Lead Article

The Changing Role of Foreign Workers in China


Recently, I found myself counseling three foreigners who, with many tears, told me they had just been told to leave China by a Taiwanese/American pastor who boasted to them that he was "the leader of 1,000 churches in China." He told them they could have no fruitful ministry in China because they are white. One of the three, a young, white, Western woman, has, in the past 18 months, been used by the Holy Spirit to lead 26 Chinese high schoolers to faith in Christ and is establishing them in a church in a place which previously had no functional body. A Chinese national who heard this story responded: "Why does one foreigner believe that he has the right to tell other foreigners that God cannot use them in China? Isn't this God's business?" Good questions are the right ones and underline the complicated situation and many opinions which revolve around the topic at hand.

History gives us another example of this complicated clash of East and West while God has been building the Chinese part of his church—the Three Self Movement of the 1930s. The objectives of the movement were to make the church in China self-governing, self-propagating and self-sustaining. I believe these objectives in themselves were quite healthy, seeking to fulfill God's desire to mature the indigenous church. However, there were also those in the movement who saw it as more of an anti-Western campaign and in the process threw out all affiliation with the body of Christ outside of China. Others rightfully saw it as a move to separate the Christlike influences on the church from the unbiblical. The underlying reality in all of this is complex. There is no simple answer.

Do foreigners still have a place in China ministry? An easy answer flows from simply recognizing that both historically and today, God has, and is, clearly using people from throughout his body to accomplish his purposes here. Anyone who tells you otherwise does not know much about what God is doing spiritually in China. The person the Spirit uses for his work is defined not by race or nationality. Rather, good and faithful servants are set apart by their daily embracing of a set of core values which define and establish them (whether Chinese nationals or foreigners) as someone through whom God is willing and able to reveal Jesus to the Chinese people.

Here is my list of essential working practices for someone to be used by God to fulfill his purposes: Mark 11:22-24, 12:30-31; John 4:23-24; 2 Corinthians 4:5-11; James 1:26-27, 4:6-10; Matthew 28:19-20. Every China worker (expatriate or national) who embraces these as life-guiding precepts will be used by the Holy Spirit to reveal Jesus to the Chinese people. There are many Chinese nationals, overseas born Chinese (OBCs) and Western expats who seek to live this way. God is zealously working through all of them. Unfortunately, there are also many from all three groups who are not being so effective. However, God is merciful and gracious, so it is surprising how much good is often done through expatriate and national folly and immaturity. I believe God sees the whole body of Christ when deciding who to spend fulfilling his purposes in China and is pleased to empower all who are truly laboring here for Jesus' sake and by his precepts.

Every culture, and more specifically, every Christian culture (American, Korean, Taiwanese, Chinese, etc.), embraces habits, thinking and practices which to some degree subvert the biblical model of personal spirituality and church practice. We have all been trained by our past, within our culture, to tend toward certain emphases which are clearly anti-Christian. For example, among other things, American Christians are trained to emphasize personal comfort, strong independence from the body of Christ, spiritual pride and an intellectual (rather than relational) approach to God. These, when transported to China, are severely destructive to God's desires for the church here. We can write corresponding lists for the Koreans, Taiwanese, Chinese and others. The specific approach to cultural subversion of true Christianity is different, but still destructive, no matter the source.

Western and overseas Chinese influence on the growth of the Chinese church is both essential and damaging. Both groups are impacting the work in many positive ways. Many from both groups are still clinging to their belief that Christianity is an intellectual, rather than a relational based religion and that we are called to obedience for the sake of obedience rather than for worship of and love for God which spring naturally from living daily in his presence. We must be aggressive to keep the gods of the Western and OBC church cultures from becoming the gods of the Chinese church. Government suppression, I believe, is God's instrument for keeping a full-fledged Western or OBC model from pushing aside the possibility of a biblical model.

Chinese culture has enough anti-Christian tendencies without our contributions. God is hoping to keep "ours" from multiplying "theirs." Our mission, no matter our specific baggage, must be to establish, in the church in China, Christlike transformation. We must passionately set aside our own and Chinese cultural sins and replace these with Christian culture. Our usefulness to God's purposes in China is directly dependent on our willingness to embrace such a transformation. Our being transformed is directly dependent on whether or not we are presenting ourselves, by the mercies of God, as living and holy sacrifices, to God's purpose (which is worship. Romans 12:1-2). The life of Jesus, instead of our personality and culture, is revealed as we worship in spirit and in truth.

Fortunately, our Father's vision and mission for fruitful ministry in China do not change over the years. Each year's objectives, however, and the daily activities to which we are called, are quite different year after year if we are responding to the guidance of the Spirit. Therefore, the church's vision must always be Jesus himself (Hebrews 12:1-3) and the true worship of him (John 4:23-24, Romans 12:1), or we will be distracted, like Martha (Luke 10:39-42) with task-orientation (evangelism, church-planting, creating seminaries, discipling, serving the poor) rather than lovingly worshiping Jesus himself. The tasks are necessary, of course, in God's scheme, but are merely the fruit of his life overflowing from ours when our hearts are occupied with loving him personally rather than with attempting to do something for him.

