Thoughts and Reflections on International Mission Experiences
I often recall meeting with a missionary from China. Touching his heart, this missionary said, "The heart for missions work needs to be fervent." Then patting his head, he proceeded to say, "However, the head needs to remain calm, never the reverse: hot-headed and cold-hearted."
I feel that being "warm-hearted and cool-headed" is a fitting description for the progressive growth to maturity of Mainland Chinese missionaries and their teams. This article is not a description of the overall structure and system of Chinese missions; rather, it is intended to describe, from my observations and experiences, several often overlooked areas in China's early involvement in international missions. This self-reflection and sharing with fellow workers hopefully will result in intercessory prayer from members of Christ's Body and in their enlightenment.
Visa and Status
I believe that most churches and organizations in China involved in international missions would agree that missionary visa application is a very difficult problem. First of all, a Chinese passport is a very "inconvenient" one to use. Most countries have very complicated conditions for a visa application when using a Chinese passport. If a visa is easily obtained, a longer stay is hard to attain. If a visa permits a longer stay, then it is harder to apply for. Secondly, though some "open" mission field countries have religious worker visas, mission organizations in China cannot, or have to be careful whether to, apply for such visas.1
Chinese missionaries will more likely apply for student visas and business visas. Some Western and overseas Chinese mission agencies as well as overseas Chinese Christian businessmen have used businesses and work in the field countries as platforms to help Mainland China missionaries. Recently, I have met some China house church leaders who visited mission field countries and quietly found ways to apply for longer duration visas. This excites me, but I am also worried that some Chinese churches and mission agencies, when faced with the difficulties of visa application, will resort to short cuts. They may entrust their applications to visa agents of questionable background. For these agents, with money, any visa is possible. Even when some agents are able to get visas for longer stays (six months to one year), they do not inform the applicants of the specific conditions required by the immigration department for their stay. As a result, during their stay, the missionaries holding valid visas unknowingly violate the immigration requirements. They may also find out during visa renewals that their agents forged documents in their original visa applications. The missionaries are then faced with the subsequent problem of having bad records with the immigration authorities that have nothing to do with religious persecution. This leaves the missionaries with testimonies they should not have in their field countries or intermediate stations.
Mainland Chinese mission organizations have already, or have gradually, been establishing various models for long-term visa application for certain countries. Given that most Chinese mission organizations are still operating "underground" or "partially underground," it is not easy for them to exchange knowledge and information with one another. However, I still encourage mission organizations and Chinese churches faced with troublesome visa applications to refrain from taking risks when faced with pressure to send workers out quickly.2
Increasingly, Chinese churches and mission organizations have been focusing on field country language learning. However, the length of time and level of language education are still debatable. For example, a worker with only several months of language education was sent out to the field without being given a period of time clearly marked for further language learning.
Expectations from sending agencies and the initial excitement of being on the field will easily make language learning for the missionary nonstrategic and unimportant in the short-term. However, as the ministry expands over time, the worker will definitely experience difficulty in making social contacts, let alone deeper conversations with the locals. Then language learning becomes a priority for ministry with its marked demand on time and energy. This scenario should not be repeated.
There are also missionaries who, under pressure to be effective, turn to ministries targeting overseas Chinese or international students from China. Such ministries are easier to initiate. Though this population is definitely a strategic ministry target for some mission organizations, for some missionaries this shift in target easily becomes an excuse and escape from the challenging demands of language learning. I suggest that Chinese churches and mission agencies be proactive and give long-range consideration to their ministry strategies and care of missionaries. This includes more teaching of methodologies for learning language during cross-cultural training as well as providing a period for language learning with proficiency requirements once on the field. During this period, ministries need to be reduced or eliminated and provision made for the care of the missionary. (During this phase, missionaries are more likely to feel ineffective). For foreign, cross-cultural missionaries (E33), the investment in money, time and energy involved in language learning is by no means small, but it is well worth it.
Supervision and Care
The concept of caring for the missionaries should be infused throughout the mission organization. Everyone involved with the process, from those working back home in the background to those on the field, should understand this. This concept should be reflected in their work in practical ways. Another suggestion is for the Chinese mission organizations to early on consider setting up a care department capable of providing professional care periodically or in special circumstances as needed. I also appeal to Mainland Christians who are professional counselors to be trained and ready for working in the field of missionary care.
