The growth of the Chinese church since the founding of the People’s Republic of China has created new models of “church” that have not only survived periods of intense opposition and persecution but have grown in ways that were totally unanticipated or unforeseen. Likewise, the unique combination of China’s history and culture, political environment, and church situation has created approaches to cross-cultural missions that deserve greater study and reflection.
When talking about global missions we are often familiar with approaches based on sending from an open-access nation to other open-access or creative-access areas. This is our common paradigm for understanding cross-cultural missions. China provides an alternative model where we see sending from a creative-access nation to other open-access or creative-access areas. This short paper discusses the characteristics of this alternative model of missions with Chinese characteristics.
Impact of Government Policy Changes
Since 2012 there has been an ongoing series of changes in government policy, law, regulation, organization, and implementation that have resulted in a more restrictive environment for Chinese churches and Christians. These have been covered previously in a number of posts and papers:
- Revised Religious Regulations (implemented since 2/1/2018),1
- Charity Law2 (governing Chinese domestic charities and NGOs),
- Foreign NGO Law3 (governing international NGOs in China),
- merger of SARA into the UFWD,4
- sinicization movement.5
Some of the key features and intentions of these policy changes have been to:
- restrict the scope and scale of Christian churches and organizations,
- restrict the interaction of Chinese churches and organizations with overseas churches and organizations,
- restrict the access to Christian training both within China and outside China’s borders,
- restrict any activity that could potentially destabilize China’s ethnic minorities or China’s international activities such as the Belt and Road Initiative.
ChinaSource has previously highlighted that many of these policies are component pieces of the overall re-establishment of China Communist Party control over all aspects of life and society.
These changes since 2012 have affected Chinese Christians from their local church meeting places to their activities in outreach both locally, in other parts of China, and beyond China’s borders. Looking at this situation with Western eyes, we often wonder how church and mission can be done.
In addition to these overall policy changes, there are long-standing challenges for churches and individuals involved in cross-cultural outreach that include:
- House churches are not allowed to have a legal registration; local mission agencies cannot register as a religious charity or nonprofit
- Financial matters cannot be easily handled—if you cannot register your church or organization, you cannot open a bank account to handle funds. Funds transfers become a challenge and are often handled through individual bank accounts
- China’s currency (Renminbi, RMB, yuan) is not an internationally convertible currency. China also has restrictions on the ability of individuals and organizations to convert RMB into USD or other convertible currencies and to remit or take this money out of China
Unique Opportunities for Cross-Cultural Mission in China
There is also a tendency among Western Christians to think that because of the rapid growth of the Chinese church since 1949, China no longer needs missionaries. One of China’s best known house church pastors commented several years ago:
During the next 30 years, China will still contain the largest number of nonbelievers and unreached people. We must give attention both to the extreme level of difficulty as well as to the extreme strategic significance of the evangelization of China. In the past, I was very encouraged by reports of the number of Christians in China, for it increased my faith and gave glory to God. However, more and more, I do not pay as much attention to these numbers. For no matter how many believers there are today, China is still less than five percent Christian. China has 2300 county-level cities. According to one study, only one third of these cities possibly have a church. The further west one goes, the fewer Christians one finds. The evangelization of China demands the concern not only of Chinese Christians, but of the church worldwide.6
Those who research unreached and unengaged peoples identify over 100 groups in China.7 These are all groups that require some type of cross-cultural outreach. Many of these groups have their own language and culture that workers need to learn. Chinese churches that gain a vision to reach out to unreached groups have a number of unreached or unengaged groups to choose from within their own country. Many of these groups have a geographic concentration, but people from these groups are also found in major cities because of migrant labor movements, health care, or education needs.
Once a church has identified a particular group or sub-group of people, there are multiple ways to send their workers to reach out. Probably the biggest challenge is to determine if this also means learning one of the minority languages and culture.
All cross-cultural workers struggle with ethnocentrism (the attitude that one’s own group, ethnicity, or nationality is superior to others8). Workers from Europe or the USA have some opportunity to recognize and work on this attitude since minority populations in their country will exceed 10% for a larger minority group. In China, Han Chinese account for 92% of the total population with the remaining 8% split among the 55 recognized minority groups. A common Han Chinese attitude toward minority cultures is that they should simply become Chinese. As we look to Jesus’ incarnation we see the model for how cross-cultural mission should work, however difficult that may be for us.
It is hard to gain accurate figures for the work among China’s minorities. However, an increasing number of churches are sending short-term teams and workers along with longer-term workers, finding unreached populations nearby in their own city and working together with both Chinese and international workers to find ways to reach across the cultural and language barriers that have hindered the spread of the gospel.
Opportunities for Cross-Cultural Mission beyond China
As China has become increasingly global in its interactions, the opportunities for churches and individual Christians have also increased. At the same time, mission awareness and teaching in churches has also increased to the point where there is an increasing emphasis on reaching across borders and cultures.
The translation of the Perspectives course and Kairos course into Chinese, and the training of Chinese trainers have greatly helped build awareness of what cross-cultural ministry entails. These also provide practical training for individuals and churches interested in cross-cultural ministry. Those interested in missions can now find training in Chinese in their local context to help prepare them.
