There is a growing trend for groups of churches in a city or region to partner together to develop a strategy for effective ministry. Recently a group of churches did just that and choose to focus their ministry efforts on one city in China. Here is an interview with a church leader who has been part of the process.
ChinaSource (CS): Have you had a growing personal interest in China?
Church Leader (CL): Yes, I’ve been interested in China since the 1970s when one of my high school classmates started talking about China. I have lived vicariously through him over the years as he made it his lifelong interest to be a bridge between China and the West. Through him, I have learned about the needs of China and the amazing work that God is doing there. My wife and I have also hosted Chinese students in our home over the years, but I had never personally visited China until last year. I’ve now been to China three times since May 2002.
CS: Are you in ministry full time?
CL: No. I am a businessman. I worked for U.S. Agency for International Development in Washington D.C. for several years before moving to help with a family business. I’ve been involved with several start-up businesses since then.
CS: How did the partnership for China first begin to develop?
CL: The partnership grew out of the Perspectives on the World Christian Movement course. My wife and I took the course eight years ago and I have been helping coordinate the course ever since. Over those eight years, we have had over 600 students from probably 40 different churches in the area take the course. A natural byproduct of the course has been mission pastors, mission committee people, church members and businessmen different churches asking questions like, “Hey, what are you doing in missions; what is your mission strategy? Are there areas where we could work together on a missions’ project? How about a joint, short-term mission trip?” We decided to form the Harvest Network as a way to foster greater collaboration and cross pollination of mission ideas. We can accomplish something in missions together that we could never do as individual churches. We probably have 12 core churches from different denominations participating right now with several others interested once we are further along with our plans.
CS: Why did your network decide to focus on China?
CL: To advance the concept of different churches working together, we needed a good first project—one that would creatively capture our churches’ interests, while meeting needs overseas and in our community. We began to kick around ideas and discovered a shared interest in China. A number of our churches were seeking ways to get involved in China. We had a prominent Chinese house church leader visit the area. He really challenged and inspired us. For a Perspectives class, we had representatives from a ministry organization who gave a great overview of the suffering, yet victorious house church movement in China. They showed us practical ways to come alongside the church in China and help. We also have a number of families in the area who have adopted Chinese children through a local Christian adoption agency. Through these and other connections, God was pointing us toward China.
CS: How did you go about developing a strategic focus for China?
CL: China is a big place! We realized that if we were going to be effective, we needed to focus. We decided that we wanted to focus on one city in one province. That way, our churches could have a sense of ownership. There would be a specific city and region to know and pray for. We could send people on repeat trips to the same place to grow deeper in our involvement and relationships. We are interested in developing relationships where there will actually be two-way interaction. A firm conviction of ours is that God is just as interested in what the Chinese church can do to help us as He is in how we might serve them. In order to create an environment where we rub elbows and really get to know one another, we had to focus.
We began researching the various regions in China to determine where the needs were the greatest and where we could realistically have some positive impact. We asked a lot of people who have much more experience in China about where would be a good place. We learned where the house church movements have a strong urban presence. We researched educational and business climates knowing that several of our churches are interested in those areas. We even asked our Chinese house church contacts where they wanted us to focus. We sent teams to China twice to visit several cities and learn as much as possible. On our most recent trip in March 2003, we took seven people from three different churches to visit four cities in western/ central China. We had narrowed down our focus to inland cities in the poorer western/central regions of China. In each city, we made contact with local Chinese believers, local Western ministry representatives and Chinese government, university and business leaders.
CS: Why did you decide on the city that you chose?
CL: We all felt a strong leading to our focus city for several reasons. One was that it was very needy spiritually, but there were some exciting things beginning to happen. Several house church movements had recently seen a great increase in meeting places in the city and on university campuses. While there are only a few Westerners in the city, they were beginning to see some real fruit to their ministry. We want to go to a place where the Spirit of God is at work. We want simply to join in His work, hopefully adding “fuel to the fire” and not getting in the way!
