun by Overseas Chinese and Christian Life Quarterly by Mainland Chinese. Both are making a big difference here and in China as well. Sky Blue Literature and Art Quarterly is a new addition. Extensive internet offerings include several new internet ministries run by Mainland Christians. These websites are aimed at a Mainland audience and provide access to the Bible and other literature in Chinese along with chat rooms and pastoral counseling.
Research and Dialogue on Christianity and Culture.
Networks have also formed around scholarly rather than evangelistic or pastoral pursuits. The Chinese Christian Scholars Association (CCSA) has been active in bringing together students of theology and religion, mainly in the Boston area, for fellowship and dialogue. On the west coast, the China Academic Consortium (CAC) has played a similar role and has also conducted a series of conferences, including some on ethics, with mainland universities. The Chinese Culture Regeneration Society, which publishes the Cultural China journal, has carried on dialogue with China’s New Confucianists and participated in joint writing ventures with professors in China.
These developments among the Mainland Chinese Christians in North America are greatly strengthening the base for strategic Mainland missions. The Mainland Chinese component of the North American Chinese church over this next decade will become the primary force for building up the church inside China through their teaching, training and providing of Chinese language materials. Greater cooperation and strategic partnerships are needed, though, for mutual encouragement and accountability among North American Chinese churches and agencies and between them and non-Chinese churches and agencies, to overcome the fragmentation of activity and provide mature models for the church in China.
Author’s note. This article provides a summary of several conversations with Mainland Chinese Christian leaders including Daniel Su, Greg Chen and Luke Zhang, and with Dr. Samuel Ling of China Horizon, who generously shared his writings on this subject in the mid-1990s. I want to thank them, along with Cindy Lail for her help in rewriting and editing.
Image credit: IMG_5957 by Charlie Nguyen via Flickr (cropped).
Carol Lee Hamrin, Ph.D., serves as a research professor at George Mason University and a senior associate with the Global China Center. She served under five U.S. administrations as the senior China research specialist in the U.S. Department of State and in 2003 received the Center for Public Justice Leadership …View Full Bio