During the past decade, various house church networks have established their own mission-sending organizations. Often these have grown out of an individual church or local group of churches. The finances of the mission are often part of a church budget. The leadership, management, and operation are directly under the church’s senior leadership.
As Chinese Christians have moved beyond their own borders they have run into all the common issues faced by mission-sending organizations around the world such as work visas, living arrangements, children’s education, health care, and so on. Without many of the legal structures and services that are familiar to Western workers, Chinese workers have been creative in finding new solutions to common issues. For example, many international workers may have some type of medical insurance or evacuation insurance as part of their overall support and planning. There are examples where Chinese workers, while not having access to these insurance and service offerings, were able to use Chinese social media platforms to inform friends and supporters of emergency medical needs and to use the same social media platforms to accept donations to help cover the costs of the medical treatment and even evacuation back to China.
Most of the countries where Chinese workers go to work fall into the Chinese government’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI)9 framework. As such, the government strongly encourages all types of business, education, and cultural exchanges. However, if any activities of cross-cultural workers are seen to hinder or interfere with bilateral relations with China or the overall progress on the BRI, the Chinese government can focus its attention on the links all the way to the sending churches. An example of this would be the reaction when two Chinese workers were martyred in Pakistan in 2017.10 Subsequently, many individuals and organizations associated with these two workers were investigated and interviewed.
At a recent meeting of several Chinese mission agencies, one of the workers shared a devotional from Acts 8. She pointed out that in the earlier chapters in the book of Acts there were instances of persecution and opposition, but these were all directed against individuals. In Acts 8, you have the first recorded persecution of the entire church in Jerusalem to the extent that all but the apostles had to leave the city. Her encouragement was that God was sovereign in this situation and caused the persecution of the church to result in the church moving into its Judea and Samaria mission. Although Jesus had sent his disciples to Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria, and the ends of the earth, the early church got stuck at the first step until there was this intense round of persecution. She related this historical incident to China’s current situation where churches are under increasing pressure and opposition but are increasingly moving out in mission.
Conclusion The history of the Chinese church and the political environment in China has required new and creative approaches to mission. Despite the increasing legal, regulatory, and operational controls in the past few years, Chinese churches have demonstrated an increased awareness and interest in mission and have moved forward with creative approaches to outreach both within China’s borders as well as outward to many needy areas of the world.
- See “China Revises Regulation on Religious Affairs,” The State Council, The People’s Republic of China, September 7, 2017, http://english.www.gov.cn/policies/latest_releases/2017/09/07/content_281475842719170.htm; for additional information also see: Eleanor Albert, “Religion in China,” Council on Foreign Relations, October 11, 2018, https://www.cfr.org/backgrounder/religion-china and ChinaSource Team, “Why Christians in China Must Prepare Themselves for the New Regulations on Religious Affairs,” ChinaSource, January 30, 2018, https://www.chinasource.org/resource-library/chinese-church-voices/why-christians-in-china-must-prepare-themselves-for-the-new-regulations-on-religious-affairs/.
- See Ashwin Kaja and Timothy P. Stratford, “China Implements New Charity Law,” Global Policy Watch, November 1, 2016, https://www.globalpolicywatch.com/2016/11/china-implements-new-charity-law/.
- See “Fact Sheet on China’s Foreign NGO Law,” The China NGO Project, November 1, 2017, http://www.chinafile.com/ngo/latest/fact-sheet-chinas-foreign-ngo-law; for further information see “The China NGO Project” which is a community-driven platform from ChinaFile focused on non-governmental organizations (NGOs) working in China since the implementation of 2017’s Foreign NGO Law.
- See “SARA Abolished,” Chinese Church Support Ministries, April 29, 2018, http://ccsm.amccsm.org/en/news/prayer/%E4%B8%AD%E6%96%87%E7%B9%81%E9%AB%94-sara-abolished/ and Joann Pittman, “Goodbye SARA,” ChinaSource, April 2, 2018, https://www.chinasource.org/resource-library/blog-entries/goodbye-sara/.
- See Jackson Wu, “7 Reasons Why Sinicization Is Not Rhetoric This Time,” ChinaSource, May 1, 2019, https://www.chinasource.org/resource-library/chinasource-blog-posts/7-reasons-why-sinicization-is-not-rhetoric-this-time.
- See Ezra Jin, “The Chinese Church and the Global Body of Christ,” ChinaSource, June 7, 2012, https://www.chinasource.org/resource-library/articles/the-chinese-church-and-the-global-body-of-christ.
- An International Mission Board prayer guide lists 134 groups for China (see Steve Ellis, Affinity Group Leader, “UUPG The Top Unengaged Unreached People Groups of East Asia,” Vol. 4, https://www.imb.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/09/East-Asia-UUPG-Prayer-Guide.pdf); the current list (from the International Mission Board, SBC, dated April 30, 2020), for China has 338 unreached people groups and 156 unengaged unreached people groups. It can be found at https://www.peoplegroups.org/explore/CountryDetails.aspx?genc0=CHN.
- “ethnocentrism,” Merriam-Webster, https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/ethnocentrism.
- See accompanying article in this issue on the “Chinese Missions along the Belt and Road.”
- See Yang Sheng, “Pakistan Says Chinese Hostages Killed by IS Were Preachers” Global Times, June 13, 2012, http://www.globaltimes.cn/content/1051346.shtml.