Can top executives in multinational companies offer meaningful Christian service despite the demands of their jobs? Can a walnut farmer use his occupation as a platform for witness? Is it possible for foreign teachers to witness to their faith with their students? Each of these questions can be answered with a resounding “yes.”
An executive in the telecommunications industry organized shipments of textbooks from wealthy schools on the coast to underdeveloped areas in the far west of China. He and his team did this with an openly Christian motive that was understood and respected by the Chinese authorities. For a Christian professional working in a remote region of China, walnut farming provided unique opportunities to disciple young men from a people group usually resistant to the gospel. “Many students come privately with questions now that they know I am a Christian,” shares a foreign teacher at a university. “God has been so good in allowing me to develop friendships. One student, a ‘very communist’ girl, had no interest in spiritual things at first. Now it’s wonderful to see a softening process going on in her life. A year and a half ago her parents became Christians. Now she herself confesses to be a Christian.”
For Christians with marketable skills and servant hearts, China is a land of opportunity as never before. There are thousands of openings in education, business, tourism, health care, childcare, agriculture and development work.
Throughout China, from the poor, arid reaches of the northwest to the mega-cities of the prosperous east, Chinese institutions and companies are eager to benefit from the expertise of foreign professionals. This is one area in which expatriates—especially overseas Chinese—are not only welcomed, but are actively sought after. Unrealized potential exists for Christians to impact strategic sectors in China’s burgeoning marketplace.
English teachers head the “wish list” of every Chinese. Besides the state school system, opportunities now abound in private education from night classes to rich prep schools for children of the elite. Hotels, trading companies, even government offices seek native English speakers to train their staff. China’s entry into the World Trade Organization means that more foreign companies will be players in its economy, and a significant rise in the number and variety of jobs available to outsiders in the Chinese marketplace can be expected. Since early 2000, the government has been strongly pushing its policy of “opening up the west” in order to introduce more resources to China’s less-developed inland regions. This also will mean foreign firms and development organizations will be welcomed into more areas than before, bringing with them much-needed capital and skilled manpower.
Openings in medical work, social work and rural development are multiplying. Some charitable organizations have been able to access more sensitive areas by pursuing appropriate development platforms. Examples of such platforms are primary education in rural areas (building schools and providing classroom resources), crop development, reforestation, anti-drug programs, vocational training and community health education. Orphanages and child welfare centers are now more likely to invite foreigners to participate in their work, as are institutions for the handicapped and elderly. A development worker, although unable to speak much of the local language, befriended a family whose mother was seriously ill. Through hospital visits and gifts of medicine, this Christian and his family built a close relationship. Eventually other members of his team with more fluent language abilities had the opportunity to explain the gospel to this suffering family. The woman accepted Christ shortly before she died, and her son is now close to believing. This family belongs to a people group of over a million in which there are probably fewer than 200 believers.
China is not a place for lone rangers. Chinese society and culture value relationships and networking. Belonging to a known and trusted group puts a person ahead in relationship building. Unconnected individuals are vulnerable to greater difficulties and misunderstandings in their dealings with Chinese institutions and authorities.
In the early days of reform and opening up, foreigners did not often function in organized groups. As time went by, agencies and organizations were established to provide administrative and pastoral support. A large number of these agencies and organizations continue to operate in China today, each with their particular ethos, goals and platforms. They play an important part in recruiting personnel, orienting newcomers and helping to facilitate language studies. In many cases agencies offer fellowship and mentoring, vital links to home countries and in-service training.
However, some professionals choose to operate independently. There are those who learn of a suitable job in a city in which they already have Chinese friends. Others follow a sense of guidance, are drawn to a particular locale, find their niche and have a very positive experience. Some development workers and business executives may feel that closely relating to a Christian organization would be inappropriate for their roles. Yet others, perhaps employees of a big corporation, may be dispatched to China without having the chance to link up with a suitable Christian agency for pastoral care.
In most cases, the time and effort invested in becoming part of an agency is well spent. As with any relationship, there are benefits and responsibilities. The advantages of fellowship and networking are great as is the value of having experienced mentors and pastoral visitors. However, being part of a local group for fellowship will probably necessitate regular meetings, and making friends with other foreigners can absorb time and energy. This may mean less time is available for friendships with Chinese people. Many agencies hold annual conferences as a time of fellowship and training. Help with logistics, such as travel arrangements to, from and within China and freight handling, is another plus. Christian resources that are useful in helping Chinese friends may be more easily obtained when one belongs to a wider network through which these resources can be accessed. These types of services must be paid for in some way, and salaries earned in China may not cover all of a professional’s costs. Thus, the issue of support-raising deters some people from joining an agency. However, they may find that the love and prayers that follow financial support strengthen their hands immeasurably.
Building agency ties takes patience and effort. Agencies require a certain level of screening, preparation and support-raising, thus the time of departure may be delayed. For those in a hurry to get started, such delay may be impractical or unacceptable. On the other hand, operating solo also has its negatives. Privacy is a rare luxury in China, and being under much surveillance can be an unexpected irritant. Proper orientation and the reassurance of having colleagues nearby is more possible when linked to an agency, and may help a newcomer deal better with this unfamiliar sense of being constantly watched—even if by friendly eyes. Isolation and overwork are common risks for dedicated professionals that can lead to depression and relational problems. Lack of fellowship may lead to a professional’s faith becoming shipwrecked thus destroying his or her Christian testimony. Individuals or families who chose to be on their own should ensure that mechanisms are in place that will provide accountability and prayer support. One of the first steps for each individual or family desiring to enter the marketplace in China should be weighing the pros and cons of being part of an organization or of going it alone.
