The Impact of Family Issues on Chinese Missionaries

Thinking Through an Approach to Spouse- and Children-Needs of Chinese Missionaries

From the series Missions from China—A Maturing Movement

Chinese Christians feel God calling them to long-term mission service. Attrition rates of Chinese missionaries are high, however, and a number of difficulties—including needs of the nuclear family—hinder Chinese missionary sustainability. In this article, I will review issues related to the needs of the Chinese missionary spouse and children. Flowing from fresh research in this area, from the perspective of some prospective and currently serving Chinese missionaries, I will forward thoughts regarding an approach to meeting these needs. While listening to the entreaties of Chinese mission-minded Christians, I will attempt to keep in mind both the current realities of underdeveloped mission-sending organizational infrastructure in China and data related to the member care experience of the Western sending church.

As part of a study examining causes of Chinese missionary attrition, I recently interviewed eleven[1] Chinese long-term missionaries[2] using a questionnaire developed by the World Evangelical Fellowship.[3] I also conducted three focus groups with a total of 14 Chinese doctors who had previously participated in short-term mission service. Finally, I conducted a survey of Chinese physicians and medical students who were interested in missions in order to better understand a variety of issues important to prospective Chinese medical missionaries. In this article, I will focus on data in the research findings related to the Chinese missionary nuclear family.

The Missionary Spouse

Chinese missionary couples commonly face marital stress brought on by ministry demands. Disagreements between spouses can drain a missionary of the strength needed to minister (MI#9).[4]  One couple acknowledged quarreling to such a degree that their marriage seemed threatened (MI#4, 11). Unity of vision (MI#1, 4, 11), an agreement to serve together for the purpose of mission (MI#6), and a reliance on God’s word all served to strengthen couples for shared ministry (MI#1).

It was the general consensus among focus-group-physician participants that long-term missionary service would be easier for an unmarried person (FG#4, 6). However, issues of loneliness would then need to be addressed. For married couples, there should be agreement between husband and wife, with a shared vision regarding a long-term call to mission. The principal needs of a spouse were identified as work opportunity allowing the spouse to integrate into the local society (FG#6, 8, 11), along with a sense of fulfillment or meaningfulness (FG#8). Without these, participants felt that if one person in a marriage felt more strongly called to mission, that person would suffer from a guilty conscience.

If the spouse does not agree [to the mission], and if the two of you do not work on the same thing, then you will feel you have ruined your spouse’s future. So you’re going to feel a lot of pressure. (FG#6)

In a survey of ten important variables to physicians contemplating missionary service, “Spouse employment and needs” only ranked behind “Growing in my relationship with God” and “Safety” in importance, and ahead of “practicing medicine” and obtaining “spiritual support by pastoral care in a mission-sending organization.”[5]

Figure 2: Rank Order of the Means for All Mainland Chinese Physicians Participants[6]

The Missionary’s Children

Children-related issues revolve principally around educational concerns (MI#1,4, 5, 11). Often in the countries and areas where Chinese missionaries serve, educational opportunities are limited (MI#2). One family sent their children to a private school, because standards in the local education system were low. These children had the opportunity to study in either Arabic or English, and the parents chose English (MI#2). Another family sent their children to an international school, but this required them to take up residence some distance from their field of service, with the whole family commuting to the target mission community on weekends. The mother became an employee of the international school to obtain tuition waivers for the children, but this decision invoked criticism from supporters for “sacrificing the ministry” in order to send children to “a luxury school” (MI#11). Purchasing school materials and textbooks (MI#5), providing financially for multiple children (MI#8), unavailability of appropriately trained medical care (MI#1), and balancing ministry and family commitments (MI#6) were other issues mentioned by the interviewed Chinese missionaries in connection with the needs of their children.

For focus group participants, the obligation to provide for children was identified as a greater priority than any mission service (FG#14). Though there was openness to the possibility that others might at times substitute as helpers for the needs of the aging parents of missionaries, no substitute was deemed adequate for the needs of children (FG#8). Financial provision and education were identified as the primary parental responsibilities (FG#5, 8, 9, 12, 14). Focus group participants felt obligated as missionaries to earn enough money to support their children until they could attend university (FG#14).

Focus group participants raised further concerns about the ability to educate children while serving in missions (FG#9). Possible solutions that surfaced during discussion included utilizing local schools (FG#5) when appropriate, and home schooling (FG#8). Home schooling, with parents directly supervising children, was felt to be a good option through the middle school years. Afterwards, Internet courses, or a return to China for children’s educational needs were offered as options (FG#8). One focus group participant was concerned that study abroad might hamper a high school student’s ability to participate in the Chinese university entrance examination (FG#9). Another participant, however, cited a personally known situation where a local school allowed a student to maintain school registration while home schooling (FG#8).

In a survey of Chinese Christian medical professionals who were interested in missions (including physicians, nurses, etc.), respondents actually ranked the needs of missionary children higher than the needs of missionary parents. This is a revealing finding, especially in light of the high value Chinese culture traditionally places on children responsibly caring for their parents. As evidenced by the volume and breadth of discussion on this issue in the focus groups, participants felt that the needs of their children must be addressed if Chinese medical professionals were to participate in long-term missions.

