Lead Article

Staying in China

The Issues

China and Foreigners

Foreigners are flocking to China—not just tourists, but longer-term residents. There are hundreds of thousands of foreigners engaged in business and investment, education (both teaching and studying), technical and cultural exchange, sports and entertainment. Many of these foreigners are Christians. In the openness of China today, few realize that there are fairly strict policies in place regarding foreigners and their religious activities.[1]

An Overview

Most Christian foreigners resident in China do not see themselves as called to China for the longer term. Many are there to fulfill business commitments. They seldom engage in serious language study and tend to find fellowship and service opportunities within the foreign community. However, there are other foreigners who do see their presence in China as a call from God to serve the Chinese people. These so called “long-term” workers normally spend an initial period in concentrated language study before moving into a teaching, consulting or business environment.

There are scores of overseas organizations and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) that are eager to recruit such people in a wide range of professions for the many openings they have throughout the country. While some do welcome those with only a year to offer, many need and prefer longer-term commitments. Longevity of service is of critical concern for it takes time for any foreign worker to become effective.

Those whose work environment allows them to operate in English (such as language teachers) can be effective in their role from day one, but normally, becoming culturally sensitive and adapting to life in China takes much longer. In fact, it takes a lifetime for there is always more to learn. There is no question in my mind that we need to see a far greater commitment to the long term (and all that it involves in language acquisition and cultural understanding) if we as foreigners want to be truly effective.

Factors that Affect Longevity of Service


We live in a “political” world and politics in China are a sensitive issue. When foreigners overstep the boundaries, they may well be asked to leave or, at least, they may find their activities more closely monitored. While I believe China is more tolerant than many Western nations when it comes to what they allow in the classroom, the fact remains, however, that religion and politics are sensitive issues to be handled with great care. Unwise words or actions on the part of the foreign professional, or his or her supporters back home, can jeopardize that person’s position. Certain overt activities are inappropriate (not heroic)and they may be unnecessary. Why, for example, should a foreign believer feel he has to baptize a Chinese convert? I think it is far better for that person to be linked up with local believers who can do the baptizing. For one thing, the locals are better able to judge if the person is ready for such a step. Those foreigners who feel they have to produce visible results for their supporters may find themselves back home more quickly than they bargained for.


Sadly, some excellent workers give up and go home because the organization with which they are affiliated fails to retain their loyalty and trust. Kath Donovan and Ruth Myors write about the characteristics of workers from different generations. The Booster Generation (those born before 1946) “were high in institutional loyalty. When the leaders said, ‘jump,’ they asked ‘How high?'” The Baby Boomer Generation (those born between 1946 and 1964) on the other hand “brought to mission a commitment focused on excellence in ministry. When their leader said, ‘Jump,’ they asked, ‘Why?'” Generation X (those born between 1965 and 1983) are said to have a “greater emphasis on the experiential and the relational. When the leader says, ‘Jump,’ they say, ‘We will, if you jump with us.'”[2]

In the China context, we are not thinking of traditional missionaries or mission agencies, but rather of those called into a tentmaker or professional role. However these generational characteristics outlined by Donovan and Myors still apply. When China workers perceive their leaders as not being sensitive enough to the realities on the ground in China, there can be a problem. Similarly, when there is a lack of guidance or affirmation from organizational or team leaders, workers can begin to lose heart.

Some traditional organizations are not easily able to meet the needs of professionals serving in China. It is essential there be a trusting relationship between agency groups and the China-based NGOs or organizations to whom they second (or loan) workers. Some larger churches (or denominational organizations) select, train, and send their own teams of workers. William Taylor asks, however, whether these churches have “truly counted the cost of providing the imperative field-based support systems to enable their teams to live and serve effectively and for longer term?”[3]


China is requiring increasingly higher professional qualifications. Even for those going to teach English it is no longer sufficient to simply be a mother-tongue speaker. One needs training in how to teach the language. It is important for those wishing to serve longer term to be adequately prepared and qualified in their chosen profession. There may well be a need, from time to time, to upgrade one’s qualifications and to gain further relevant experience.

Those who are committed to professional excellence and who do a good job are far more likely to be asked to remain by their Chinese employers. The foreigner I mentioned, who was given permanent residence, made a name for himself as an enthusiastic and competent teacher. He has written textbooks and helped his university and city win international awards. Being under-qualified or incompetent, on the other hand, sabotages longevity—however well-meaning and loving the foreign worker may be.


There are a host of personal reasons why good workers leave China, often just when they are becoming most effective. The educational needs of children are a major factor. Many major cities, and some smaller centers too, have international schools (some run on Christian principles) which provide a viable alternative to home schooling or local schooling. However, for some, the individual needs of their children demand relocation back home. Others face the challenge of balancing their calling to China with the legitimate needs of aging parents. Some workers face the disappointment of broken health or emotional burn-out.

