Supporting Article

The Heart Cries of Frontline Workers in Muslim Countries

Interviews by the Guest Editor


For this issue of the ChinaSource Quarterly, the guest editor conducted interviews with frontline workers. They were asked to reflect upon the struggles they faced when they first went out as missionaries sent from China and to share the challenges they met with. Most serve in a Muslim context. The following summaries are based on their input. 

The issues Chinese missionaries face can be summarized along the following:

  • Orientation and cultural adaption,
  • Challenges faced by men, women, and families,
  • Financial considerations, especially related to ministry platform and member-care.

Orientation and Cultural Adaption

There are pressures from the external cultural context which result in internal conflict with adaptation. The religion of Islam is an all-encompassing way of life that permeates every aspect of the host cultural. This is much stronger than that of the Buddhist worldview. Traditional Chinese Confucian culture has done a good job of integrating the imported Buddhist religion into the Chinese context and worldview, effectively transforming the foreign religion into an indigenous Chinese religion. However, when it comes to the interaction between Islam and the Chinese worldview, Islam is able to hold its own ground firmly. Upon arrival on the field, missionaries found themselves struggling to adjust to the Muslim worldview. This has tremendous implications for how they conduct their life and ministry. A point of contention that some frontline workers feel particularly is how ministry by a single woman is accepted (or rather rejected) in the Islamic context. This will be discussed further in the next section.

Islam controls all aspects of the life of its followers and demands that everyone observe the Islamic way of living. This covers their expectations, their work, their lives, their interpersonal relationships, their marriages, and their families. In other words, it covers everything; nothing is excluded.   

This all-encompassing worldview creates a drastic change of role for the missionary’s life and ministry on the frontlines from what it had been in China. The result is a very strong tension in cultural adjustment. Very few missionaries are taught about such tension in their training and almost none have learned how to deal with it. The training they get, if any, is at most a theoretical treatment about cross-cultural tension, not any real experience at the level of intensity they are being thrown into. It is like learning how to swim on dry land in a classroom and then being dumped into a deep pool upon arrival on the field. 

One side effect of such external cultural tension is a manifestation of hidden personal issues not observed under normal circumstances. Many newly arrived missionaries from China find themselves behaving differently in their new environment. Problems such as interpersonal conflict, temper flare-ups, and other things that they can usually suppress begin to show up unexpectedly. Often, they show up about a year after arrival, just past the “honeymoon” period. This is a classic application of the Holmes-Rahe Stress Inventory. The typical missionary transition results in a stress level of about 150 out of a maximum of 300 on the scale. This is already approaching a dangerous level—a 50% chance of developing a physical ailment within two years. Additional stress such as an Islamic culture demands could be disastrous. Issues such as these need to be dealt with before arriving on the mission field.

Another challenge in cultural adaptation is language learning, particularly in the Middle East. Most urban dwellers can speak some English; however, in the countryside, almost everyone speaks only Arabic. For Chinese missionaries, both languages are difficult to learn. Intensifying the issue is that most Arabic language instruction is only available using English. Thus, currently the path to learning Arabic demands a certain fluency in English. This is a disadvantage for Chinese missionaries and there is no ready solution in sight.

The only practical long-term solution is to develop Chinese missionaries’ fluency in Arabic so that they can use it as a lingua franca with international team members and in ministry. This will solve two problems: it diminishes the need for fluency in English and at the same time makes it possible to develop an Arabic primer using Chinese as the teaching medium by Chinese workers gifted in language learning (similar resources already exist for Biblical Greek, Hebrew, and some modern languages).

Gender and Family Issues

In the Muslim culture, a single woman is not expected to work outside the home, much less be alone, by herself. Women, especially foreign women, who do not respect such cultural norms, will be perceived as promiscuous. A woman walking on the street by herself (in that culture, an act done only by prostitutes) is seen as inviting sexual advances by a man. However, the clear exception is a woman accompanied by children. This clearly signals a mother, not a sexually promiscuous woman.

Often children become gate openers for ministry opportunities, both for children’s ministry and in particular, for women’s ministry. Children will often provide a good cover for a ministry platform and draw less attention from the authorities.

However, children are not immune from discrimination from the locals in their schools. They also are exposed to harassment. Their own safety and security is a concern of theirs and, in particular, of their parents. Sending structures must address this issue from a member care angle and relieve such anxiety.

Additionally, the ministry experience most women in China have had will not have much application in a Muslim context. Most women, whether married or especially singles, will have to function in totally new roles and need to be prepared accordingly. Examples include women preaching or leading worship which they had done in China but would not be open to them in the Muslim world.

One surprising issue raised by one man was that of local Muslim women flirting with expatriate men walking alone on the street. This can easily draw a man into a comprising situation and moral temptation.

Financial Issues

Many missionaries face financial difficulty. They are being paid an allowance according to the cost of living in China. On the mission field, an allowance of US $300 a month per family will not sustain a family locally. Furthermore, support commitments need to be for the entire term of service, and preferably, mutually expected to be multi-term.

Very few missionaries receive a support level that takes into consideration their ministry platform. Indeed, living in a Muslim context requires a suitable platform. Without financial support to establish such a platform, whether a small business or a cultural center, the missionary is forced to use personal resources for such an investment. Furthermore, with inadequate financial support, the platform must generate income for the missionary’s livelihood.

Member care is an urgent felt need expressed by all missionaries. With so much stress facing the typical missionaries, both individually and with the family, it is important for them to attend member-care events. Yet, almost no sending structure allows these to be included in its fund-raising goal. An immediate solution is to use Chinese, member-care personnel from international agencies to serve at member-care events. There have been several such events organized, and they have been received very positively. Similar events are planned that will take place in the immediate future to address this need. 

During the coronavirus epidemic, member care for Chinese missionaries has been virtually non-existent. There have been only a few cases of emergency air ticket provision for missionaries to return to China as a contingency. With tickets estimated at US$4,000 or more per person, this can only be provided by emergency funds maintained by sending structures. What is even more alarming is that quite a few missionaries received no member-care phone calls (zero to two phone calls in most cases). This points out a much larger issue: How do China’s sending structures understand member care? There is still much more that needs to be done.

Conclusion

These interviews were conducted with only a small sample of missionaries. However, the issues brought out here are the heart cries of frontline workers—and desperately need to be addressed.

WU Xi

WU Xi (pseudonym) began serving China during the mid-70s, just before China’s Open Door policy was implemented. He served in many different capacities including working with Chinese scholars studying in the West, front-line evangelistic work, and church mobilization for China. He now focuses on developing China’s mission ecosystem.View Full Bio


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