Family Issues—Can a Mission Sending Organization Help?

Among missionary interviewees and focus group participants, there was some hope that a Chinese-mission-sending organization[7] might potentially help with some of the complexities of caring for a family on the mission field. Focus group participants expressed hope that a mission-sending organization might help with family related needs. Assistance in finding meaningful work for a spouse would be appreciated (FG#12) as would plans to address children’s education needs (FG#8). There is, however, room for some skepticism that a China-based church or mission-sending organization can in the short-run, or even in the long-run, provide comprehensive answers to family-related challenges.

In the short-run, high expectations of a mission-sending organization may be difficult to meet. Mission-sending organization in China is still at an early stage of development. Chinese churches have only recently (especially in the last five to ten years) begun indigenous mission-sending organizational development. Further, it is difficult for prospective missionary candidates to locate the mission-sending organization that is in development (MI#3, 4, 5, 10, 12). This may be due to government concerns forcing such organization to operate quietly “underground.” In my interviews with the eleven missionaries, I did not encounter a single missionary that was sent from an indigenous, independent, non-church-based sending organization. Indeed, some of those interviewed who were functioning independently asked me to connect them with any such available mission-sending organization if I should come across working models (MI#4, 12).

In the long-run, although Chinese mission-sending organization might help with some family-related concerns, available literature from Western missionary experience suggests that mission-sending organizational member care support is only effective up to a point. According to the study, Reducing Missionary Attrition (ReMAP), provision of member care was associated with decreased Preventable Attrition Rate (PAR). Notably, however, once a mission agency’s time and money spent on member care exceeded a certain level (6% for the “Older Sending Countries”), PAR actually increased.[8] “Newer Sending Countries” that were studied spent a larger percentage of their resources on member care (though the absolute dollar amount was less), but still had increasing PAR when total staff time at home and on the field rose above 10-20%.[9] Increasing the amount of supervision and support for missionaries did not appear to be a decisive factor in decreasing PAR, according to ReMAP. Some member care items (conferences, regular visits on the field, etc.) were actually associated with a higher PAR as single items. In fact, in the ReMAP study, the only area where member care and support for the missionary showed a clear positive effect was in the area of supportive letter writing and phone calls.[10]

In light of short-term realities and long-term considerations, perhaps the most that can be said at the present time is that the Chinese church, and any developing Chinese mission-sending organizational infrastructure, should maintain wide latitude for individual missionary decision making in regards to how missionaries meet spouse- and children-needs. A broad and understanding attitude on the part of missionary senders in the context of mutual trust between missionaries and senders may go far in allowing Chinese missionaries to bend, but not break, in their field experiences.

The missionary, for his or her part, may need to develop realistic expectations related to what member care can do from China, whether through a church, or through a developing mission-sending organization. One missionary interviewee, when reviewing the long list of possible reasons for attrition taken from the instrument developed by the World Evangelical Fellowship[11] had such realistic expectations. He asserted that a mission-sending organization is not a substitute for the guidance of the Holy Spirit, nor is it a “magic box” from which all answers flow and all needs are met. Having a mission-sending agency does not guarantee that “all will be fine” (MI#2).  He said, “Any reason from here . . . is there anything that God’s will inside me cannot cope with that issue? Nothing will block you except death” (MI#2). Although mission-sending organizations can help with some spouse- and children-related member care issues, much of the impetus for resolving difficulties faced by the Chinese missionary’s spouse and children must come from the Chinese missionaries themselves.




  1. ^ One Taiwanese missionary was interviewed as well making the total number of interviewees 12. She was the spouse of a Chinese missionary.
  2. ^ I define a long-term Chinese missionary as a missionary from mainland China who has served cross-culturally in or outside China for more than six months.
  3. ^ Elkins et al., Three Part Missionary Tracking Guide. WEA: Missions Commission, 2003.
  4. ^ Missionary Interviewees are identified by a number, i.e. MI#1.Focus Group interviewees are also identified by a number, i.e. FG#1.
  5. ^ Si Shi (四石), GJ, and Lo Qi, 罗七, “Financial Expectations of Prospective Chinese Medical Missionaries: Understanding the Financial Backdrop to Chinese Medical Mission Sending” ChinaSource, March 16 2017,
  6. ^ undefined
  7. ^ More will be said in subsequent articles about both the need for and the current state of development of Chinese mission-sending organizational infrastructure.
  8. ^ Detlef Blocher and Jonathan Lewis, “Further Findings ln the Research Data.” In Too Valuable to Lose: Exploring the Causes and Cures of Missionary Attrition, edited by William D. Taylor. Pasadena, CA: William Carey Library, 1997, p. 112.
  9. ^ Blocher and Lewis, p. 111. 
  10. ^ Ibid.
  11. ^ Elkins et el.
Header image credit: We are family by Matthias Ripp via Flickr. 
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GJ (pseudonym) is a doctor working in China.View Full Bio

Si Shi (四石)

Si Shi (pseudonym) has lived in China for more than five years and has many friends who work in the medical profession.View Full Bio