Most organizations involved in any country will inherently have as part of their vision some measure of the indigenous church becoming viable and making its impact positively in its community and, eventually, across borders and across cultures. Yet, when the local churches start growing and slowly take initiatives to impact their own societies, quite often foreign organizations are slow to act or react in ways that acknowledge the rising local church. There is often an inertia when it comes to making real adjustments to accommodate and encourage these local initiatives.
Admittedly, in China a few organizations have provided internship opportunities, and some are already partnering with locals for ventures across borders and cultures, but these are fewer than expected considering the size and growth of the local Christian populations. It is essential that we have a better understanding of how fast the local Chinese churches are taking the responsibility to help their communities and reach out even beyond them as they grow and mature. If not, we may end up with frustrated partnerships between foreign and local believers.
Many of us believe it is essential that we dialogue on how best to transition from foreign believers taking most of the initiative to reach the local communities to a more supportive, facilitative and mentoring or coaching role so that local believers are better equipped and empowered to take on roles that have traditionally been filled by foreign Christians. I believe we are at the threshold of a major transitionespecially as there are an estimated 70 to 130 million Chinese believers in different areas at various stages of economic development, influence, growth and maturity.
The more resourceful churches in the large, urban centers and some smaller cities and towns have taken initiatives to partner with appropriate bodies or organizations and/or register charitable vehicles, non-profits, social enterprises and businesses so that they have legitimacy in their outreach programs. This means that they are also quickly catching up with the foreign agencies in the issues they face, be they theological, missiological or practical.
For example, those wanting to use non-profit structures often face questions from their congregations as to why they should divert "spiritual work" resources to the social gospel. Sound familiar? The Western church grappled with these issues, especially prior to the 1990s. Yet for the most part today, this is a well-accepted strategy in churches in the West. It looks like we still have much to pass on to our local brothers and sisters in terms of well thought-out theology and missiology as well as the practical aspects of running non-profits.
However when we move to business, missions and social enterprises, the local churches in China have already caught up with the majority of Western churches still working out the why, what, who, when, where and how of business as mission (BAM). Of course, more and more believers in China are embracing this as a strategy, in some ways similar to the process of acceptance of non-profits by the general international Christian community as churches grapple with the theology, missiology and practical issues of non-profits as an outreach strategy. So, as the Western churches now work through what BAM means for them, the local churches in China are also working through similar issues. We hope we will have their well thought-out views in the near future. This is likely possible as there are various ongoing Christian business networks seeking to provide them with information, support and encouragement while at the same time attempting to impact society in a positive way, especially through corporate social responsibility projects.
Let us now turn to some specific ways in which the local churches are impacting society and the degree of help they will need to do this well and be good models, eventually, maturing and expanding beyond their culture and borders.
We had a sample of various initiatives at a conference and this spanned non-profits, charities, humanitarian groups, BAM, media and publishing as well as family, youth, children and migrant workers. We will take a look a each of these.
Non-Profits (NPOs)/Charities/Humanitarian Initiatives
(These largely overlap with family, youth, children and migrant workers)
This category seems the most developed because it was one of the earliest strategies adopted by foreign believers when entry into China became possible again. Hence, local believers have had about 20 years of being beneficiaries as well as observers; now, increasingly, they are participants and founders of NPOs. This is generally the preferred option of both foreign and local Christian communities because it avoids the "thorny" issue of profit, the stress of balancing for-profit activities with charitable activities which many mission-based businesses face, as well as the difficulty in finding the rare mix of business competence/acumen and heart for the marginalized.
This was especially visible during the Sichuan earthquake when many people formed informal groups to help the injured and suffering. After the disaster, several of these groups went on to formalize their activities either by registering as civil organizations or partnering with sponsor organizations or departments that could provide them legitimacy. A few have gone on to register as private NPOs. The disaster exposed the lack of an active civil society as well as channels for donations to be effectively and efficiently processed and deployed to areas of real need. Apart from the initial burst of official initiative, it is mostly private initiatives that are continuing to help this affected region, albeit with some degree of encouragement from the authorities.
If we think foreign NPOs face challenges, so also do the local, Chinese onesbut the challenges are just a bit different. Local NPOs find it easier than foreign NPOs to operate with or without a formal registration. However, the local NPOs have a harder time raising funds because of local legislation that gives license only to certain approved charities to raise public funds while the law is not that clear for private fund raising. There is also a transparent monitoring of foreign funds that are given to the local NPOs because of the fear of foreign governments using them to "control" the activities of local NPOs. In addition to the cumbersome administrative requirements and regulations, the local NPOs are also hard pressed to find committed people to implement their humanitarian and charitable projects, given the limited channels for mobilization due to the official attitude towards the church and NPOs in general.
