In recent years, the church in China has answered the call to send out missionaries to different parts of the world, especially those places that are no longer accessible to Western missionaries due to various reasons. These servants have very strong faith and are courageous. They are willing and prepared to die for Christ.
Globalization has created the reality that most cultures are currently in a state of flux as they are influenced by other cultures and influence others in return. Depending on their previous exposure to other cultures, different servants will have different advantages and challenges. Generational differences also exist, which necessitate differences in approaching how to train younger servants in comparison to older ones, who may already have some world and workplace experiences.
We hear of success stories from some corners of the world, yet most of what we hear are stories of an inability to continue, discouragement, returning in shame, and even loss of faith.
Interviews of those who have been sent out point to a lack of clear calling, improper screening, inadequate training, financial struggles, and no ongoing support from sending churches as contributing factors.1 Looking specifically at the cultural tension faced by Chinese believers going to Islamic countries, Wu Xi notes that hidden personal issues often manifest on the field. The Chinese workers find themselves behaving differently in their new environment. Wu mentions interpersonal conflict and flaring tempers as examples.2 In her interviews with Chinese cross-cultural workers, Lisa Tsai found that the most common reasons for leaving the field were children’s education, financial issues, marriage and family considerations, team conflict, life crises, and security concerns.3
We hear different statistics on the attrition rates of Chinese missionaries but, in general, there is agreement that they are very high. This has created a deep desire in the hearts of believers to do something to help Chinese missionaries survive better and thrive. “How can we help?” This is a question that many of us are asking and trying to answer.
Some overseas Chinese workers who themselves are or have served as missionaries with well-established foreign missions organizations, as well as non-Chinese workers who have served in China or alongside mainland Chinese Christians realize that one of the greatest needs is member care.
A holistic approach to caring for missionaries is needed. This desire to help is very strong. However, realizing there is this need does not necessarily mean there are clear methods and means to meet this need. Wang and Kam raise the question of who should take the lead: “Can a local church serve as a sending structure and provide all the care and supervision needed? Can a network provide these functions? Should this be entrusted to sending structures or even to the local Christian body in the field?”4
Even the basic understanding of what constitutes member care does not exist for Chinese. Many flat-out say they do not need it without understanding what it is. They think of it as a Western missionary idea or strategy that does not work in their context. They think that pursuing this member care idea is a sign of a lack of faith and trust in the guidance of the Holy Spirit. So, the question again is, how can we help? How can we somehow reach these Chinese missionaries to provide the loving support they need? How can we convince them that other brothers and sisters in the Lord have been called alongside them to walk with them and give them some tools to help them live well, serve well, and grow while serving?
What Is Member Care?
What we commonly refer to as “member care” has been around as long as the Missio Dei itself. God comforted the disgruntled prophet Jonah by providing shelter from the hot sun following his delayed, but ultimately successful, cross-cultural campaign in Nineveh. When Jonah complained about the shelter’s untimely demise God patiently counseled him, pinpointing his problem with anger. Onesiphorus often refreshed Paul when he was in chains for the gospel (2 Timothy 1:16), as did Stephanus, Fortunatus, and Achaicus (1 Corinthians 16:18). Facing trials in Macedonia, Paul was comforted by the coming of Titus, who in turn received encouragement from the Corinthian believers (2 Corinthians 7:6, 13). John commended Gaius for his efforts on behalf of brothers who had “gone out for the sake of the name,” asking Gaius to support them in their journey (3 John 5–8).
