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Vision or Vanity? What Are We Passing On?

Shortly after completing my formal language study in China, I was asked to step in at the last minute and provide English to Chinese translation for an international evangelist from the West who was addressing a group of 30 Chinese seminary students and pastors. His words were exhortatory and wide-ranging, and given that this was the late 1990s it wasn’t long before he spoke the magic words of the church-management gospel: “Without a vision, the people perish.” (Proverbs 29:18) Quoting from the poor translation of this passage found in the King James Version of the Bible, the evangelist was using this text in an attempt to say something meaningful about how Chinese pastors should lead their congregations.

This was the first time I had been asked to talk about what the Western business world means by vision in the Chinese context. I checked my little red dictionary (no on-line or mobile tools in those days!) and then looked up the verse in my Chinese Bible. I used the words in the Chinese Union Version for my translation, but as the speaker moved on to talk about vision casting and strategic planning, the frowns from the audience became more and more obvious. What he was saying—or perhaps my translation—was not speaking meaningfully to these Chinese believers. What was wrong?

The Chinese word used to translate the English term “vision” in the Union Version of Proverbs 29:18 is yixiang 异象. As is recognized by evangelical scholars today, the kind of “vision” talked about by the author of Proverbs in this passage is the kind of revelatory vision that contains a communication from God. The Union Version captures this sense well, as do other Chinese translations which rely on terms such as moshi 默示 (alternative Union reading), qishi 启示 (New Chinese Version), or shenyu 神谕 (Chinese Contemporary Bible) to capture the idea of messages supernaturally communicated from God to humankind. My difficulty, as I stood between the Western proponent of church management and those Chinese believers, was that this biblical kind of vision was emphatically not what the speaker was talking about.

At the time, I was unaware of a different term that eventually emerged from the Chinese fad for self-help and business leadership books: yixiang 意象. A true homophone with the word used in my Chinese Bible, this new word for vision replaces the “different, strange” character (异) of the compound Bible word with the character for “idea, meaning, intention” (意). A word not found in Chinese versions of the Bible, this second yixiang has now been co-opted to discuss what is meant by businessmen and leadership gurus when they talk about vision. Not so much a divine revelation of God, this is the exciting, forward-looking plan that sets the course for those who follow. It did not occur to me to use this word in that way all those years ago, nor was anyone in my audience aware of this usage at that time. So, the expatriate evangelist’s message was lost in translation.

China ministry in transition

Why spend so much time on this small and not too profound example from 15 years ago? Many observations could be made,1 but I am only interested in drawing attention to one aspect of this illustration: the difficulty involved in communicating the Western evangelist’s concept of “vision” to his Chinese Christian audience. As a Westerner seeking to serve the church in China, it is vital to always remember that ideas and concepts that in my mind appear to be essential components of the Christian faith, may in fact only be reflections of my own particular faith community’s captivity to its own cultural milieu. That is a loaded sentence, but the idea is simple: just because I think it is central to the Christian faith does not make it so for others, especially when there are cultural differences involved.

This point is of great importance for China ministry today as it faces a period of wonderful transition. I say wonderful because most of the pains and frustrations that China-focused ministries are facing today must be seen in light of some very exciting realities: the church across China is now an evangelistic powerhouse and has proven itself more than equal to the task of taking the gospel to its own people. For all the criticisms outsiders might wish to level against the inappropriate techniques and muddled messages of some of China’s homegrown evangelists, a simple comparison with the evangelistic effectiveness of contemporary Western churches reveals China’s evangelism for what it is: a miraculous blessing from God. At the same time, the Chinese church is experiencing kinds of development that are similar to those coursing through the rest of Chinese society. Sometimes faster, often somewhat behind the rest of Chinese society, these changes mean that the church in China now has more internal resources—financial, human, social and even political—than at anytime in living memory. Again, this should be a cause for rejoicing.

So what does all this mean for those outsiders who wish to be a blessing to the Chinese church? Many ministries have recognized these changes and embraced them. Coupled with the growing restrictions on expatriates in China that have arisen from China’s increasing international confidence (and perhaps internal anxieties), these positive developments are leading more and more ministries to focus on stepping aside to allow local Chinese to take control. This is precisely the point at which my warnings about “vision translation” become so important.

Passing on the baton

First of all, I am convinced that empowering and enabling Chinese to run ministries is precisely where China ministry should be looking right now—not necessarily the end of expatriate China ministry but rather a profound shift in roles, with Chinese believers stepping to the forefront. For many, this shift is expressed in the phrase, “passing on the baton.” Like a runner in a relay race, the thinking goes, our distance has been covered and it is time for the next athlete—a local Chinese teammate, in this case—to grasp the baton and run the next leg of the race.

For many ministries, this becomes a matter of passing on vision. Notoriously difficult, this idea of communicating a strategic ministry vision to others and then having them continue to pursue that vision on their own is often seen as the gold standard of ministry transition. An honest appraisal of most our transition plans, however, reveals how often the hand-off is fumbled in execution. The following examples of real China ministry projects highlight a number of practical considerations that are often lost in the details of ministry transfers.