Nonetheless, these challenges have not stopped numerous local brothers and sisters. One initiative recruits university students to help the marginalized in the same city. Others have set up community centers for migrants, scholarships for poor students or ways to help upgrade the medical services in lower grade hospitals. In most cases, the greatest needs are how to have clarity in vision, mission, values, strategies, team building, management skills and consistent professionalism in the services being offered while making the effort to grow and mature as authentic believers. Passion is present, but often skills are lacking.
What can foreign groups do differently so that the local non-profits can excel and thrive? They can strengthen their hands by helping them find appropriate resources, imparting their experience and skills to them and providing peer mentoring and coaching instead of just focusing on expanding their own organizations.
BAM and Social Enterprise
The local churches that have taken steps to use BAM and social enterprise as strategies have faced similar issues and questions as the NOPs and charities. One such issue is why the church should be engaged in making money and the effectiveness of this as compared with being, say, a charity.
Many who have ventured into this area have an even more challenging time than those in NPOs. They have had a shorter experience of being beneficiaries, observers and participants in foreign mission-based businesses. There are currently some local initiatives, but most of those who are successful are those who have been business owners or managers before becoming believers or becoming more committed to outreach. These are few and far between as most will be embroiled with their businesses and not so focused on the mission aspects. Those who do well on the mission aspect often are unable to make a profit or are not well managed.
Some examples of foreign set-ups include businesses that generate employment for poor communities, women or the physically or mentally challenged. These employment opportunities are often in the production of arts and crafts, clothing, food or as a service providersuch as a cafe. Others include running cultural programs, providing health advice, marital counseling or talks about practical life issues. Side by side with these local initiatives are many other foreign mission-based businesses that provide similar services in career counseling, language teaching, consulting, cultural training, logistics/distribution, import/export, education, adventure tourism, production of food, arts and crafts, jewelry, manufacturing, agriculture, farming and tourism amongst other things.
There does not seem to be that much difference between foreign mission-based businesses and local ones. So, is there anything we can do differently to help the local brothers and sisters involved in this strategy? Yes, we can still model and teach them good principles of governance and integrity; we can impart skills in leadership, management, team building and mission programs as well as be peer mentors or coaches. Part of the process is learning together and capitalizing on one another's strengths. Local believers can learn from our mistakes and failures even as we learn from theirs.
Media and Publishing
This is probably one of the most difficult areas in which to make an impact since it is highly controlled with censorship and other regulations. In addition, it often requires investment in expensive technology which may not have very rapid returns. Yet, if the doors were ever thrown open, imagine the extent of outreach with the technology of media, be that through TV, big-screens, radio, publications, the Internet or mobile phone applications.
At present, most working in this area are involved in the publication and/or translation of books, CDs and DVDs used for instruction or readingeither general or specific. Currently, there are not many involved in this though some local brothers and sisters may be involved in small-scale radio programs, feature programs and the production of CDs or DVDs. Most of those involved in this are based overseas to avoid the restrictive regulations, but a few local brothers or sisters work in partnership with foreign groups that have funds or expertise in this area. Some work in official media and use it to make meaningful programs. Since this is the newest area and probably one of the most controlled, developing it will require further investigation on viable partnerships, continual sharing of information, technology and resources, while constantly pushing the envelope so that the Good News can be proclaimed creatively and extensively.
The discussions, especially within this group and the church group, brought out some frustrations the local brothers and sisters face in working with foreign believers. Sometimes, the abilities, maturity and initiative of the local groups are not recognized because the foreign groups just want to continue doing what they feel comfortable doing, and they think the local groups cannot do it as well. There may also be a lack of a forum for the honest exchange of ideas, opinions and views about the way things are done. These forums need to include how partnerships could reflect a peer relationship rather than the trainer-trainee or donor-recipient relationship and how to practically "map out" the transition from more foreign initiatives that locals can join to more local initiatives with foreigners partnering.
This is just the beginning. We need to have a forum in the near future to work through this transition period in steps since different regions, sectors and churches have varying degrees of ability, resources, experience, vision, skills and passion for His work. This would be a good follow-up to the recent discussions we had.
Image credit: Pingyao, China by Álvaro Verdoy, on Flickr