This issue of the ChinaSource Quarterly takes a much-needed look at the vital role that women play in ministry in China, both in the church and outside, both Chinese women and foreign women. In the more than twenty years I was in China, I saw first-hand Chinese Christian women serving in their churches (as both pastors and lay workers), doing evangelism in their communities, and being salt and light in their workplaces. Unencumbered by the debates that rage in churches in North America, they did not seem to question their role in fulfilling God’s purposes in China.
My first glimpse of women in the church was in Zhengzhou, Henan Province in the fall of 1984. My American teammates and I had to get permission from our college to attend the recently re-opened registered church in the city. A clear memory of that visit was being ushered to the front row of the church just as the little old ladies in that row were ushered away from their seats. We were horrified, but Chinese notions of hospitality dictated that the foreign guests be given the place of honor, no matter the inconvenience to the women who had most likely arrived hours before. Another memory was that almost all the people in the service were elderly women. There were only a handful of men. All the ushers were women.
During the 1990s I lived in Changchun, Jilin Province, in China’s northeast. I was a Chinese language student, so attending church services gave me a chance to practice my Chinese. My classmates and I would bike across town on Sunday mornings to the main registered church, one that had been established by Lutheran missionaries in the early part of the 20th century. Like the church in Zhengzhou, the congregation was predominantly female. But here men and women were separated, with the few men in attendance relegated to the small section at the right side of the sanctuary and the women taking up the rest. All the ushers were women.
During my time in Beijing, I attended two different registered churches. The ratio of men to women in the congregations were not nearly as imbalanced as the churches I had attended earlier in Henan and Jilin; however, as in those other churches all the ushers were women and half of the pastoral staff were women. I once asked a female lay worker to give me an estimate of the percentage of women pastors in the registered churches in China. After assuring me that she was only guessing she said it was probably fifty percent or more. Clearly, in the registered churches in China, women are at the heart of the mission and work of the church.
It was at one of those churches that I also became aware of the key role that women were playing in the spread of the gospel outside the church boundaries. God gave me a wonderful friendship with Sister M., a young professional teaching “tea” at a local vocational school. At the time “tea culture” was beginning its return to northern China. Little tea houses were beginning to pop up all over town where people could sit for hours drinking tea or engaging in traditional tea ceremonies. Sister M. was teaching young girls from the countryside the history and art of the tea ceremony. Being a member of the Hani minority nationality, from the pu’er region of Yunnan Province, her specialty was, naturally, pu’er tea. Shortly after I met her, she opened a small teahouse in a “tea mall” in Beijing.
Sister M., however, was more than a “tea teacher” and shop owner; she was, at heart, an evangelist, and her teahouse became a launching pad for the gospel. She was able to get her teahouse designated as a registered meeting point of the church, which meant that she could legally conduct religious activities there. These ranged from pastor-led services for professionals who could not attend church on Sundays to small groups to Bible studies. When not being used for gatherings, interested tea drinkers would wander in to sample her pu’er tea and she never missed an opportunity to share the gospel with them. I was sipping tea with her one afternoon when she led a mall cleaning lady to the Lord. I must admit to being a bit skeptical about the simplicity of it all, but when I asked about the woman a few months later, Sister M. told me she had been baptized and was now attending a small group fellowship.
Sometimes Sister M. would disappear for weeks at a time, on evangelistic trips into the small towns and countryside villages around central and south China. Upon her return I would meet up with her at her teahouse to hear about the places where she had preached and the people who had believed. It was always a time of amazement and encouragement.
During a visit to Beijing in 2018, I had the opportunity to see Sister M. She was battling cancer and had just gotten out of the hospital where she had nearly died. I was in her home, and as we sat drinking tea together, she told me of the opportunities God had given her in the hospital during the previous two weeks to share the gospel with others in her cancer ward. A dozen had prayed to receive Christ. She whipped out her phone and showed me short videos of her fellow patients praying, reading the Bible, and worshipping together. “Obviously,” she said to me, “God still has work for me here.”
In August of 2020, that work ended; God called her home. There are hundreds, perhaps thousands of believers in China today because of the faithful work of this woman. One of the great privileges of my time in China was knowing her and I miss her dearly. But I know that God used her to fill China with the knowledge of his glory. She offered to me a glimpse into how the gospel was spreading in China, for there are probably thousands of evangelists just like her, faithfully preaching the gospel.
Image credit: Gaylan Yeung
Joann Pittman is Vice President of Partnership and China Engagement and editor of ZGBriefs. Prior to joining ChinaSource, Joann spent 28 years working in China, as an English teacher, language student, program director, and cross-cultural trainer for organizations and businesses engaged in China. She has also taught Chinese at the University …View Full Bio