Supporting Article

Looking Backwards and Forwards


KCH came to China in the 1980s as a student, serving with an organization focused on campus work. China was in the early stages of "opening up" at that time, so there was little time (or knowledge to tap) for orientation and training. He still lives in China and, although is now involved in business ventures, continues to advise his organization on urban work.

I recently caught up with KCH via Skype to get some of his thoughts and reflections on how things have changed for foreign workers in the past 25 years.

CS: How have incoming workers changed over the past 25 years, in terms of attitude, level of commitment and effectiveness?

KCH: Because China is more known to the world now, there is more of a general awareness of what China is like. There isn't that wide-eyed "I have no idea what I'm getting into" attitude of the early days when China was far less known to the world.

Almost all people coming long term (defined as three years or more) now have been here at least once on a short-term trip. As such, long-term commitment by and large requires a short-term experience first.

Generally, workers are now much more effective (although this is not necessarily because they are better trained). The gap in terms of worldview, knowledge of the world, knowledge of spiritual things in China in 2009 is much smaller than it was in 1982. At that time you simply could not have a conversation about a personal loving Godit made no sense whatsoever to a young person living in China at that time. They had no grid to process that concept. Now they do, and so it is easier to get into conversations.

In addition, since the similarities between major cities of China and major world cities like New York, London or Sydney are greater than the similarities between China's major cities and its smaller, provincial cities, workers today have many immediate connection points with students and young professionals in Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou.

CS: What were the requisite skills/concepts needed for workers 25 years ago?

KCH: In the early 1980s we needed adventurers and pioneers. Everything was new and unknown. China had been closed and there had been no foreign workers here since the early 1950s. The state of the church was largely unknown and no one had been involved in campus ministry since before the revolution.

We needed pioneering spirits and experimenters to go out and try new things in an environment about which we were largely ignorant. The work was slow and was all about trial and error. It was very much like the old method of knowing when pasta is done cookingyou throw a few noodles against the kitchen wall, and if they stick, they are done. We threw a lot of noodles against the wall in those days hoping that a few would stick. It was a messy way of serving, but exploring generally is messy.

Today, organizations don't need many pioneers. I know it is a gross generalization, but there isn't that much more pioneering on a large scale to do. Certainly there are still unreached people groups and areas of the country, but they are relatively small compared to the whole.

CS: What are the key skills/concepts needed for today's workers coming to China?

KCH: People coming today need to be (and generally are) much more proficient in basic serving skills that can be utilized within the "tracks" (in our case, sharing one's faith and helping new believers to grow) that have long since been laid down. Because of the growth and scope of the house church in China, there is a growing need for those who can interact with the leadership in theological training, mentoring, church mission and role in society. This requires someone with considerably more life experience than a 22 year old just out of college.

In organizational leadership we need planners and strategists who look at the next 10 to 20 years and beyond. The 1980s were our "startup" phase. We are now more mature and settled and need to not only consolidate gains but understand how to move forward. I believe this is true not just for an organization like ours, but for the whole of serving in the name of Christ and building up the church in China.

CS: How have the changes in the church impacted the skills/concepts needed for incoming work-ers?

KCH: In the 1980s the church had a more inward and fundamentalist view of faith. Prior to this, the inward focus was simply a matter of preservation, particularly during the Cultural Revolution. The gospel was viewed primarily as having individual relevance. We are now in a time where churches (and faith in general) are looking to engage society around them with their faith. There is a growing desire to look 30 to 50 years out and ask, "What do we want China to look like spiritually in 2050?" We've seen what happened in the West when the church pulled back and circled the wagons during the past 150 years. Growing parts of the Chinese church (and even relatively young university students) don't want to go down that road. Much of the community of those serving in China wrestles with that because it is so long term and so difficult to measure. It requires a much longer commitment and staying power than we're used to. In other words, we need those who have that commitment and staying power.

CS: How has the role of the foreign worker changed in the past 25 years?

KCH: The focus then was much more on sharing one's faith personally and experimenting. Because of the distrust among people following the Cultural Revolution, in some ways it was easier for foreigners to talk to people. We were often deemed as "safe" to confide in. Foreigners can still easily share their faith, but increasingly Chinese are more effective. In looking at stats that separate foreign workers from Chinese workers we have noticed (for a long time) that, while foreigners have more opportunities to share their faith, Chinese have a higher response rate from those with whom they share. Language and cultural differences obviously play a big part in this.

Beyond this, foreigners in the early days were generally the theological trainers. The house church had little, if any theological training, and they relied on foreigners to provide that. Now, there are many well-trained and experienced Chinese pastors and theologians to do this.

CS: What is the main role of the foreign worker today?

KCH: I believe that foreigners now have key roles to play throughout all levels and types of service in China. I have long believed that it isn't the passport you hold that makes one more or less effective, but skills, adaptability and a commitment to life-long learning that determines this. In general, I would say that foreigners have a particularly important role to play in the following areas:

  1. Preparation for Chinese going overseas for cross-cultural outreach. The foreigners have already done this themselves and have much to offer.
  2. Systems. We have had to wrestle with this and figure out ways to keep things going (and growing), raise funds, sustain efforts over time and, in general, build an organizational framework.
  3. Mentors. We need older seasoned people to be involved in this kind of work. There are many young Chinese leaders who need models of organizational leadership, of parenting, and figuring out how faith and work go together.
  4. Helping to figure out the returnee issue. More and more Chinese scholars are returning to China from the West. There are a few success stories here and there, but this issue has largely been ignored. Those returning are generally not equipped to re-enter China as Christians, and the local church is not well equipped to receive them.

CS: What specific lessons do you think we have for the Chinese church as it positions itself to be involved globally?

KCH: I think we've gotten the systems thing pretty well figured out, so that's one. I also think we've experimented well. There must be a culture of trial and error in a very positive sense. They will be going to cultures they know nothing about and they'll have to experiment, but that isn't a strong suit of this culture. In fact I tend to see it as a significant blind spot. This is not to say we haven't been guilty of gross arrogance ourselves; we have. But there has also been that positive view of exploration and experimentation.

CS: Twenty years from now, as the country celebrates 80 years, can you speculate as to what the local church might look like?

KCH: It's only speculation, of course. With the continued growth of both the church and the economy, the church in China will join the US and South Korea in contributing massively to missions. It will be globally connected and primarily urban. As these twin processes play out, the global cities of New York, London, Tokyo, Mumbai, Buenos Aires, Shanghai and Beijing will have more and more in common with each other. Thus a person's nationality will likely be of less concern (and barrier) in the future. It is likely that a Shanghainese will be more effective in sharing with a New Yorker than someone from Houston would be. In many ways, this is a game-changer. Finally, it is likely that there will be a great many more Chinese short-term missions trip to the West than from the West to China. The church in the West is not exactly doing a great job of drawing its own societies into a vibrant faith.

CS: Finally, consider this: a young person (mid to late twenties) comes to you and says, "I want to serve in China for the next twenty years. What advice do you have for me?" How would you respond?

KCH: Do an internship at Tim Keller's church in Manhattan for six to twelve months to get a feel for the urban element of life in China. Get an M.B.A. Accumulate a variety of experiencesuniversity student; young professional; working with the local church. It's important also to plan for language study. I'm not saying that all of these have to be accomplished prior to coming to China; rather, they are all a part of what a person needs to be considering as he/she plans for a life of ministry in China today.

Image credit: Talking to foreigner by kattebelletje, on Flickr

Kay Danielson

Kay Danielson (pseudonym) has lived and worked in China for over 25 years. She currently works in the field of cross-cultural training and consulting. View Full Bio