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Serving the Church in China

Five Lessons for Effective Partnership

We had a visitor last month,” said our friend. “He was an overseas Chinese pastor who came to preach and hold training sessions for our younger evangelists.” “How did it go?  Was it a profitable time?” we asked. “Aiya,” he replied. “It was a big hassle. A waste of our time!”

After listening to the visiting preacher for two days, the leadership decided they had heard enough. On the third day, they recommended the visitor take a break after working so hard the previous two days. They arranged to take him on local sightseeing tours to keep him occupied for the remaining ten days of his trip before they could finally send him home. The preacher’s apparent lack of passion for Christ, dry scholarly content, and obvious unfamiliarity with the needs and issues of the church in China were too much for them. They chose to end the meetings rather than force their young evangelists to endure the ordeal.

Though this story may not be a common problem with outsiders who come to “help” the church in China, it is still true. As we attempt to serve the church in China, perhaps it is worth our time to take note of helpful lessons we can learn from one another.

Lesson one

Take the time to learn the local needs and issues. Having done this, we should be prepared to change our messages and even some of our word choices. Vocabulary common among the Chinese diaspora may be offensive and sound foreign to believers in China.

Lesson two

Adjust the teaching to the level of the learner. Among some house churches, a group of leaders has been established who serve as a filter to eliminate teaching that would confuse most rural evangelists. Unaware of this arrangement, the expert from the outside assumes he is passing on essential gems of truth to the leadership. But in reality, sometimes up to 80% of the teaching content is sifted out in order to bring it to a level palatable to young evangelists eager to grow in their understanding of God’s Word.

At the other extreme, a large network of house churches began to quietly seek out new relationships to assist them with teaching and equipping their young evangelists. For at least a decade they had enjoyed a steady working relationship with a trusted outsider. However, discontent grew from a steady diet of training at a devotional level; they wanted something meatier.

The diversity of the church in China demands that we take pains to modify and adjust our teaching and training to the level of the learner. There is a place for college, and even graduate level Bible teaching, in China among those who are able to think, analyze and evaluate concepts and perplexing biblical passages. There is also a place for devotional material, but not as a substitute to train and equip village pastors. Training and teaching material targeted for peasant evangelists must not be so lofty as to confuse or discourage them, nor so shallow that it fails to stimulate their minds and hearts to love Christ even more.

Lesson three

Assume you are making at least some mistakes and seek ways to improve your service and/or your product. Getting meaningful feedback is usually not a straightforward process. When people feel malnourished, they will accept anything, regardless of how devoid of nutrition it may be. We must resist the temptation to think that a return invitation means we are scratching the itch. We may be the only source of supplemental teaching and training, rather than the preferred choice! The invitation to return may be more a statement of desperation than of quality content. One network leader confessed, “We have been taught the book of Romans 12 times!” A course from the Old Testament proved unexpectedly refreshing and opened up new biblical horizons. We should not assume we know what the need is. Rather, as we learn of a church’s previous experiences, we should be prepared to change our plans and adjust our teaching so that we do not add to their overdoses or overlook their areas of neglect.

We may need some assistance from others to improve our service. Consider asking another organization that has established contacts among the constituents you are serving for feedback on the impact, usefulness and significance of your ministry and/or materials. If you are providing materials, how are they being used?  Are the pages dog-eared and full of notations, do the items still look new and unused on a shelf or are they found on the floor helping to keep a table level thus showing their usefulness in a less than desired way?

Lesson four

Blessings can become curses. In a study among the leadership of two networks embracing about 300,000 believers (small by China’s standards), assistance from outsiders was viewed as a benefit, rather than a liability by a margin of two to one. While the downside does exist, these responses are probably typical of leadership views across the country. Outsiders primarily assist rural house church movements in three ways: by providing Christian literature and materials; by providing training for their personnel; and by providing financial support.

Literature and Materials

The need for literature is no longer limited to Bibles although the need for Bibles still exists. The literature need has been broadened to include reference tools, Sunday School materials and other literature recommended by other believers in other networks in China. Outsiders have been involved in literature distribution in China for over twenty years and, in the eyes of these rural church networks, this role has not diminished in importance.


