It happened again this week. A seasoned, long-term foreign worker who has spent the better part of his life seeking to serve the people of China has been denied a visa to remain in the country.
Another wake-up call?
Decades of relative freedom and unprecedented openness to those from outside China have created a sense of near invincibility among many serving in China, particularly those who remember the draconian policies of an earlier day when foreigners could only live in certain parts of the city and all purchases had to be made with Foreign Exchange Certificates.
Yet it happens often enough—a foreigner with years of China experience suddenly finds that the welcome mat has been withdrawn—reminding even the most well-meaning, law-abiding foreign Christian worker that his or her status is by no means guaranteed.
The point of raising this issue here is not to send a chill through organizations that have significant numbers of workers in China. Rather, it is to ask, as several of the authors in this issue of ChinaSource also ask, "What is our role?" Long-term service is, for a good many, a reality; yet it is by no means a given. How should we serve in such a way that, even if we were out tomorrow, our positive contribution would continue? Or, to put it another way, how to leave behind the sweet aroma of Christ and not the odor of a mess that others will have to clean up in our absence?
While several of the following points have been made in previous issues of this journal, they bear repeating in the current context.
Invest in People, not Projects. Talk to local believers whose lives have been positively impacted by fo-reigners in China, and you will learn that the foreigners placed a high premium on friendship. They realized that their calling was first to serve, and that this service needed to take place in the context of relationships, not primarily by dispensing programs or building structures, as important as these activities may be.
Build Local Capacity. As Huo Shui points out in this issue, foreign teachers have done much in past decades to equip Chinese church leaders. Yet, going forward, the emphasis needs to be on investing in those who will equip their peers.
Be Catalytic. Aim to build relationships that result in local people and resources coming together to accomplish more than you as a foreigner will be able to do alone. Those whom you connect will thank you, and, should you need to leave prematurely, the work will go on in your absence.
Much energy, effort and resources can go into strategies for staying long-term in China. However, such strategies can easily end up defining one's purpose for being there, and, when they become an end in themselves, can be self-defeating. A more prescient approach would be to begin with the end in mind; acknowledge that one is not going to be in country forever and define an exit strategy that will result in lasting fruit.
Brent Fulton is the founder of ChinaSource. Prior to assuming his current position, 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 US director of China Ministries International, and from 1985 to... View Full Bio