Another reason for selecting our focus city was the openness, and even eagerness, of the city officials in attracting business and investment. This city is one of the cities featured in China’s “Go West” campaign, so there are a number of great incentives in place for foreign businesses and investors. There are a number of national and provincial development zones created in and around the city, including a High-tech Industrial Development Zone, which is one of China’s highest priority zones today. We were impressed with the enthusiasm and detailed plans of the government and business officials with whom we met.
Another factor was the strong educational environment. The city has a large number of universities and colleges and claims to be among China’s top five cities for technology, research and educational strength.
All of these reasons, along with the fact that there are nice tourist attractions nearby, led us to our decision. We believe the city offers ample opportunity for our matrix ministry approach.
CS: What do you mean by matrix ministry approach?
CL: Because we have so many churches as a part of our partnership, we recognize that each church has different skills, abilities and interest in ministry. Not everyone will be doing the same thing. Some are interested in working with university students, whether through student/professor exchanges, English language training, American business lectures or other academic and professional lectures. Others are interested in charity work, perhaps among orphanages, migrant worker children, widows or the elderly. Job training and business entrepreneurism are needed to help with the large unemployment problem. Still others are interested in creating businesses in the city, either as foreign owned businesses or helping Chinese start their own businesses. There are opportunities to source manufacturing in the city that will establish a great presence while possibly creating jobs for local Chinese believers. Finally, our overall goal is to help strengthen the Chinese House Church movements through discipleship, training and targeted resources. All of our churches want to help in this area, but we realize the sensitive security issues involved.
Imagine a matrix with different ministry interests across the top and different churches along the sides. One or two of our churches will probably want to be involved in all areas of ministry, but most will only want to focus in one or two areas. Some may only want to commit to prayer for the city and our work there. That’s great. We have identified prayer as one of the matrix ministries. A group might go on a short-term trip to simply walk around the city and pray. In many ways, that may be the most important work we can do.
We are also including mechanisms in the matrix ministry for the Chinese believers to invest in our lives as well.
CS: How do you see the church in China helping you in the States?
CL: This is the part of our partnership that most excites me. I am convinced that God is bringing us together with our brothers and sisters in China for mutual edification. The church in China has strengths and weaknesses just like the church in the West has strengths and weaknesses. What I have learned in my limited exposure to China is that where the Chinese house church is strong, the church in the West is weak, and where the Chinese house church is weak, the church in the West is strong. There is an inverse relationship of our strengths and weaknesses. By coming together we can mutually encourage and help each other in our areas of weakness. When Paul writes about the body of Christ in 1 Corinthians 12, we tend to think he is talking about the different parts within a local church. While that might apply, the passage also refers to the universal Body of Christ, the global Church. Different local churches have different gifts, services and workings. Only when different local churches begin to work together will the entire body be functioning properly.
So how can the church in China realistically help us? I think a lot will happen simply through relationship. By spending time together we will learn from one another. We plan to pursue education and business exchanges where some Chinese from the focus city can come to the States for a visit. We hope to bring to the States some representatives of the Chinese churches who can speak into our lives out of their perspective and experiences. We would like to facilitate the contextualized translation of writings and training materials from the Chinese house church movements to be introduced into our churches for spiritual challenge, encouragement and edification. In the West, we tend to think that we have all the best training materials, but I suspect we could learn a lot from some of the training materials the Chinese House churches have developed.
CS: What are your next steps?
CL: Another trip to China. We are planning a fall trip to our focus city with a larger representation of the Harvest Network. We still need to learn more about who from the West is already working in the city so we can identify possible ministry partners. We know we can’t possibly be very effective if we don’t have help from others who are already on the ground and working in the city and region. We are inviting others who are currently in the States with much greater knowledge and experience in China to come to our city and help us think through our next steps.
We are looking for one or two ministry areas as initial start-up areas. A businessman from our network was in China in June visiting our focus city and exploring some business opportunities. I have a hunch we will start with some kind of business presence and charity effort. This summer we are forming a prayer group to undergird our vision, plans and next steps with prayer. We don’t want to get ahead of God! We want to follow His leading in this. We realize that we could easily mess this up by too eagerly charging ahead as Americans can do!