What kinds of people survive and thrive in China? Experience shows that they need to be clearly called and well equipped with the right blend of humility, commitment, flexibility and faith. Christian professionals should be well prepared professionally and spiritually and faithfully supported. They should recognize that patient hard work is required to succeed in language study and cultural adaptation. They need to be single-minded but team oriented both in terms of the fellowship they are part of back home and the Christian group they may join in-country. Before embarking on a challenging role overseas, their fruitfulness as witnesses in the workplace should be proven at home.
Selection and appointment of professionals for China service is a key factor in their ultimate success. Recruiters from an agency with a demonstrated track record in placing and supporting workers in country and with first-hand knowledge of the situation on the ground are best able to screen and prepare newcomers. They are also qualified to advise concerning professional requirements, spiritual qualities and placement options. Various personal factors on the candidate’s part, such as location preferred, professional qualifications, spiritual gifting or people group interest, will affect the agency-candidate match. Health, family, children’s education and language-learning issues should also be taken into account.
Professionals in their early twenties right up to the late sixties are welcome. Members of each generation have their own unique and valuable contributions to make. Provided there are no health or family concerns, older people can be wonderful additions to a team. Not only do they have professional and spiritual maturity, they can also become wonderful surrogate grandparents to younger families!
University leaders and local Party officials invited a company executive to a banquet. During the conversation, one Chinese host commented that the reason for a certain country’s backwardness was “religion.” The Christian guest then quietly shared that, by contrast, Christian values in Western societies had fostered progress and development. Compassion for the underprivileged, justice in the face of exploitation, vigorous scientific research and professional integrity had contributed much to industrial and social advance. The conversation stopped abruptly and the subject was changed; nevertheless, who knows what seeds of interest might have been sown in the hearts of listeners at that table.
On another occasion, a foreign affairs official plainly asked the invited guests, “Do you think God can be known personally? I used to think questions about God to be foolish, but now I just wonder if there is anything to it.” This man’s closest colleague had recently accepted Christ, and one of the foreign guests knew the questioner well enough to follow up immediately with the loan of a well-chosen Christian book.
Professionals working in China are there as marketplace Christians. They are accepted and respected as they rub shoulders with their Chinese colleagues. There is nothing undercover or dishonest about what they are doing; rather, they give of their time and skills in a spirit of friendship and service. But what of their impact for Christ? Just as lay Christians in open countries are able to witness through their lifestyle and relationships, so professionals in China are able to watch God open up doors of friendship and give special opportunities for faith sharing. Chinese friends will be curious and receptive to a Christian witness, but at the same time may have serious misconceptions due to atheistic, anti-religious indoctrination. While it is important to counteract these false impressions, above all it is a privilege to discuss spiritual issues with seekers after truth.
For some professionals, God will open opportunities for fellowship with Chinese brothers and sisters. Chinese speakers may worship at Three Self Churches and find spiritual refreshment. Where unregistered churches are concerned, non-Chinese expatriates probably should keep a distance from organized activities. Avoiding group gatherings does not, however, preclude informal contacts with individuals or families, and these can be mutually supportive and a beautiful testimony to the unity of Christ’s Body. In both the open churches and the house churches the situation varies enormously across the country; a good general rule is to proceed with caution, bearing in mind that often Chinese brothers and sisters must bear the consequences of the actions of outsiders. Overseas Chinese, being less visibly ‘foreign,’ may enjoy greater freedom in fellowship with Chinese but need to be sensitive to each situation and receive counsel from local leaders.
Ultimately, the goal of both the agency-linked and the independent worker is to be effective. What do we mean by “effectiveness”? Let me offer a working definition. “Effectiveness” consists of:
- Professional excellence that conveys credibility and integrity to Chinese employers and colleagues. This stands as a strong non-verbal witness.
- Christian character expressed through moral, ethical and relational quality. This includes a healthy, active prayer life.
- The ability and desire to build meaningful relationships through which the gospel can be commended and communicated.
For A Time Such As This . . .
Dr. Samuel Ling observes, “many forces are competing to shape the 21st century Chinese mind.” He draws attention to the resurgence of indigenous religions, pervasive materialism, anti-foreign nationalism and the media. These forces bear strongly on people pouring into the cities while urbanization is changing the face and soul of the nation. At the same time, because the majority of Chinese Christians live in rural areas, the Chinese church is not well equipped to reach these urban masses. By contrast, foreign Christian professionals are uniquely positioned to present Christ to this increasingly influential class of city dwellers. Together with their support teams back home, they can have a powerful ministry in prayer. Through their loving Christian service on campuses, in the marketplace and in neighborhoods around them, God is at work.
Twenty years ago these doors of opportunity were just beginning to creak open, and foreign Christians kept an extremely low profile. Now the external social environment is vastly different and the internal heart condition of many Chinese is more receptive. The time is now—the harvest is ripe. May God raise up many humble servants to do his work at this moment in China’s history.