E3 missionaries should not simply be regarded as overseas workers; their life-long ministry is very valuable and important. I strongly suggest that Chinese churches and mission agencies pay close attention to the relationship between a missionary's current mission assignment and his or her lifelong service. The system of supervision and care should be one way to help grow these missionaries. Rigorous screening, strategic training, a systematic plan of care, early participation in the aforementioned short-term missions, visa and status, language learning, field management, supervision, care and so on, are all integral parts in forming the framework and system of a mission organization and should not be ignored or neglected in the early development of its international mission work.4
Prototype of ministry
Recommendation #1: Make a collaborative effort in developing any new field ministry. It is not difficult to find Western, Chinese and Korean missions as well as local churches that already exist in most new mission field countries. They are usually very open to assisting and collaborating with Chinese missionaries and their ministries. The churches in China and the mission organizations need to consider using "double sending mission" as a way to begin international mission works. This means that for a certain period of time, the Chinese mission organization commissions another more mature mission field supervisor in the field country to care for the missionary from China. The missionary can be totally involved in the ministries of this mature mission agency during this period. The commissioned care and supervision should have agreed upon parameters such as ministry progress, life guidance, daily living care (that is, supplying information and resources for living arrangements but not the provision of living expenses) and similar items. This model of "double sending mission" should be based on trust and mutual agreement between both parties. I suggest that in this type of collaboration, the Chinese missionary's living and ministry expenses as well as benevolent funds should come from China.
Recommendation #2: Consider using the short term to confirm or refute the long term as a way to start a new missionary's work. Often, intermediate stations to the fields are used as a way for missionaries to know if they indeed have a burden for long-term mission work. What I mean by using the short term to confirm or refute the long term is having a short-term assignment (two years suggested) for the missionary in the previous model of "double sending mission" to participate in and observe how a ministry is established under the care of a mature mission agency while the missionary discerns if he or she is called to long-term missions. The reason it should not be for less than two years is that the first year is usually for adjustment. Contribution to ministry emerges gradually during the second year or after. These two years should not include language learning. If language learning is included, then care should be taken when considering taking part in ministries.
Within the churches in China and the mission organizations, there is hardly anyone with intercultural field experience. Almost all decision makers and participants in mission organizations have no cross-cultural experience. The first generation of Chinese field directors needs to emerge, and mission teams and systems also need to grow. Therefore, the two aforementioned models may be the best choices for the initial involvement of Chinese churches and missions on the international scene which currently is most prominent in ministries with teaching Chinese as a strategy. May the churches and the mission organizations in China mature to the extent that they in turn can bless new missionaries from other countries on the fields in the future.
The emerging mission organizations in China and their missionaries whom I came to know well are, for the most part, very humble. They are humble because they understand that they do not know international missions (especially E3) or their knowledge of them is very limited. I hope that the Chinese churches and mission organizations will become informed, and after gaining knowledge, experience and effectiveness will remain humble but courageous. All glory unto the One who deserves it!
1 Taiwan Missionary Care Fellowship; Professor Chen Zhangyi's "Chinese Missionary Care" seminars.
2 The vast majority of house churches in China are not registered with the government due to faith issues and various other reasons. Mission organizations definitely have no way to register. If they are registered, it is as cultural exchange agencies or business entities; as such they cannot satisfy the religious worker visa application requirements. There are also concerns that those missionaries who hold religious worker visas might be obstructed in leaving once they have returned to China.
3 E3 identifies evangelism of people from radically different cultures. It is supposed that evangelists attempt to cross at least three barriers in E3 efforts. For example, for Americans to work with Saharan nomads it would require crossing church barriers, a language barrier and a major lifestyle barrier. E3 is the most difficult kind of evangelism.
4 Currently overseas Chinese mission organizations and gospel organizations have had more and more experience and research in missionary care. This can be a good source of help to the churches and mission organizations in Mainland China.
*The author is a member of a local mission agency in China and has been involved in international cross-cultural sending for several years.
Image Credit: Heart on Fire by stalkERR, on Flickr