The Chinese church has a growing passion to participate in missionary sending to unreached peoples. Nevertheless, previous studies have highlighted a lack of cultural awareness and linguistic ability among Chinese missionaries hindering missionary effectiveness. I recently conducted interviews with Chinese missionaries. Data from these interviews suggest that Chinese missionaries are being better trained and becoming increasingly adept at culturally contextualizing the gospel message. This kind of forward progress should be strongly encouraged.
Missionary Sending from China—Historic Difficulties
China’s recent indigenous mission sending activity traces its start to the beginnings of the 20th century. One example of an early group was the Northwest Spiritual Movement which traced its origins to a Chinese church founded in the 1920s known as the “Jesus family.” In them was birthed a vision to take the gospel to the lands west of China where many yet remained in spiritual darkness. Though they never actually crossed China’s borders, their vision was picked up by other Chinese churches.
Beginning in the mid-1990s, one form this vision took was the Back to Jerusalem (BTJ) movement which adopted a goal of sending 100,000 Chinese mission workers by the year 2013. Although this goal was not attained, China’s indigenous mission efforts continue, though not always under the so-named BTJ movement, since some mission sending groups from China are unwilling to be identified with BTJ. Some Chinese Christians feel that the number of 100,000 missionaries from China was “inflated and unrealistic”, and they further point out that the goal “is not Jerusalem; the focus is fulfillment of the Great Commission.” The term, “Indigenous Mission Movement from China” (IMM from China) has recently been used to collectively refer to all mission sending activities from China, including BTJ.
Many mission sending difficulties remain, however. Numerous potential applicants for missionary service lack competency in the language and culture of their target countries. Many lack professional skills they will need to establish a platform for service. Church leaders in the Middle East have stressed that future missionaries from China to their part of the world should first acquire some sort of professional status and have in-depth understanding of Islamic culture. In 2009, however, Chan noted that the current state of readiness of Chinese BTJ missionary trainees fell well short of these ideals.
This writer’s personal observation with many BTJ trainees was that they are mostly young people from 20 to 25 years of age with an average education of junior school to senior high school. Only a few have some college education. Most of them come from rural areas with little experience in city life, and almost none had any cross-culture experience outside of China prior their joining the program for training. Almost all lack any professional skill. Also almost all of them, though rich in church ministry experience, had virtually no experience in the secular work place.
He previously had recorded the following story:
A missionary has recently communicated with the writer that in Iraq he had encountered a group of Chinese BTJ missionaries from rural China. To his surprise, these Chinese BTJ missionaries have no knowledge about Iraq, certainly no language skill. Furthermore, these Chinese BTJ missionaries are pig farmers, not the most welcoming profession in the Muslim world.
Chinese missionaries, though passionate Christians, have lacked cultural and linguistic competence.
An additional concern, motivation for Chinese cross-cultural efforts of any type has also come into question. Nationalistic sentiments may play a part in missionary zeal. In his article, “The Yellow Man’s Burden,” Pal Nyiri states,
But the sentiment that the Chinese people must tomorrow take over the mission that has been carried by Americans since World War II and before them by the British, the mission of modernizing and civilizing the world, is a widespread element of Chinese nationalism.
Joan Tien writes that BTJ functions as an extension of American evangelical theology, and labels the movement as insensitive to native cultures, as a method of spreading American cultural hegemony. Though the Chinese church feels called to take the gospel into the 10/40 window, according to Chan writing in 2009, “It will require a lot more serious missiological and spiritual groundwork before it [BTJ] can become a credible and sustainable mission movement bearing impact on global Christianity.”
Growing Abilities of Chinese Missionaries to Culturally Contextualize
I recently interviewed eleven Chinese long-term missionaries exploring challenges experienced in the context of service. In these missionary conversations, I first used a semi-structured interview method relying on Parts 2 and 3 of an instrument developed by the World Evangelical Fellowship, and then followed-up with unstructured interviews. Here I will present data showing evidence of a growing ability of Chinese missionaries to culturally contextualize, and a growing maturity of the Chinese mission sending movement.
Language and culture challenges Chinese missionaries currently navigate are similar to challenges missionaries have faced throughout history (MI#2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 12). Interviewees possessed varying degrees of language proficiency and language learning aptitude, but generally functioned more highly in these areas than my literature-review-based expectations. They were intentional in their language acquisition efforts, and their diligent study, whether in Arabic (MI#2), Khmer (MI#7), Indonesian (MI#5), or one of the minority ethnic Chinese dialects (MI#3), bore fruit. The interviewed missionaries understood the nuances of local culture (e.g., worship styles, direction to face when praying), and implemented mature strategies to cross cultural boundaries (e.g., abstaining from pork) in order to build relationships (MI#3, 4, 6). One such challenge involved personal hygiene and the custom of Chinese people to use slippers and toilet tissue when visiting the bathroom.
