Supporting Article

The “Wenzhou Model” and Missions from China

The revival of China’s “Back to Jerusalem” vision in the 1990s and the development of the Belt and Road Initiative over the past decade have piqued the interest of global mission leaders regarding the prospect of a significant missions movement from China. Wenzhou Christians, who have been planting churches throughout China and abroad for decades, stand out as a possible example of what the Chinese missions movement could become, prompting the question of whether the “Wenzhou Model” might be key to the future of such a movement.

As Qing Quan points out in his analysis of the model, there is much to be appreciated. Business provides a natural means of financial support and a legitimate platform for entry into a culture, and it can open doors of influence. The circuit system used to supply speakers, teachers, and ministry trainers to churches around China has provided the infrastructure for programs and resources developed by Wenzhou churches to be shared widely. The sheer willingness to strike out into regions unknown, necessitated originally by their need to venture beyond the mountains surrounding Wenzhou in order to make a living, has given them resilience and courage, important qualities for anyone undertaking pioneering mission work.

On the other hand, some of the same strengths that have combined to create such a cohesive yet flexible mission force can also be problematic. The Wenzhou dialect is notoriously difficult. Although Wenzhou believers have sought to use Mandarin in outreach to migrants within Wenzhou and in their activities elsewhere, language remains a barrier. Successfully getting to the field and remaining there are important hurdles to effective missions activity, but overcoming these is just the beginning. While Wenzhou Christians may be able to go everywhere, once they get there they do not necessarily reach out beyond their tribe. Qing takes issue with Cao Nanlai’s sociological treatment of Wenzhou’s “boss Christians,” but he also acknowledges that this merchant mentality continues to pervade some Wenzhou churches, preventing effective sharing of leadership and succession to younger pastors.

Furthermore, while business provides support and opens doors, it can also be a liability. If the business were to be perceived as detrimental to the local economy, or as having poor working conditions or providing faulty products or services, the integrity of the Christian message could suffer. China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) may offer pathways for Christians to engage in missional business abroad, but a backlash against Chinese influence—already materializing in some BRI target countries—might make the Christians unwelcome. Cross-cultural workers from China need to consider the possibility that tension between their national identity and their identity as Christians could undermine their mission efforts.

Qing’s observation that the feet of merchants follow the opportunities of business suggests another potential drawback of the “Wenzhou Model.” What if business opportunities in a given locale dry up due to changes in the local economy or government policy, even as the gospel ministry is yielding fruitful results? How will future mission efforts be sustained? This would be particularly problematic in the case of cross-cultural workers sent out by a local church that does not have abundant financial resources and is thus counting on the business to support their missionaries.

Finally, as Qing so lucidly explains, the success story of Wenzhou is the product of its unique geography, history, and culture. These have combined to create a particular entrepreneurial spirit that enables Wenzhou Christians to go anywhere and thrive anywhere, to find and exploit opportunities, to operate with political savvy, and to support one another through a global network of relationships. Christians elsewhere in China engaging in missions would do well to appreciate these attributes and learn from them; yet, they cannot necessarily emulate them. In other words, the “Wenzhou Model” may be admirable or even instructive, but it cannot be replicated.

The “Good Neighbor” missiology Qing proposes may be helpful in addressing some of the shortcomings not only of Wenzhou missions but of China’s mission movement as a whole. Seeing mission no longer as an activity but as an expression of God’s character requires rethinking the relationship between “us” and “them,” between “friend” and “enemy.” It redirects attention from doing mission to being the people of God. It is also a reminder that the Great Commission is for all of Christ’s followers, not just the professional missionaries. Finally, the idea of the good neighbor as “one who journeys” speaks to the need for missionaries not only to be willing to travel geographically, but, more importantly, to conquer the geography of their own hearts. I recall years ago listening to an overseas Chinese mission leader as he addressed a group of mission-minded pastors from China, along with a handful of recruiters and trainers from international sending agencies. Much had already been said during their two days together about building sending structures, creating sustainable platforms, mobilizing financial support, and training workers. In his closing remarks this mission leader reminded his audience that the longest journey to be made is not between the local church and the field. Rather it is a journey of the heart, the voyage beyond the security of one’s own culture and into unknown, even hostile, territory. Christ’s parable of the Good Samaritan is an invitation to follow him on this journey.

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Brent Fulton

Brent Fulton

Brent Fulton is the founder of ChinaSource. Dr. Fulton served as the first president of ChinaSource until 2019. Prior to his service with ChinaSource, he served from 1995 to 2000 as the managing director of the Institute for Chinese Studies at Wheaton College. From 1987 to 1995 he served as founding …View Full Bio