Since the 1980s, Christians overseas have been in contact with the Chinese church for more than 30 years. We have witnessed both the rapid growth of the church in China and the dramatic changes in Chinese society. Today, China has become the world's second largest economy with the potential to become a nation with the world's largest Christian population. What can overseas Christians do for China? What does today's Chinese church need from us?
Through questionnaires and interviews conducted by the China Gospel Research Alliance (see “Perceptions and Priorities of Christian Leaders in China”), we found two particularly significant points.
First, China’s churches are eager to have “company.” In the early ‘80s, churches overseas worked intensely to help rebuild the Chinese church in response to its recovery needs and to help the elderly preachers and Christian leaders who survived the trials and sufferings of the Cultural Revolution. Whenever an opportunity to enter mainland China was available, they would take with them Bibles and other spiritual books as well as curricula used in western and overseas seminaries, which greatly helped establish and grow the Chinese church.
With the restoration of church activities came the challenge of a lack of qualified and well-trained preachers. In the 1980s and 90s, as China slightly opened its door to the western world, “training Chinese preachers” became the most important ministry that the churches overseas provided. In those days, any curriculum used by churches overseas—especially in Chinese seminaries and Chinese church Sunday Schools—could be sent to China as “training" materials.
However, "training" was only a short-term, stopgap measure to cope with an urgent need. In the past two or three decades, the biggest change in mainland Chinese society has been urbanization. Increased Internet usage has also brought cultural changes in the Chinese people's way of living. Chinese churches have also moved their sphere of activity from rural areas to the cities. A new generation of Chinese church leaders also has shifted from entirely rural folks with little education to well-educated urban young people. The latter are not only eager to pursue a formal seminary degree, either in the motherland or overseas, they also expect to receive formal training and accreditation-worthy learning.
Nevertheless, this seminary training cannot substitute for their own reflection on present-day church practices. Simply introducing courses from overseas will impact how the Chinese church develops. However, for Chinese preachers who have received training from the West and Chinese seminaries overseas, the challenges they encounter in their ministries cannot be resolved in ways based upon their predecessors’ experiences. Quite naturally, they seek help and wisdom from the overseas resources that are familiar to them. This is the primary reason that Chinese Christian preachers long for the company of a mature and experienced pastor from overseas. The question is, however, are the pastoral colleagues from overseas prepared to deal with their issues? Are they willing to be humble, to devote themselves to understanding all the issues mainland Chinese churches encounter including: societal, and economical, as well as the unique cultural and theological implications?
Second, in addition to providing training, Christians overseas have also helped China’s church with financial support. When China first opened its doors, its society was barren. Everyone was generally poor, but the country preachers were even more so. Therefore, Christians overseas discovered that it was not only beneficial for them to support the Chinese preachers’ basic living expenses, but by doing so they could also effectively help those who devote themselves to full-time ministry. Looking back, the generous giving of Christians overseas has played a positive role in the revival of the Chinese church and the spread of the gospel.
However, with rapid economic growth and urbanization over the past years, the old—and once major—agricultural economy has disintegrated. Although social wealth is very unevenly distributed, the move into cities is the trend of modern Chinese churches. As a result, the expectations of Chinese churches and Christians for overseas financial support have also changed dramatically. In addition, Christians overseas have also begun to question if the Chinese church still needs financial support.
Due to the uneven development of urbanization, the disparity between rich and poor is great. Full-time pastors and grassroots city churches are still struggling. Today's Chinese churches are beginning to learn how to plant city churches and engage in cross-cultural missions in the community as well as how to establish Christian schools for children. These new and wonderful ministries require capital funding. Therefore, we should not think that the urbanization of the Chinese church means that it no longer needs financial help. However, Christians overseas should also note that there has been a fundamental change in how to support China’s churches. Before becoming involved, know your options.
First, whether for full or partial investment, overseas funds should not be used to help finance the purchase of church properties in the cities. This is not only because the Chinese property market is far more in demand than that overseas, but because of the practical ramifications. A Chinese church does not have a legitimate social identity to purchase property and can only do so through private individuals. In the event of national policy changes, the issue of property rights will come to the forefront.
Second, Christians overseas should try to avoid using economic means to help the children of Chinese pastors study abroad. This can lead to church divisions and mar the reputation of the pastors.The financial support for urban pastors from Christians overseas should be based on practical considerations, and support from within the Chinese churches should always be encouraged. The high cost of living in the city is a social problem, but the Chinese church needs to learn to sustain itself and not rely on funds from overseas to supply the cost of living of its own pastor.
In supporting the Chinese church’s cross-cultural missions, the primary emphasis of Christian overseas should be coaching with financial support as secondary. Do not prematurely transplant young missionary recruits and then use monetary support to attract more Chinese to become missionaries outside their country in the hope of sending out more Chinese Christians as overseas missionaries.
Since the era of the apostles, the church has become universal. No matter how the Chinese church has developed, it still needs to interact with the church around the world. In these interactions, be they positive or negative, Christians overseas need to understand the essence of these exchanges as well as how the Chinese church views them.