Member care involves helping missionaries see themselves as God sees them. Duane and Sandy Hammack of Sacred Journey write:
Every person on earth has a spiritual reflection problem, even those called to be missionaries and pastors. While all have their best reflection tool—the Bible, and most have completed a theological graduate degree, all have this problem to some extent. None of us are capable yet of seeing ourselves as the triune God does every day. At best, we see some degree of reflection of Christ in ourselves. For some, they remain woefully pained and lacking in God’s vision of who they really are. It grieves them to see the fallen impact that a poor self-reflection has on their families, leadership of their church, or in their ministry to the lost world to which they are called. A significant part of caring for the soul is helping others agree more with God about who they really are in his sight and not in their own. Re-claiming their original Eden reflection is hard work and takes a journey of intentionality to grow.5
The foundation for member care is the great commandment to love God and love one another. Supporting each other is crucial to show to the world what Christianity really is. It is the way to show God’s love to the world. We need to practice it. As Ruth and her colleagues wrote in Serving Together: Caring for Chinese Missionaries (see Resource Corner):
We have to remember that missionaries are humans, too. What does this mean? It means that they are like other human beings with their unique personal qualities, desires, needs, proclivities to certain sins, to inherit certain illnesses, to be affected by their families of origin, and their need for a savior. Serving as a missionary does not mean that they are immune to problems that most people experience. As human beings, they also need what all human beings need in order to thrive and survive. They need warmth and relationships; they need emotional support and physical sustenance. Missionaries may have the motivation and passion to serve the Lord, but that is not enough to enable them to serve well, serve long, and continue to grow and thrive. They need the support of God’s people. God uses his people to meet the needs of his servants who are specifically called to carry his gospel to the rest of the world.6
We consider Chinese member care to be in its infancy. We are still finding our way around. Many have reminded us that we need to humble ourselves, to realize that there is a lot we do not know and understand. Member care approaches and strategies that have been utilized by well-established Western mission organization cannot necessarily be directly implemented with Chinese missionaries in their unique contexts and situations. We need to learn from the folks we are trying to help and ask the Holy Spirit for wisdom and discernment about how to approach providing member care. Perhaps a more basic question that needs an answer is “How can we convince our brothers and sisters that we need one another?” We need them and they need us; we are in this together.
A Way Forward
In order to figure out how best to provide care for mainland Chinese servants, there are several areas we need to diligently study and explore. We need to understand the obstacles to helping that are due to deeply ingrained cultural values, especially the deeply ingrained shame and honor cultural value and the emphasis on doing over being. Understanding these obstacles will enable us to know how best to introduce the unforced rhythms of grace, concepts of self-care, and healthy rhythms of work and rest.
We need to understand marriage and family roles, what it takes to develop trust, and the depth of the missionary’s understanding of spirituality and spiritual formation. These insights are critical to addressing marriage and parenting issues, promoting healthy relationships between workers, and introducing the importance of supportive relationships on the field. Some theological thinking—such as their understanding of suffering—may be distorted, with a stronger emphasis on sacrifice and martyrdom, forgetting the centrality of the great commission for Christ’s church. Even what it means to be called to serve and what giftedness means, need to be understood. Without understanding who these servants are and what their needs are, we cannot answer the question, “How can we help?”
The articles in this issue will provide readers with a starting point to deepen their understanding of cultural barriers and issues facing those who seek to help Chinese missionaries. We also address some common issues related to basic human needs regardless of culture. We recognize that when it comes to member care, one size does not fit all, and the needs of those being sent from China are complex. We are nonetheless hopeful that, as we begin to facilitate a conversation with these servants around their unique needs and challenges, we will together find practical ways to encourage emotionally and spiritually healthy missionaries from China who are sent into the world to make emotionally and spiritually healthy disciples.
- Wang and Kam. “Reflections on Chinese Missions: Influencing Factors and Lessons Learned.” ChinaSource Quarterly 58, no. 1(2020). Accessed August 25, 2022. https://www.chinasource.org/resource-library/articles/reflections-on-chinese-missions/
- Wu Xi. “The Heart Cries of Frontline Workers in Muslim Countries.” ChinaSource Quarterly 58, no. 1(2020). Accessed August 25, 2022. https://www.chinasource.org/resource-library/articles/the-heart-cries-of-frontline-workers-in-muslim-countries/
- Lisa Tsai. “Concerns of Cross-Cultural Workers from China.” ChinaSource Blog, September 22, 2021. Accessed August 25, 2022. https://www.chinasource.org/resource-library/blog-entries/concerns-of-cross-cultural-workers-from-china/
- Wang and Kam.
- See Sacred Journey, Spring 2022. Online newsletter of Duane and Sandy Hammack, https://mailchi.mp/0d4ff63d88f9/on-the-journey-spring-sacred-journey-update?e=edf17a6c53. Accessed August 25, 2022.
- Ruth Chang and Ling Huei Wang, Serving Together: Caring for Chinese Missionaries, (Cosmic Light, 2022), Introduction.
Brent Fulton is the founder of ChinaSource. Dr. Fulton served as the first president of ChinaSource until 2019. Prior to his service with ChinaSource, he served from 1995 to 2000 as the managing director of the Institute for Chinese Studies at Wheaton College. From 1987 to 1995 he served as founding …View Full Bio
Ruth C. Chang received her doctorate in clinical psychology from Rosemead School of Psychology in 1980. Since 2006, Chang has been an associate staff of Narramore Christian Foundation, serving missionaries as well as speaking and writing about marriage, family, and other relational topics. From 2006 to 2012, Chang and her …View Full Bio