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The Indigenous Mission Movement from China

A Current Assessment


The Real Chinese Missionary

Since the term was reintroduced in the mid-1990s, the so-called Back to Jerusalem (BTJ) movement has drawn much debate. Most of these discussions have been held in conferences, smaller groups and closed-door events rather than through literature. There have not been many reports on the overall movement. The most comprehensive overview is from the ChinaSource quarterly journal which devoted its entire spring 2006 issue to the topic.

In the early years of the discussion, a good number of China ministry workers and researchers, based on their personal experiences and projection, openly questioned the validity of the BTJ claim of 100,000 missionaries already sent (or ready to be sent) from China.1 In hindsight, after more than ten years, it can be safely concluded that such concern is indeed valid. The 100,000 figure is an inflated and unrealistic figure for the year 2000, even today. The logic is simple. Had there been 100,000 missionaries ready to go, workers in the field would have observed a few thousand of them in various locations during the intervening years. However, in the last ten years, workers in the field did not see any evidence that supported such a figure.

In spite of this, the newly published Future of the Global Church still refers to a similar figure. One wonders if the definition has been changed in the middle of the game. In the early days of the discussion, the working definition of Chinese missionaries followed that of classical missiology as proposed by people like Ralph Winter. Mission was defined as cross-cultural ministry to an unreached people group. Everyone engaged in the discussion, including the church in China, was using this as the definition, even the promoters of the BTJ movement.

A missionary (in Chinese xuan jiao shi) is one working cross-culturally, not an itinerant evangelist (in Chinese xun hui chuan dao ren) who practices "preaching as he/she travels." In other words, an itinerant evangelist sent to serve in another part of China within the same culture, even if such an assignment is a long-term assignment, is not counted as a missionary by the Chinese church at large. He or she should not be counted as such by others, including BTJ.

Indeed, it will be much more helpful for the community to follow the same standards of counting missionaries as in Korea and the West. A missionary is someone who is committed to serving cross-culturally for long-term service, excluding any short-term-mission participants.

It is important for the community to agree on the definition of "missionary." Otherwise, such a high number of "missionaries" will only cause confusion. It will imply a very mature movement, a notion no one involved in China ministry can wholeheartedly support. Furthermore, the fog over the number of missionaries sent from China should be eliminated so that the Body of Christ worldwide can understand the sending situation in China properly.

Survey of Recent Activities

The high-profile triumphalist call is not the only voice or activity. Even as the BTJ movement peaked and waned, there was a steady stream of others, both inside and outside of China, who worked to facilitate the sending of missionaries from China. These workers had varying backgrounds, from both international and overseas Chinese mission agencies. They included Westerners and overseas Chinese, but all had significant China ministry experience. Some had served for many years among minority people groups; others had long experience in leadership development in China; yet others had been active with mobilization for China. However, all had a burden to see China sending out cross-cultural workers in response to the Great Commission. They did not want to operate under the label of the Back to Jerusalem movement for the reasons mentioned earlier. Instead, different labels were used, such as "Sending Cross-cultural Workers from China" or "China as a Sending Country." They have all preferred to work in a low-profile, minimal publicity manner.

Throughout the last decade, most of these workers have developed their own focus of ministry within the entire spectrum of "China as a Sending Country." Some taught and trained prospective missionaries; others organized short-term mission teams. Several explored the possibility of forming a mission agency in China. Although there were no formal partnerships created, there were opportunities for these people to meet in various conferences allowing for significant networking and a sharing of resources.

Now, after many years of steady effort, there have been some exciting breakthroughs.2 These breakthroughs cover many aspects of missions.

  • Several mission training programs are emerging. These are not just one or two courses on introduction to missions imbedded in a standard pastoral leadership development curriculum but are more formal mission training programs for aspiring missionaries. They can last anywhere from six to twenty-four months and are the academic equivalent of a certificate or degree program in the West.
  • Other shorter training programs focusing on special aspects of missionary training have been offered in the last few years. These are typically three months long and cover topics ranging from cross-cultural internship to Bible translation to prefield evaluation of missionaries. Today, some of these programs are indigenized, administered and taught by Chinese nationals.
  • Many networks are organizing weekend mission conferences for a group of churches rather than just one or two individual churches having a missions Sunday.
  • Prayer meetings and prayer conferences for missions are held regularly.
  • The mechanics of organizing short-term mission teams have been well tested and are practiced in many cities. Short-term teams to international destinations as well as minority groups in China are quite common. Even new models of short-term missions are being tested such as a multiple-week driving vision trip to visit minority people groups.3
  • Several groups have developed basic frameworks for their own sending structures and are poised to send large groups of workers.
  • Training curriculum on missions for the laity are offered and replicated in China.

All these are grass-root movements, led by national church leaders with minimal input from either expatriates or overseas Chinese.

Building Blocks for a Mission Movement from China

In order for China to be fully engaged as a mission-sending country, several important building blocks must be developed.