The church's mission must be to reveal Jesus in all his glory to the Chinese people by the power of the Spirit, from the temple of Jesus' body. Our goals and activities (which too many of us are focused on as the foundation) must flow out as the fruit of our relationship with Christ and be focused on the "equipping of the saints for the work of service, to the building up of the body of Christ; until we all attain to the unity of the faith, and of the knowledge (epignosisexperiential knowledgenot merely gnosis, or intellectual knowledge) of the Son of God, to a mature man, to the measure of the stature which belongs to the fullness of Christ." (Ephesians 4:12-14)

The following story is a great example of how the Holy Spirit empowers humble leaders who seriously embrace the generational propagation of true worship and effective discipling. One white Westerner was, for several years, discipled and prayed for daily by one old, retired, American missionary. The discipling emphasis was on true worship and discipling others. The younger worker brought many to Christ, established them in churches and then began discipling and praying for eight of the national pastors he had placed in charge of the churches. He taught them what he had been taught. Over time, listening to the constant emphasis, the national pastors realized that the future of the church in their area was dependent on whether or not they could learn to "worship in spirit and in truth." If they could, all the necessary fruit would be established through them and God would have his way. Whether it was wisdom, gifts or fruit of the spirit, knowledge of the Word, courage, faith, comfort or whatever else they lacked, as long as they were presenting themselves to God as living and holy sacrifices (Romans 12:1), this worship would bring the Spirit's empowerment of effective ministry. The Spirit began growing their character, understanding, skills and relationship with God, empowering their lives and ministries more and more.

During a prayer session one day, they were moved by the Spirit to divide into four teams of two, prayerfully assign each team specific surrounding areas and be spent by God to establish and build the Kingdom there. One team went out to a site where there was one weak pastor overseeing 30 meeting points. He could see Jesus' love and life in the pair and quickly welcomed their help. They went out often, discipling the leader, teaching, training, ministering, exhorting, and most of all, modeling a life of worshipful sacrifice and love.

The previously weak pastor began worshiping and learning more and was led to disciple eight of his best leaders to disciple the other leaders of the thirty meeting points. Within two years, 23 of the 30 chose to leave the work on their farms to their family and to work full time as itinerant pastors, establishing churches in villages around their villages which before had none. A visiting pastor from a neighboring province saw what the Spirit was doing and asked the group to come and help the church in his area do something similar. They joyfully went out to help.

This story is really not that unusual. The spontaneous expansion of the church (Roland Allen) wherever hearts are sacrificially presenting themselves to God can be counted on. However, observe the role of the foreign worker as the story above changes with time. Early on, he is evangelist/discipler/church planter. This quickly changes into discipler/leader developer. If we are responding to the needs of the changing situation, our daily activities (but not our vision or mission) necessarily change. Many geographic areas where two decades ago there were no Christians now have many. Other places where Christians were present, the church has matured and grown significantly. Where evangelism, training and discipling of immature believers was the task before, today, wherever the church has become established, the nationals lead and do the vast majority of this work. Developing effective, godly leaders is the new task.

There are still, however, in Yunnan, a majority of places where Christ is unknown and his body is absent or just beginning. In either case, the primary approach to responding to any area has changed. This essential task is now best accomplished through the building up of national leaders who have become God's primary vessels in the direct work of expansion. Therefore, the need of effective leadership for churches and ministries has greatly increased and must become the new focus. We have moved two generations forward in our obedience to 2 Timothy 2:2. Paul, at this writing, was no longer working day by day with Timothy; rather, he was writing letters to equip Timothy to equip other faithful men to equip other faithful men. Our daily activities must, as did Paul's, respond to the changing need.

In my opinion, the new focus must be on establishing effective, godly leadership within the national church. It is time for "foreigners" (most mainland Christians include the Taiwanese, Singaporeans, Hong-Kong, and other Overseas Born Chinese in this category) who believe they are the best people to be the leaders of Chinese churches and ministries to use a more biblical model. In the long run, the Chinese church will be far better led, far more fruitful and far more acceptable to the government when nationals are the leaders. For now, we foreigners are, in many settings, being used by God as his vessels to grow that leadership. We need to be taking this task seriously and willing to give up our personal positions of leadership. Paul regularly established locals who had just recently heard the name of Jesus for the first time as the leaders of their churches. There were problems, but I strongly suspect the Holy Spirit was the author of this approach. Often, after just a few months, Paul had relatively little input into most of the churches that were established by God through his labors. He did not form them into loyal members of some organization he established but rather fed and nurtured them as independently functioning entities whose allegiance was to God alone and whose membership was only in the body of Christ.

Para-church ministry objectives, on the other hand, are lagging behind in being accepted by the indigenous church as their mandate from God. Discipling the nations and caring for the needs of the poor and disenfranchised are just in the last couple of years (the Sichuan earthquake did much to advance this vision) becoming a significant part of the regular practice of a minority of churches. Until those of us who are foreign workers effectively disciple and mentor leaders who embrace this responsibility and are equipped to respond, we are left with the task ourselves. We must take this leader-mentoring and discipling far more seriously.

To be a leader in the Chinese culture and context is, in many ways, quite different than the biblical model. Similarly to the Western world, inherent cultural perspectives often clash with foundational Christian principals. Many volumes have been written recently on this reality. I watch with great expectancy as the Holy Spirit sets apart unto the Lord, teaches and matures over the next decade tens of thousands of spiritually gifted and truly worshiping national leaders in China. These will be both a blessing to this nation as well as a foundation upon which the church will be both broadened and deepened. The masses will see Jesus revealed in greater and greater ways. The flock will have shepherds who depend upon and submit to the Great Shepherd himself. The foreigners will then be moved elsewhere by the Lover of Souls, and the resource of hundreds of millions of Chinese, passionate for the glory of Jesus, will impact both this nation as well as the entire world with their faith.

Image credit: Foreigner at a car show in China by V.T. Polywoda, on Flickr

Paul Lee

Paul Lee is a long-time worker in China. View Full Bio