I know of one organization that has made great progress towards increasing local ownership—another term that is often used to discuss passing on vision. This organization, however, is struggling to solve one remaining difficulty: financial sustainability. The initial model for ministry that was forged nearly twenty years ago was established in an environment where effective ministry as understood by this particular organization meant operating in ways that made it very difficult to receive local remuneration for its services. While many local people today are now passionate about and gifted at carrying out that same powerful and effective ministry, the ministry as originally set up is not sustainable without regular cash injections from outside. Regardless of whatever vision was or was not passed on, for this ministry to survive it will have to be almost completely reconceived.

In another instance, a foreign organization in China has adjusted to local developments and is now able to generate reasonable quantities of local income. Unfortunately, the kinds of skills and experience which enable the foreigners to earn their wages from the local community have not been passed on to local people; nor has the ministry been successful at hiring new local colleagues who already possess the kinds of skills and experience necessary to minister at a level effective enough to earn the kinds of monies—whether grants, donations or salaries—needed to sustain the ministry. Once again, this ministry will have to take on a radically different shape to survive without its “foreign experts.”

In still another case, an expat China ministry has found a way to pay its bills, and the appropriate skills and experience have been passed on to local colleagues such that they are now able to minister more effectively than the expatriate workers. Imagine everyone’s surprise and disappointment when it gradually became apparent that many local people were primarily interested in the organization because of its foreign faces and connections to the outside world. Despite having made so many wise choices, the local believers are left holding a ministry model—one they have become passionate about and competent in—that appears to only work for expatriates.

Too often, we sit in our passport countries and point to organizational charts that feature local Chinese leaders and the absence of resident expatriates in China, and we praise ourselves for effective ministry transfer. As suggested above, the details are often far grittier, and many ministries that have been “handed over” are poorly equipped to survive in China’s 21st century, let alone thrive.

Whose race?

But perhaps this is as it should be. Perhaps these difficulties are symptoms of a more fundamental problem, one that calls into question not just the process of passing on the baton but also the nature of the race itself. Is it the case that our Chinese brothers and sisters are obligated to run the race which we began in the first place?

If expatriate China-focused ministries are serious about seeing China full of healthy, faithful Chinese churches, then we must recognize that ultimately it is Chinese believers who will determine what those churches are like. To return to the relay-race metaphor, this means equipping local believers to run whatever race God gives them to run—rather than molding them in our own images to run in our own footsteps.

After all, we should be much more interested in building up people who are faithful to God’s revelation in Jesus (the ultimate or “different, strange” kind of vision) than in training up people to follow our own idea of what good ministry should look like (a much more humanly conditioned or “idea, meaning” kind of vision). Rather than focusing our ministry transitions on passing on vision, we should be devoting our energies to helping our brothers and sisters discover what God is calling them to do. Perhaps it is time to think seriously about closing down some of the expatriate-generated China ministries that are no longer the most effective or appropriate means for blessing the church in China today. What would a gifted and called Chinese believer do with those same resources? When necessary, are we willing to let go and step aside?

This is not about making sure of our legacy or preserving our ministries after we are gone: it is about supporting, assisting and empowering local believers to serve God faithfully in their context. We want to see Chinese believers stepping into “the work which God has prepared in advance for them to do,” regardless of what that might mean for our own pet projects.

What should we do?

As the increasingly strong church in China stands up to represent Christ to her nation, it is only natural that expatriate China-ministry goes through a period of transition. But the goal—the measure of a successfully negotiated ministry transitionis surely not the perpetuation of whatever programs were started by expatriates! If you have entered into ministry in China to leave a legacy and make a name for yourself, then you are in the wrong place. Set aside your pride and vanity and instead come and serve alongside Chinese Christians as they lift up Jesus’s name in their communities and in the world.

We must learn to hold our ministries loosely since they were never really ours in the first place.2 Certainly, we can continue to do the things God is calling us to do, as faithful stewards of all the gifts and opportunities he provides. However, we must be careful not to assume that God wants our Chinese brothers and sisters to do the same things or to do them in the same way. Rather, we should be willing to give our all to help advance what God is calling our Chinese brothers and sisters to do.3 We must stop recruiting them for our visions and begin to serve them instead.


[1] For a critique of the recent American evangelical infatuation with vision in the business sense, see David Horns April 4, 2011 post at the Every Thought Captive blog, (http://everythoughtcaptivearchive.blogspot.co.uk/2012/03/by-david-horn-thd-director-ockenga.html).

[2] For an extended reflection on the fact, that only Jesusnot our ministriescan save people, see The Crucifixion of Ministry: Surrendering Our Ambitions to the Service of Christ by Andrew Purves (IVP Books: 2007).

[3] For an excellent description of what this might look like, see Leader Development: What is Our Role? by Malcom Webber in ChinaSource Journal, Spring 2008, Vol. 10 No. 1.

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Andrew T. Kaiser

Andrew T. Kaiser, author of Voices from the Past: Historical Reflections on Christian Missions in China, The Rushing on of the Purposes of God: Christian Missions in Shanxi since 1876,  and Encountering China: The Evolution of Timothy Richard’s Missionary Thought (1870–1891) has been living and working in Shanxi with his …View Full Bio