First, there has never been a proper label given to this phenomenon. Back to Jerusalem is not adequate to describe the movement nor is it acceptable to most participants. The focus is not Jerusalem; the focus is fulfillment of the Great Commission. Without a commonly acceptable label, there cannot be any meaningful discussion and development. The name Indigenous Mission Movement from China, shortened to IMM from China, has been suggested and seems to be acceptable to the community.

In addition to the name IMM from China, an appropriate missiology also needs to be developed. There are two main streams of missiology today: open-access-nation (OAN) and creative-access-nation (CAN). These were originally developed in the 80s and 90s. They define missiology based on whether the missionary-receiving field is open to mission activities or not. The fundamental theology used for these two streams is a theology of harvest or a theology of sowing respectively. Both assume mobilization and recruitment in the sending base can be done openly with no government restrictions.

However, neither of these two missiologies is applicable to China where mobilization for missions can only be done discretely. China is still a CAN country according to the classical definition of the term. Furthermore, the context of world missions is very different from the traditional model of sending only from the West. As expressed through the Lausanne movement, missions is "from everywhere to everywhere." Thus, it is appropriate to define a new missiology for sending from China. A proper label for this is "from CAN to All the World," shortened to CANTALL missiology. This missiology will establish how to do missions in the context of sending from a CAN country to all the world. Particular questions such as doing mobilization discretely and government restrictions on the sending base need to be addressed. To express this in another way, OAN and CAN missiology are both field-based missiology. China needs a mobilization-based missiologya CANTALL missiology.

The third building block is to establish a network between the Body of Christ in China and the worldwide Body of Christ. IMM from China cannot be done solely by China without reference to the mission activities of the worldwide Body of Christ; the church in China needs to work with the global church. Such connections are beginning to develop, not just for urban churches in China with exposure to the world but also for rural networks. What is more exciting is the emergence of a new generation of mission leaders who have gone outside of China to study missions and are now actively engaged in leadership both on the field and at the home front.

The Reality of IMM from China

Given these developments, the global church may be very tempted to jump on the bandwagon. However, the same warnings voiced in earlier articles in the ChinaSource quarterly must be repeated here.4 They were raised seven or eight years ago, yet they are still applicable today.

In recent months, there were some rather high profile announcements from several prominent international agency leaders working with Back to Jerusalem and giving it significant public endorsement. However, front line workers from these same agencies are repeating the same concerns discussed years ago. Can BTJ really represent IMM from China? Can the leaders of BTJ speak for China?

The most significant contribution from the global Body of Christ is to pray. Most Western agencies (and Korean as well) are much more interested in actual involvement. However, could it be that the outsider's role is limited to prayer support, allowing national leaders to lead IMM from China at their own pace? That was how the church in China grew in the 50s, 60s and 70swith no foreign intrusion but only the working of God.

Expatriates must resist the temptation of financing IMM from China with outside money. Dependency will kill IMM from China. Many outside agencies, out of good will, are paying for entire training curricula. Participation in a three-month training program outside of China can be presented in two very different ways. It can be promoted as a cross-cultural training program only for those who are serious about missions, or it can be misrepresented as an all-expense-paid visit to a foreign country. The former will draw high caliber candidates committed to missions; the latter will only attract people with little understanding of missions and much less commitment. Several of the training programs outside of China are facing this significant challenge. They are heavily subsidized. They do not lack students, but they do not have the quality students such training requires. Many of the students are clearly not interested in missions. Indeed, the case can be made for requiring students in these training programs to demonstrate their commitment by paying for the cost, or a portion of it, commensurate with their financial ability.

Pieces of the jigsaw puzzle are falling into place. The picture is slowly coming into focus. There are positive indicators that give us hope and the expectation that IMM from China will become a reality. Outside of the traditional Western sending bases, there has been significant sending from Asia (Korea and India), Latin America (the COMIBAM movement) and even Africa (the MANI movement). We long for the day when missionaries from China will work in international teams. We long for the day when the unreached world, thinking of a missionary, will see a Chinese face working alongside Caucasians, Asians, Iberians and Africans.

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1 See, for example, Sam Chiang's review of the Back to Jerusalem Movement book in WEA's Connection Magazine, 2005. He states: " many China church watchers have become resoundingly concerned with the claims of this movement." The spring 2006 issue of the ChinaSource quarterly details such concerns.

2 Due to security concerns, no specific details about these developments can be openly identified.

3 A personal driving tour in China is not such a far-fetched idea today. See, for example, the experience of a non-Christian expatriate driving through the countryside in China in Country Driving by Peter Hessler.

4 See the fall 2005 and spring 2006 issues of the China Source quarterly. The reader is encouraged to get these back issues and read them in detail.

Image Credit: Glenn Herr

Yi Du Kam

Yi Du Kam (pseudonym) has extensive Chinese ministry experience and now works with multiethnic teams in China. View Full Bio