One of the more fascinating aspects of China’s post-Liberation history is the fact that when foreign Christians first returned to China in the early 1980s most urban centers already had Christian populations and some had visible, functioning churches. The last twenty-some years have seen tremendous growth in both these areas. Now, more and more Chinese cities also have growing foreign Christian populationsmany of which have formed their own fellowships or churches.
How should these two bodies of believers—one foreign, one Chinese—relate to one another? A constant theme throughout the Scriptures is that God’s people should exist in unity since, after all, “there is one faith, one Lord over all” (Ephesians 4:8ff.). Moreover, Jesus himself said that people would recognize us as Christians by our love for one anothera command that was surely meant to cross all ethnic and national boundaries (John 13:35).
Unfortunately, in many cases it seems as if these foreign and Chinese Christian communities live in strange parallel universes. They both go about their business, maintaining their own perspective on “what things are really like,” but having little contact with, or even awareness of, the other group’s existence. In some cases, little trust exists between the different groups making unity impossible and even discord likely. On a more practical level, it is certainly the case that Chinese non-believers in and out of government expect Christians of all nationalities to get along. When conflict appears between Christians, they take it as further evidence that Christians are no different from everyone else. This falls short of what God expects from His people, presents a bad witness to the world and squanders many valuable opportunities for Kingdom-building partnership.
Of course, it must be admitted that China’s unique regulatory structure puts limitations on what foreign-Chinese Christian unity might look like. However, these restrictions need not be as limiting as they at first appear. In the China of today, more and more foreign individuals and organizations are finding creative ways to legally participate in the church life of their Chinese brothers and sisters. Foreigners are still not permitted to stand as pastors over Chinese believers; barring this, however, current regulations grant foreigners a sizable degree of freedom to engage in church service under officially recognized Chinese pastoral leadership. This article will suggest one model for building foreign-Chinese Christian unity that takes advantage of these liberties.
The Foreign Christian Community
Obviously long- and short-term foreign Christian workers face different sets of issues when seeking to relate to local Christian communities. For many long-term foreign Christian workers, unity with the local Chinese Christian community is experienced through straight forward participation. It is assumed that they will achieve some degree of linguistic fluency, and this makes it possible to participate in Chinese church life on a fairly deep level. From joining in Sunday morning worship to attending weekly prayer meetings and Bible studies, much of church life is open to foreign participation. Of course, each local context is different, and this kind of participation is only effective once the trust and tacit support of local church leadership has been gained. Like everything else in China, this kind of support building takes time.
However, for most short-term workers, this level of participation is considered not just difficult but often unnecessary. It is fairly common for a non-Mandarin-speaking foreign teacher on a university campus to spend his or her entire year witnessing and discipling local people without having had any contact whatsoever with a Chinese church. It is only natural that these local people then come to see meeting with foreigners not just as a supplement to fellowship with other Chinese believers, but rather as an alternative or perhaps the only option available. Accordingly, the students and others these foreigners influence often do not perceive church participation and body life as a necessary component of Christian maturity. Too many of these kinds of “decisions for Christ” then wither on the vine when the foreign worker returns homebringing exciting stories of harvest but leaving little lasting fruit. The long-term workers, meanwhile, lack the time necessary to support their own contacts as well as all the folks left behind by each new group of short-term foreign workers. Yet, given the preponderance of short-term workers and their relatively visible presence, increasing their understanding of and participation in the local Christian community has the potential to greatly increase the quality of the contributions to God’s Kingdom in China made by these spiritual ambassadors.
In one northern Chinese city, a medium-sized multi-national foreign fellowship has secured permission from local officials to hold their registered meetings in a classroom at one of the local registered churches. The specific Chinese church where they meet is blessed with evangelical pastors, a well-supplied bookstore, a growing young people’s group and a massive Christmas outreach that attracts as many as 20,000 people each year. Various long-term foreign Christian workers living in this city have spent years learning about the church and developing working relationships with the local church leadership. The foreign fellowship itself is also officially registered under some of those same long-term workers.
