Editor’s note: Following are two concerns expressed by a Chinese evangelist regarding the interactions between Chinese churches and overseas organizations. They are taken from a letter he wrote and have been translated from the Chinese. We have asked Tian Hui to comment on them.
Maintaining the Spirit of Partnership
Most foreign Christians come to China with a pure motive and a sincere heart. They have provided much help to the church in China, and their positive contributions and effectiveness are an indisputable fact. However, I would like to point out that while some overseas churches report only good news, there have been serious issues within the Chinese church as a result of their interaction with overseas organizations and individuals. These issues are very worrisome. They call all of us—Chinese Christians and overseas workers—to reflection, rethinking, repentance, and renewal.
Often overseas workers will require a liaison for communication with a church and its workers. Overseas organizations usually look for at least one local Chinese Christian to act in this capacity as they seek to serve. Normally, the organization will find a liaison either through someone’s introduction or, perhaps, through a private contact. In either case, the organization will not know the individual well. (The foreigner’s limited contact in China makes this a difficult situation.) Chinese leaders have a saying among themselves that foreigners are merely “sightseeing from airplane windows,” meaning that foreigners usually do not take the time for a close look at an individual before they act.
Most of the liaisons foreigners interact with are current church leaders or Chinese who can speak English. Generally, these individuals are gifted communicators and very social. One lady acknowledged that she had moved to Shanghai to be in a better position to become a liaison for foreigner workers. Calling herself the “Secretary of Foreign Affairs,” she became successful in what she set out to do. She does well in socializing and promoting herself. A church leader once wondered aloud how a servant of God could have so much spare time to spend on socializing. Only those with impure motives would put aside service to God and think only about how to establish relationships with foreign organizations to win their trust for personal gain.
Many liaisons work for several foreign organizations at the same time. They hide the fact that they receive money from different sources. Some of the liaisons use money contributed by foreign organizations for personal purchases such as apartments or even cars. Others use the money to recruit full-time workers for the purpose of expanding their outreach territory so they can report their “fruits” to foreigners thus receiving additional funding.
The church in China is known to have been a target of persecution over the last sixty years. The Chinese government is very sensitive to Chinese churches having contact with foreigners and in recent years, Chinese churches have been persecuted, in part, because of their involvement with overseas organizations. The persecution of a Chinese church with this kind of involvement is much greater than that of a church without foreign involvement. The literature of overseas organizations often reveals the situation of the church in China to a certain degree. Therefore, the Chinese government is constantly watching house churches in China. A Shanghai-based liaison was sentenced to three years in labor camp for his involvement with overseas organizations and their training materials. This event also implicated numerous leaders around the country. Another brother was sentenced to labor camp and endured much hardship there because he had arranged for a training session to be led by an overseas organization. Not long ago, a foreign pastor was teaching at a training session when the Public Security Bureau (PSB) raided the classroom. Both pastor and students were arrested. Unfortunately, this foreign pastor also carried names and contact information of other church leaders and many on his contact list were also affected.
—A Chinese Evangelist
Perhaps you are like me. When I first read this letter from the Chinese evangelist, I found it hard to believe that what was written was a fair description of foreign involvement in the church of China today. How could these things happen? When outside Christian organizations come to China to work side by side with Chinese brothers and sisters to reach those who have never heard of Jesus, we expect synergistic partnership to develop as a result of our common vision and commitment. How many of us actually thought that our involvement as foreigners with the church in China could actually lead our Chinese brothers and sisters to stumble?
Many Chinese Christians, with the utmost integrity, take great risks to have fellowship with foreign Christians never asking anything in return. However, we need to be aware that our involvement can introduce new kinds of temptation that our Chinese brothers and sisters have not faced before. This letter points out the dark side of such involvement. We must heed the warning and re-evaluate our China strategy if we are to really help the church of China.
Following is some food for thought that may keep us from falling into such traps.
- We should approach our Chinese brothers and sisters in a spirit of humility. We should ask, “How can we serve you?” rather than saying, “We have something you need.” We should not go with the intention of promoting our own theology, methodology, organization, denomination or training material.
- When foreigners provide money (usually without asking for accountability) to Chinese Christians, they often cause an unintended effect. They create unnecessary temptation and distraction for the believers in China. Some leaders have fallen into temptation, or at least stumbled when outside funds have been given to them. Uneven distribution of money within a church is known to be one of the reasons churches split.
- There is almost no need for foreigners to financially support Chinese Christians—they are very capable of supporting themselves. A Chinese Christian without a secular job often raises the suspicions of the PSB, especially in the cities.
- If a liaison with the Chinese church is not a top level leader, the leaders of a foreign organization should ask to meet the top level leaders of the Chinese church. Any work-related decisions should be made only with these top-level leaders. Avoid private Bible study or discipleship training with Chinese Christians without permission from their top leaders. Many Chinese Christians have the idea that foreign teachers must have more biblical knowledge and are more spiritual than their own leaders. When these Christians return to their own churches, they spread the new teachings they learned that are different from their leaders’ positions. When this happens, it creates a potential for conflict and division within the church. Often this occurs without the foreigner’s knowledge. We must not undermine the spiritual authority God has placed over these Chinese Christians.
- Many foreign organizations establish business platforms in China. Typically, they hire English-speaking Chinese Christians to be on their staff. However, we must avoid taking up too much of their time for our ministry at the cost of their home church’s ministry. Many of these Chinese workers have no time for fellowship at their own church due to a heavy work schedule. This scenario is not unusual in China, and many house church leaders feel that foreign workers “stole” their sheep.
- All training and teaching should be conducted with the blessing of the Chinese church’s leadership. Review any materials with the leaders beforehand to avoid potential surprises and embarrassments.
- When partnering with the Chinese church, require mutual accountability in progress and resources. Perform periodic reality checks and assessment. Do not assume everything will go as planned just because all are Christians. Synergy comes only through mutual and intentional effort.
- Senior foreign leaders, who visit China from time to time, are encouraged to mentor Chinese church leaders. Chinese leaders tend to need help in areas of goal setting, planning, strategy development, church leadership, creativity, and accountability since these are not strengths of the Chinese culture. A mentor’s role is to help Chinese leaders to be on track to achieve their own vision and calling; they should not decide what the leaders should do. This mentoring should be carried out behind the scenes.
- Long-term workers should consider working exclusively with their non-Christian relationships. After conversion, start a new church with these people. Disciple them to become reproducing Christians so that they become a new generation of church planters. This strategy does not involve connecting with existing churches.
A Chinese church leader said that negative things can happen when well-intentioned Chinese Christians and foreign workers partner together. Often foreigners are exposed only to the positive side of such partnerships and do not see this negative side. The problem is not with the idea of partnership; rather, it is our lack of understanding of the realities of China and Chinese churches. The Bible tells us not to cause our brothers to stumble (Rom 14:21). As foreigners, we should strive to obey this command while maintaining the spirit of partnership.
—Tian Hui , BS,
a China researcher residing in the United States