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Some Things Change, Some Are Timeless

Everything changes. We should be used to this by now, but we usually resist it. As a result, we are stressed when we encounter the reality that some things must change to be relevant. I can no longer buy pants in the size I wore in high school!

So, it should not be a surprise that the role of foreigners in China changes. It is expected, and we should be prepared to offer what is relevant in the new season. Unfortunately, my observation is that we believers are not usually among the early adopters. Instead of asking the Lord for what his ideas are for today, we tend to anchor ourselves to what he said years ago and forget to ask for fresh input from heaven.

When I arrived in 1987, China’s needs were apparent. Foreigners knew how they could contribute. Many Chinese needed to speak English and could not. There you are; it was a clear need—and we came and truly helped. There were clear needs for medical upgrades in both skills and knowledge—and we came and truly helped. There were clear needs to interact commercially with other nations, and there were clear needs to help the disadvantaged—and we came and truly helped.

During the 90s, not much changed. English was still needed and we continued coming as teachers. International business was taking off, and some came to work in that area. Throughout the decade, manufacturing grew dramatically, and China took center stage as the world’s supplier of anything anyone wanted to buy.

China became stronger. English played a major role and was still needed. But, other areas of education also became important. All the skills of business, accounting, management, logistics, and customer service were also needed.

The first decade of this century saw the collapse of the world’s financial system in 2008. With that downfall came the loss of confidence in depending on international business as a way of achieving economic strength. With that shift came a huge change in China’s willingness to look to the West for its future. When that happened, China’s perceived need for Westerners changed as well. It had become very capable in many areas and, therefore, did not need what foreigners had been bringing.

Throughout past decades, foreign Christians hoped to help Chinese Christians. I recall my first trip to China in 1986, when, as I stood on a street in Guangzhou, someone quietly came up to me, six inches from my face, and said, “I have heard of Jesus. Is it true?” That experience gave me the feeling that the needs were very basic and yet significant; I would certainly be able to help in this area.

However, looking back over 28 years, I see that many of my ideas, flowing from my worldview, were not healthy from a Kingdom point of view. Back then, I assumed, as I had been taught, that the entire Christian experience was founded on knowledge. By that I mean that I did not know some very important things. At first I did not know I was separated from God by sin and that Jesus came to save me from that problem and reconcile me to himself. I needed to learn that truth and I did. Then I moved on to realize my knowledge of the Bible was nonexistent, and so I began to add to that knowledge. Eventually, I completed seminary studies and tried to fill in all the knowledge gaps that I had. My ministry in the United States took the form of teaching because I believed that the basic problem was lack of knowledge. Certainly, there is much to support this worldview.

Then, in my early years in China, I began to meet people who did more believing in what they were learning than I did. I began to meet people who did not know as much as I did, but they believed much more in what they did know. It was unsettling.

The Lord was dismantling the basis of my worldview and changing my foundation from “knowledge” to the idea of “obedience.” I began to realize that God did not seem to care so much about what I knew as he did what I obeyed. He highlighted the issue of obedience in scripture in a way I had not been willing to see. I began to realize that perhaps I should not be teaching what the Bible said unless I was also doing it. Statements like, “Do not worry,” became troubling because I saw how little I obeyed. Likewise, “Bless those who curse you,” took on new meaning when I learned that six women, identified as witches, were cursing me.[1]

As I began to obey his word more, I began to experience what I think of as his life. My life changed dramatically, and I began to shift from a heavy yoke to the light yoke he promised.

At that point, I realized that my influence on the lives of my Christian friends might not have been as positive as I had hoped. If I was simply trying to fill in their gaps of knowledge with what I understood to be the truth, then they would only get the benefit of knowledge. If I was honest, I would admit the accumulation of knowledge had not helped me achieve what my heart actually desired. It was obeying what I knew that brought life. My observation of the impact of what we think of as higher education was clearly disappointing. After a couple of years of focused study on spiritual subjects, several of my local friends had obviously not matured in their spiritual lives as I had expected.

However, the foundation of my worldview shifted once again from “obedience” to the “life of God.” This began to change how I thought about the gospel. I began to see it as the message of the very life of God being available to me and others. Of course, I had to understand my separation from God because of sin and his life given for me, but that was not the end point, it was only the beginning. The destination was experiencing the very life of God—he in me and I in him, just as he promised.

I mention this because it affects the role of the foreigner in China. Sometimes I meet someone who introduces him- or herself as a person sent to bring the gospel to China. I often think to myself, “Which gospel?” If you had asked me when I had first arrived, I probably would have described my understanding of the gospel as the gospel of sin management. I was fully prepared to give those lost people the knowledge they were lacking to deal with this universal problem. But, I was not bringing them the gospel of the “life of God.” That was not what I had been taught. It was not how I was thinking. There is a big difference between the gospel of sin management and the gospel of the “life of God.”

This whole shift in my thinking has taught me to seek intellectual humility. I have come to see that I still need to understand what the Kingdom is and how it works, but I have so much more to learn. Until my stories seem like they could have come from the Bible itself, I want to keep pursuing a better understanding of what I have been given—this life of God. I need to better understand how it works. In this regard, I feel I have learned more about the Kingdom in the past five years than the previous 43.

While countries like China will develop and grow, their need for foreign interaction will change. What they used to need, they may no longer feel they need. We might see the situation differently, but that does not really matter. We will be allowed and invited to interact only where they feel the need for our influence.

China has in many ways taken its deserved economic position in the world. Chinese companies now compete head-to-head with many of the best in the world. Sure, there is much to learn, but the invitation to help will go out to those who can bring specific and developed skills. That is the nature of this season in China. No country wants to feel dependent on others.

Still, the deepest benefit foreign believers can bring is the benefit of a life that flows from God through Jesus. The universal need for this does not seem to change as a society develops. Perhaps, it might even increase as a society achieves economic and technical greatness. Often, when that greatness comes, along with it comes the expectation that it has now achieved its purpose. Nevertheless, when you poke beneath the surface, you always find that what our hearts (and theirs) deeply long for is not found in that greatness. It is only found in a relationship with God through Jesus that is experienced as we practice dependence upon him. If we can provide a living example of how this life works in us, we can always bring a treasure to any country in any stage of development.

The problem will be who gets invited to come and stay. Those invitations will change according to the felt needs of China.

One day we were having a management meeting in one of my companies trying to deal with the economic collapse of 2008. Some felt that God had let us down because we lost half our orders that summer. But one leader made the statement that he would rather have one year in our company than 100 years in a large successful company because in our company he learned to walk with God. I was shocked, but delighted, to hear that was his assessment.

I believe that if we help people learn to walk with God as they watch us do our jobs, that will always bring a treasure to any country in which we live and serve.


  1. ^ My staff, who lived in the community, made me aware that six women and a man, described as wupo or witches (巫婆), were cursing me and the company because of the influence of the Kingdom of God that we were bringing into the community. For several months, my staff would go to their homes and pray God’s blessings before going to work. Hence, bless those who curse you.
Image credit: Gaylan Yeung 
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Bill Job

Bill Job

Bill Job has lived in China since 1987 starting and operating five companies in Hong Kong and China.View Full Bio