More recently, outsiders have been welcomed to provide and assist with leadership training through Bible teaching or as some say, “the teaching of truth.”  Training has the potential to help the churches address the critical issue of a shortage of co-workers or the equipping of Sunday school teachers. For the most part, training has been a blessing to the rural church. However, where outsiders have argued on behalf of a particular doctrine or a denominational distinctive, the result may be division and separation by some co-workers. This can become a threat to church unity. In this respect, outsiders can perform a disservice to the house church networks. The greater a network’s exposure to outsiders, the more common this threat becomes.

Financial Support.

The contribution of money is a third way outsiders can bless the rural church. Perhaps to the surprise of some though, money is not always needed. Some rural house church networks enjoy economic stability to the extent they can send offerings to other needy networks. Donations are used to send out more missionaries and to provide additional training for their co-workers. However, for others, increased financial resources would enable them to provide adequately for their staff, both local co-workers and those they send out to new areas. They could also better provide for the destitute among their flocks.

Like materials and training, money can also become a threat to the stability of a network. Unfortunately, money gifts can easily be mismanaged. For example, a large sum of money was given to an experienced and well-trusted, house church co-worker with the specific request to buy a van. The van was to take passengers to house church meeting points and to haul literature. This faithful brother was to explain to his co-workers the source of the funds and that the van would be community property, available for the network’s discretionary use.

As requested, the brother purchased the van, parked it at his home, but told no one where the money came from. He used it for the purposes intended but continued to keep silent about the source of the money. His colleagues became suspicious. Only the registered church could afford such a luxury. Had he been won over by the registered church for the price of a van?  Could he be trusted any more?  Why was he willing to offer the van’s services to the house church?  The brother reasoned that if he kept his source of income private, he could control the use of the van. The result of these good intentions was distrust, suspicion, jealousy, anger, disunity and a poorly utilized vehicle.

Another brother lost his home and business to police confiscation. He asked for help with a rental deposit and a few months’ rent to give him time to get started again. His story was confirmed and he was given a onetime-only gift to cover this need. He found a new location and paid his rent as promised. It seemed to be a straightforward deal of assisting a brother with a legitimate need.

On a subsequent visit to the area, one of the top leaders was quite disturbed about the financial support. The needy brother was involved with another external ministry and had exclusive access to their literature, videos and other materials. He had set up his new place as a storage and distribution center and used the literature and videos as a means of power, income and influence over brothers and sisters within the network. From the well-intended assistance of the two external ministries, he was usurping the network leadership. The second outside organization, eager to find a good contact to distribute their materials, had not considered how their materials might be used in a manipulating or controlling way.

Financial assistance to a network must never be carried out through just one individual. A clear set of regulations, an understanding of specific needs and strong, open lines of accountability must be set up. A small committee must be formed to handle money, oversee its distribution, respond to any queries about its use and give a clear accounting of needs and expenses to the source. Time frames should be discussed. For how long will this support be needed?  When will it end? Is it a onetime project? Will there be a gradual decrease?

Lesson five

Approach the relationship with the church in China as a partnership whose participants give and take as equals.

Outsiders can assist as fellow servants but should use caution, if not refrain, from the requests and temptations to make decisions for network leaders. We may do them the greatest favor by listening and offering to pray with and for them as they seek God’s will. He has, can and will lead them. We must recognize the areas in which they are more mature and spiritually sensitive than the church from outside China. How often and how long do we outsiders fast and pray? How much Scripture have we memorized in comparison to the passages of God’s Word they have hidden in their hearts? How do our experiences of God’s provision, power, protection, comfort and forgiveness compare with theirs?  To what extent do we know and understand the blessings associated with suffering and persecution?

As partners in ministry, we have much to offer the Lord in service together. Rather than trying to decide which of us should set the pace, perhaps the church would be better served if we concentrated on getting our steps in sync, side by side, behind our Master.

Future Implications

These lessons emphasize a posture of service and humility. Our goal is to model for the church in China a role she may soon play in reaching out to the nations herself. Is she learning the skill of identifying the needs and issues facing her target group? Will she be responsive to the educational level of the learner and adjust her message and content accordingly? Will she accept correction and learn to adapt her service? Will she discern when her efforts at blessing others can be turned inside out and harm those she is trying to help? Will she step out to lord it over others or serve them in partnership and mutual submission?  If we serve in China, we must live before the church in China in such a way that she will witness the answers to these questions.

Image credit: Walking all of Nanjing Lu by SpirosK photography via Flickr
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Jason Lee

Jason Lee (pseudonym) has served in Chinese ministry since 1979. His first exposure to China was in 1982.View Full Bio