When we were in Indonesia, they just used the bathroom in bare feet . . . no slippers for the bathroom or for the kitchen, and then they wore nothing on their feet when they went back to the bedroom . . . I feel you should wear slippers to the bathroom. They don’t, so their feet are dirty. And no tissue is used in the bathroom, just hands and water. Oh, my! At the time I just could not accept this at all . . . so dirty, and then, using those same hands to eat! I couldn’t accept it at all—very painful. Really, I felt towards that culture and tradition . . . Sigh! My feet, later I looked at my feet . . . extremely dirty, you know? But everything was like this. Everything was like that, so I couldn’t be the exception. I could not draw attention to my culture nor could I make a point of showing how dignified I was or the kind of education I received. I couldn’t say those things. All you could do was adjust yourself, to change to be like them. (MI#5)
The interviewed missionaries endeavored to walk among and become like the people they served, eating and working with them, learning their special terminology, and becoming insiders in local language and culture in order to more effectively win a hearing for the gospel message.
Intercultural studies were a strong component of the missionary training programs that some of the interviewees experienced. One missionary expounded,
When we eat, we do not want to just eat one course at a time. There must be a balance. We don’t just want to focus on the Bible and prayer only. We need to study the language and the culture. (MI#9)
Two missionaries studied at a special school tailored to the needs of Chinese minority peoples (MI#4, 12). Because the students represented so many different minority ethnicities, learners were able to gain first-hand practical experience with intercultural issues even while listening to didactic content. Formal teaching covered a wide variety of areas including how to preach to Muslims (MI#4), how to dress Malaysian style (MI#5), and how to eat unfamiliar food (MI#5). Passages from the Koran were read (MI#4). Literature on culture shock was examined (MI#8, 9). One missionary training program placed missionary candidates among Tibetan people for six weeks (MI#6), later strategically relocating them in a predominantly Muslim area where they could again experience the discomfort of new surroundings. Candidates were required to make and visit friends, exchange phone numbers, etc. The instructors understood that intense culture shock experienced during training can help to avert more serious culture shock after a missionary goes abroad to begin long-term service (MI#6).
One Chinese missionary stated that she used to think that just a passion for the Lord and prayerful proclamation of the gospel were enough. Now she feels that knowledge needs to go hand in hand with a love for God (MI#5). She cited as an example Matteo Ricci and the way his science opened the Ming dynasty court to the gospel. Jesus understood the problems of the fishermen. He answered questions posed by well-educated Pharisees. Without knowledge, it is possible to boldly preach the wrong thing. After completing theological studies in Singapore, she felt she understood why sustainability for missionary service from China was difficult to achieve. The Chinese church needs to develop not only an indigenous Chinese theology, but also a Chinese slant on missiology that will sustainably carry Chinese missionaries into the world (MI#5).
In summary, among the interviewed missionaries, there is evidence of a more thorough training, greater language ability, and greater cultural sensitivity than what has been noted historically. These changes bode well for the Chinese mission sending movement and hold out the potential of a more robust contribution by the Chinese church to the cause of global gospel advance. Both from inside China and by the church outside China, this kind of forward progress should be strongly encouraged.
- Aikman, David. 2003. Jesus in Beijing: How Christianity is Transforming China and Changing the Global Balance of Power. Washington D C: Regnery.
- Chan, Kim-Kwong. 2005. “Missiological Implications of Chinese Christianity in a Globalized Context.” Quest: 55-74.
- Chan, Kim-kwong. 2009. Mission Movement of the Christian Community in Mainland China: The Back to Jerusalem Movement (Draft). edinburgh2010.oikoumene.org, http://www.edinburgh2010.org/fileadmin/files/edinburgh2010/files/pdf/Kim-Kwong%20Chan%202009-2-28.pdf.
- Elkins, P., Lewis, J., and Van Meter, J. 2003. Three Part Missionary Tracking Guide. WEA: Missions Commission.
- Hattaway, Paul. 2003. Back to Jerusalem: Three Chinese House Church Leaders Share Their Vision to Complete the Great Commission. Waynesboro, GA: Gabriel Publishing.
- Kam, Yi Du. 2013. “Indigenous Mission Movement from China: A Current Assessment.” China Source.
- Nyiri, Pal. 2006. “The Yellow Man’s Burden: Chinese Migrants on a Civilizing Mission.” China Journal Volume 56: 83-106.
- Peter, Brother. 2004. “Interview from the Land of the Pharaohs.” Back To Jerusalem Bulletin, December, 7-8.
- Stafford, Tim. 2004. “Why Chinese House Churches May Just End Up Fulfilling the Great Commission. An Interview with Paul Hattaway.” Christianity Today, April, 84-86.
- Tao, Fei Ya 陶飛亞. 2004. 中國的基督敎烏托邦 : 耶穌家庭, 1921-1952; A Christian Utopia in China: The Jesus Family. Hong Kong: The Chinese University Press.
- Tien, Joanne. 2009. Colonizing Heart and Mind: The Sociopolitical Implications of the Growth of China’s Underground Church, Pomona, California, United States.