The foreign fellowship’s decision to encourage meeting at the local church site grew out of a decade of observing the struggles of non-Mandarin-speaking foreign workers in China. This was a conscious decision fed by a number of strong convictions.First of all, foreign workers who 1) know where the church is; 2) feel comfortable walking through the gates and sitting inside; and 3) perceive the church as a good place to be, are more likely and better equipped to introduce their contacts to the larger Chinese Christian community.Secondly, providing foreign Christian workers with access to a good church bookstore enables them to put locally appropriate and locally reproducible Christian literature into the hands of the Chinese people they are working with.Finally, knowledge of a pre-existing, self-supporting, visible Chinese Christian community goes a long way towards countering the pride and imperialism which can easily creep into the relationships between foreign teachers and Chinese students. Though this knowledge takes away some of the excitement and danger of ministry in China, it increases the odds that the seeds spread by foreign Christian workers will grow into strong, healthy fruit-producing trees.
The particular foreign fellowship being described here went a step further and chose to invite the local Chinese pastors to officiate at the foreigner’s monthly communion services. Of course, Mandarin-speaking foreigners had to commit to providing translation, and would-be foreign pastors had to defer to Chinese pastors. But this has proven invaluable as it gives foreign Christians without extensive Mandarin language skills a chance to hear what local pastors are preaching. It also implants in foreign minds the image of foreign Christians sitting under Chinese Christians.
For those foreign workers who work primarily with local unregistered fellowships, this simple step can even begin the process of moving towards reconciliation between various local Chinese Christian factions: as foreigners come to a deeper understanding of the existing similarities and true sources of discord between the various local Christian groups, they are in a better position to be agents of peace, working for unity between Chinese brothers and sistersand not just using their considerable resources to maintain (albeit unknowingly) the walls of division within the body.
The Local Church
By using local church space and even local church pastors, this foreign fellowship discovered that they were also able to bring real benefit to the local church as well.
The most obvious area of benefit was financial. Foreign workers now had easy access to local church offeringsan opportunity that many naturally took advantage of by depositing their tithes as they came to worship. Moreover, proximity to the church increased people’s interest in supporting different financial needs in the local Christian community: local church drives to raise funds for various relief and building projects were often bolstered by sizable gifts from the foreign fellowship’s own collected tithes.
In addition to financial support, various church programs gained new access to foreign advisors and participants. Church music and drama programs, in particular, benefited from experienced and eager foreigners who were more than happy to share their gifts with Chinese believers. Since these relationships were formed within the context of the local registered church, there were few restrictions on this kind of service. Foreign teachers were also empowered to bring inquiring students to Chinese church services and, in many cases, would even bring their students to attend some of the young people’s meetings and outreaches throughout the week, thus increasing the local church’s reach into the community.
Finally, the local pastors expressed their appreciation. Having foreign Christians in their church greatly increases their legitimacy in the eyes of local officials. It makes their entire project seem more international, cosmopolitan, modernand thus less like one of those “superstitious” movements Party officials have learned to dread. For the pastors themselves, the entire experience brings them great encouragement. They are not alone; they are not wasting their time, but rather as servants of the gospel are involved in something larger than themselves, larger even than China! The behind the scenes work necessary to maintain this relationship has also served to increase understanding between the various foreign and Chinese Christian groups within this city.
This article is meant to be descriptive rather than prescriptive. The case presented above is an example of how one group of foreigners in China have approached the question of how to envision their relationship with the local Chinese church. It is hoped that this example will serve to increase awareness and stimulate discussion within the foreign Christian community in China regarding both the challenges and possibilities of foreign-Chinese unity in Christ.
Image credit: Old church by Christopher via Flickr.
Andrew T. Kaiser, author of Voices from the Past: Historical Reflections on Christian Missions in China, The Rushing on of the Purposes of God: Christian Missions in Shanxi since 1876, and Encountering China: The Evolution of Timothy Richard’s Missionary Thought (1870–1891) has been living and working in Shanxi with his …View Full Bio