None of these personal circumstances should be regarded as failure. It is all too easy to forget God is sovereign in all the circumstances of our lives. Nothing comes as a surprise to him. Although the benefits of long-term service are obvious, in individual cases, God might have other plans for his servants. In some cases, workers may have overstayed their welcome, and others really should retire. They may be just as useful back home—or even more so—working with Chinese scholars or immigrants in their home country.


Undoubtedly one of the most crucial factors in staying the course is keeping one’s eyes on Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith. The disciplines of daily prayer and feeding on God’s Word are non-negotiable essentials. The Christian foreigner serving in China will have his or her calling tested. He or she will face spiritual warfare and temptation. All need fellowship and times of refreshment and rest in order to make it for the long haul. It is very sad when some sort of moral failure causes gifted people to have to withdraw. “Those who fail because of a moral lapse due to lack of self-control leading to uncontrolled anger, factious behavior, illicit sex, or some other sin cause grave consequences.”[4] China is awash with moral landmines, and the worker who wants to serve effectively in the midst of the battle needs to walk humbly and closely with his or her God. I have known several cases of moral failure that have knocked out (or severely wounded) individuals, marriages, and even ministries.

The love of money can also become a snare for some—especially those in the business field. Christian workers can so easily lose sight of their original calling and can “lose their first love” when they allow the temptations surrounding them to gain a foothold. Each of the qualities listed in Galatians 5:22, 23 are needed big time in China”love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.” They are the fruit of the Spirit-filled life.


For some, finances become a reason for withdrawal. Foreigners working for international companies are very well off with good salaries and up-market accommodations. Foreign teachers or students, however, may find their budgets severely stretched, especially if they have dependent children. Those working in NGOs may or may not have a salary provided. Professionals serving longer term in China generally need considerably less than the traditional missionary who joins a traditional mission agency. Despite this, they still need solid support from home if they are to remain longer term.

What is Being Done to Encourage Longevity?

We have considered some of the factors affecting longevity of service. Since not everyone who wants to serve in China is suitable, careful selection of workers can help reduce early drop out.

People need to be adequately qualified spiritually, professionally and psychologically. Despite the need for high academic and professional standards, it is, however, sobering to discover that some individuals who might not have made it through an agency’s screening hoops have nonetheless gone to China and been incredibly effective. I can think of a single lady from Europe who is impacting the lives of disabled children and another from New Zealand who has for many years worked among orphans. Exceptions to the rule perhaps!

Another need is for adequate orientation. Basic orientation is being provided by agencies with work in China. Most agencies provide extra support for new workers, especially those involved in language study. Agencies hold annual conferences (for fellowship, teaching and training) and some also arrange in-service training opportunities. I believe it is important to be associated with an agencyfor the sake of accountability and also for the kind of orientation and support such agencies provide.

One area of need is helping China workers better evaluate how they are doing in terms of job satisfaction and effectiveness and how they might plan for the future. Senior lecturer in Marketplace Christianity and Tent-making at Carey Baptist College in New Zealand, Derek Christensen, is developing tools to help workers, in a context such as China, to better evaluate their progress “towards the goals that they set, their direction towards fulfillment of their expected work role and their fit with the agency responsible for their placement or management.”[5] Derek refers to this as PDF—progress, direction and fit. I am sure such efforts will assist workers in practical ways who otherwise might have been tempted to give up and go home.


  1. ^ State Council regulations on the management of religious activities of foreigners in the PRC, 31 January 1994. NB: these regulations were not superseded by the 2005 Regulations on Religious Affairs.
  2. ^ Donovan, Kath and Ruth Myors, “Reinventing Missionary Commitment,” from Doing Member Care Well edited by Kelly O’Donnell, William Carey Library, Pasadena, 2002, pp. 297, 298.
  3. ^ Taylor, William, “Examining the Iceberg Called Attrition,” from Too Valuable to Lose, William Carey Library, Pasadena, 1997, p. 11.
  4. ^ McKaughan, Paul, “Missionary Attrition: Defining the Problem,” from Too Valuable to Lose, edited by William Taylor, William Carey Library, Pasadena, 1997, p. 20.
  5. ^ Christensen, Derek, “PDFA Fresh Approach to Retention in Mission and Professional Placements,” privately circulated paper, May 2006.
Image credit: old city – shanghai by Roberto D’Angelo via Flickr.
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Peter Anderson

Peter Anderson

Peter S. Anderson, a former International Director of Jian Hua Foundation (JHF) has been in Chinese ministry for over 45 years. Peter and his late wife Geralyn served with OMF in Taiwan (1976–82) followed by service in Hong Kong and mainland China (1982–2005) with Friends of China and JHF. From 2006–2016 …View Full Bio