Chinese Christians feel God calling them to long-term mission service. Attrition rates of Chinese missionaries are high, however, and a number of difficulties (including finances) hinder Chinese missionary sending. As part of a study examining causes of Chinese missionary attrition, I recently interviewed eleven Chinese long-term missionaries using a questionnaire developed by the World Evangelical Fellowship. In this article, based on these interviews, I will review sources of support for Chinese missionary sending and then recount commonly encountered difficulties when working with these sources. Finally, in light of the data, I will recommend funding strategies for Chinese missionary sending for this present time.
Sources of Support
Four main sources of finances for Chinese mission sending include tentmaking, individual support, the local church, and the international church. Notably, none of the twelve missionaries I interviewed had any connection with an independent, indigenous missionary sending organization distinct from a local church. Table 1 summarizes sources of support for the interviewed Chinese missionaries.
|Sources of Support||Missionary Interviewees|
|Sending Church in China||MI#1,2,6,8,11,12|
|Foreign Church (including international mission-sending organizations)||MI#1,5,6,9,11|
|Chinese Mission-Sending Organization||None|
|Local Reached Population||MI#1,5,11|
Tentmaking provides the missionary an income and, in some cases, a place to live and meals (MI#3, 4, 12). Sometimes, the tentmaking role is congruent with missionary service. One missionary functions as an editor for a Bible Society (MI#6). Another functions as a professor in an indigenous seminary (MI#7). A third worked in a coffee house enabling him to interact with Muslim customers (MI#3).
But tentmaking can also be a distraction. One missionary couple works on a farm (MI#4, 12). Another couple spends a fair proportion of their time fulfilling the goals of an international school (MI#11). One couple was offered a low paying job washing dishes and mopping floors which they refused because transportation and work time combined would have significantly hindered ministry opportunity (MI#4, 12). One Chinese missionary confessed that his job consumed most of his time and all of his energy (MI#3). He wanted to do a good job in his work, but also wanted to consider the real reason why he had moved to northwest China. He wanted to find a balance point between his missionary work and his “actual” work. He complained that the company he worked with, though claiming to do business-as-mission, had become much more oriented toward business than mission.
Gathered pressures, like manipulations, and the way they handle money, the investment…not very honest… I over work, I work overtime everyday basically…feels like a disaster. (MI#3)
Still, for those missionaries unable to procure another source of support, tentmaking offered one avenue for mission involvement.
A local Chinese church will readily claim members who become missionaries as being sent from their church. They are ready as well to pray for them. Nevertheless, sending churches typically do not contribute a large amount to the needed budget of Chinese missionaries (MI#5, 6, 7). One missionary was sent out with a one-time gift of 1000 RMB (about US$160) (MI#7). Another church contributed money to buy fifty song books for the mission church among a minority people group, but nothing more (MI#4, 12). One missionary, a founder of his sending church, receives from them only as much as one-fifth of his needed support (MI#6). Another church sent their previous leader to the mission field with only a donation of eggs (MI#5). One missionary recounted the following tale:
The situation was as follows: the team went in carrying backpacks with great confidence, and with much zeal they went to Cambodia. They were from various families with varied financial backgrounds, and were all church leaders. When they returned they left him [one of their number] behind in Cambodia. He wanted to return, but had no money. So he could only stay there, quietly remaining in Cambodia for more than ten years. While still there, so he shared with us his story. . . . that day he shared. “Wow,” he cried the whole time. “I also wanted to return home, but couldn’t. . . . No money!” The church just abandoned him there. They didn’t take responsibility for him and ignored him. Those who didn’t come back home were all church leaders. At that time, when they went out together, they preached the good news, and built the church. But some were left there. (MI#12)
One missionary tearfully disparaged the beautiful words spoken by the church, the invitations for a meal or two when the missionary returned from the field for a visit, and “the giving of one RMB as if it were ten thousand” (MI#5). “He [the missionary] didn’t have enough food to carry him through the year. Why not take care of that?” She complained that the church seemed to be concerned for itself, not seeing the big picture of God’s kingdom and not having Christ’s heart.
Much of the support for the interviewed missionaries was donated by individuals (MI#2, 3, 7, 10). Giving was not always in the form of “committed support,” but different people gave at different times (MI#2, 7, 10). As individual people became more familiar with a missionary and the relationship developed, support for that missionary increased (MI#10).
The foreign church is intimately connected with and supportive of the Chinese missionary sending task (MI#1, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12). Three of the interviewed missionaries were fully accepted as members of foreign (US-based) mission sending organizations (MI#1, 6, 11). Of the other missionaries interviewed, all but one had close connections with either South Korean- or US-based missionaries or mission sending groups. Given the low sample number (eleven interviewed) in this study, extrapolating as to the extent of foreign connections across the entire Chinese mission sending movement would not be advisable. Nevertheless, it does seem apparent that the Chinese church is in significant measure partnering with the foreign church in this stage of its mission sending activity.
Methods of Fund Raising
Interviewed missionaries attempted to raise funding, albeit often unsuccessfully, through church visitation (MI#1, 4, 11, 12). Newsletters afforded some success in connecting supporters financially to the individual missionaries they want to support (MI#3). Some needed support became available to the missionary only after they were already on the field, in response to prayer, and often in the midst of a financial crisis (MI#12).
While experiencing difficulty raising funds from their own sending churches, the situation becomes even more problematic when connecting with other churches. One church offered to let a missionary couple, passionate about reaching a minority people, stay with them for one or two years. “Perhaps,” the pastor said, “after this amount of time, some members of the church will also feel passionate about reaching this unreached people and will go with you.” Interviewees were reluctant to comply, feeling this would be a great “waste of time” (MI#4, 12). Fund raising takes money, and some missionaries feel they don’t have any money to spare in traveling to visit churches (MI#1). Some missionaries were introduced to churches from which they would refuse funding even if it were offered. One couple related,
Once I ran into a church from Beijing—Oh, you can ask my husband, it was very scary. He [one of the Beijing church members] said I had an evil spirit in me, and wanted to pray for me. As soon as they saw me, they wanted to anoint me with oil. They didn’t use their real names, but called themselves names from the Bible. After anointing both my husband and me with oil, they said I was disobedient to my husband. At that time, I was suffering from shingles. There were many blisters on my body, and it was very painful. He said, “You don’t need to take medicine. You’ll get better after I pray for you.” I said, “I am not here to ask for your money and I won’t accept it even if you try to give.” They fast and pray. When they sing, they need to sing thirty songs. When they read the Bible, they need to read thirty books. They forbid eating, but they eat a lot of fruit. I felt they were strange. I think the God I believe in is very ordinary and very real. I don’t want to be strange, to be different from others. So, after talking with him a little, we left. So I felt like I shouldn’t go looking to others for help. (MI#4)
Church visitation, for the most part, resulted in many frustrations but little actual financial support.
Lacking adequate funding for missionary endeavor, at times the interviewed missionaries still felt called to travel on mission trips believing that God would provide the funds as needed. One missionary led two teams to Thailand in 2013, both with inadequate funding prior to departure (MI#12). When money ran out, an appeal was made to the sending church which found a way to gather and send enough to allow the mission team’s return. On another trip into Burma, after resources were gone, the missionaries prayed and felt that God told them that, “He had sent a girl to bring them money” (MI#12). The team sensed that help was to come from a Jewish person. A trip into the Chinese embassy in Burma resulted in meeting a Jewish official and connecting with a young girl who helped arrange a loan that facilitated a return trip to China.
Difficulty for the Church in Giving
There are a number of reasons Chinese churches have difficulty giving to Chinese missionaries. Support from the church is not given for “personal activity” (MI#4, 5). If a church leader decides to send someone on a mission trip or to accomplish some ministry goal, responsibility of the church leader to the one sent is implied (MI#4). But if a parishioner personally feels called to a particular task, church leadership may pray, attempting to discern if this is truly God’s call. In many such cases, the missionary is simply given words of encouragement with the laying on of hands in sending, but no funding is made available (MI#5). In some cases, theological or cultural differences create distance between a missionary and a sending church (MI#6). Some Chinese churches actually are quite poor (MI#8, 9) while other churches that have money lack the training to give to missions (MI#4, 5). Finally, some churches fail to give for unexplained reasons. One pastor served in a leadership position within a house church network for more than twenty years (MI#4). When she felt called to missions, the top leader in the organization asked her to look elsewhere for funding, leaving the missionary feeling very sad.
Churches give to those they know. If someone comes asking for support, leadership often initiates a careful questioning of theological belief in an attempt to detect heresy (MI#4, 12). Even when no heresy is discerned, however, a potential cooperating church still lacks trust for a “newcomer,” especially one in need of funds. If the sending church did not fully support this missionary, they reason, there must be something wrong with him or her. Was she or he kicked out of their sending church or did they make some mistake? Suspicions, though often not voiced, nevertheless color the receptivity of potential cooperating churches (MI#4, 12).
Finally, shame often accompanies a request for funding. One interviewee stated that when he told people he needed funding, he felt “incapable” or “useless” (MI#3). People in the church, for their part, may say, “The person who asks for money is coming,” or in another instance, “Oh, my! This person asks for money whenever their mouth is open” (MI#5). Missionaries are often perceived as poor, as though they are supposed to be poor and it is simply their lot to suffer. If a missionary is not poor, this may raise questions as to whether the missionary is really “doing his work well” (MI#3). One interviewee claimed that Chinese people are very subtle when speaking about money and that it was even hard to talk about the tithe in church for fear that some parishioners might stop attending because they felt it “cost something” (MI#3). This situation, however, is currently changing in China toward more openness in communication about financial matters.
Among interviewed Chinese missionaries, four main sources provided the bulk of missionary sending finance: tent-making, individual support, local Chinese church support, and the foreign church. In this article, currently employed methods of fundraising by Chinese missionaries were described along with some of the underlying reasons the Chinese church has difficulty financially supporting mission service. The Chinese church still has room to grow in organized systematic financial support for mission work. Tent-making is one reasonable strategy for Chinese missionaries in the light of these current realities. Nevertheless, tent-making must be carefully managed to avoid distraction from larger missionary goals. Connecting with individuals and perhaps, in some cases, temporarily with the overseas church may provide needed finance for the Chinese missionary effort.