Lead Article

What Is to be Our Role?

Hearing God’s Voice through the Church in China

The following article is based on interviews and conversations the author had with leaders of churches in China and with expatriates who work with the church in China—Editor.

Transport yourself back in time 50 years. World War II has just ended. The long struggle against the tyranny of German Fascism and Japanese Militarism has ended in victory for the West. A new era of missions activity is on the horizon, especially for the leader of the Allies, the United States. Young American men return home with their eyes open to the needs of the world in a new way. The old isolationism has died and a new internationalism has been born. New mission agencies are being founded and old ones re-supplied. You are summoned to a meeting to think about missions in China.

The meeting begins with a survey of the church in China. Protestant missions are less than 150 years old. The first hundred years coincided with the Age of Imperialism, the Opium Wars and the Boxer Uprising. A young church was planted and grew to about 80,000 with foreign missionaries playing the leading role in the church. The next fifty years coincided with the Age of Revolution, the Nationalist Revolution ending the Empire, the May 4th Movement and birth of the Communist Party, and finally the War Against Japan and the Nationalist-Communist Civil War. Foreign missionary work changed significantly after the 1927 disturbances, and Chinese Christians took a much greater role in the leadership of the church. During this time the church grew to around 500,000.[1] China is now in the throes of a bitter civil war. The missionary community is divided. Many favor the Nationalist Party, whose leaders include many educated in Christian schools. Others are disillusioned with the corruption that has grown under its rule and side with the Communist Party—despite its atheistic philosophy and generally anti-Christian rhetoric.

The meeting then turns to the future. Plans are needed no matter who wins. How can the foreign church best continue the work in China?  Is it possible for the church to grow 10-15 fold in the next 50 years to the unthinkable figure of 10-15 million?  Could its growth be even greater, say 50 million or more?

The committee breaks down into various task forces. When these have completed their work, each one has a report outlining the resources needed to accomplish its plan. The committee then convenes again. Yes, by God’s grace, with thousands of missionaries and millions of dollars, it is possible to envision a Chinese Church of 15 million within another half century. While politics were not part of the committee’s report, the consensus was that this would likely occur under a government congenial to missions activity.

Oh yes. There was a second report by a minority of the committee. They had the temerity to suggest that the spiritual soil of China was still not ready for this type of growth. It would be better for a hostile government to come to power and for a radical anti-Christian faction to succeed. Better for all the missionaries to be expelled in short order, for Chinese pastors to be exiled or jailed, and for Christian schools and publishing houses to be closed. Better yet, that all church buildings be closed for an entire decade as part of a broad-based campaign of terror.

Parliamentary procedure required a vote on the two reports. How do you think such a vote would have gone fifty years ago?

This scenario is presented to help us come to grips with how much our plans can vary from those of the Lord. God does want the church outside China, the “foreign” church, to think intelligently about how to serve inside China today. Yet, may we approach this thinking with great humility and with a great sense of dependence upon the Lord to guide and direct us. The foreign church may be challenged by Chinese Christians to do things that do not make much “sense” to us. We may need to be humbled to realize that it is time to follow their leading and accept that God may be primarily speaking through the church in China about how to serve in that land.

This article describes various ways the foreign church is involved in service in China with suggestions from Chinese Christians about future activities. Given the broad nature of this subject, there are several areas that are outside the scope of this article.

First, the foreign church is serving in China. Whether or not it should be doing this is not dealt with here.

Second, the foreign church is involved with both the registered and unregistered churches in China. Whether one is better than the other is outside the scope of this article.

Third, the foreign church working in China is composed of both ethnic Chinese and non-Chinese and includes significant numbers of Christians from the West, Asia and Africa. Whether one group is more effective than another is not covered here.

Fourth, this article is about service within mainland China by Protestant Christians. While there are many outreach opportunities involving Chinese people in other locations, they are not addressed in this article.


In My Utmost for His Highest, Oswald Chambers made the following three observations about prayer:

Prayer is not an exercise, it is the life.

We look on prayer as a means of getting things for ourselves; the Bible’s idea of prayer is that we may get to know God himself.

In intercession, you bring the person or circumstance that impinges on you before God until you are moved by His attitude towards that person or circumstance.[2]

The experience of the church in China over the past half-century may be one of the best illustrations of these truths in the history of the church. Many foreign missionaries expelled from China reported that they became more involved in prayer after they were expelled than they ever were while in China. Many Chinese Christians have shared that during the decade of the Cultural Revolution, as well as at other times after 1949, virtually the only aspect of their Christian life that was maintained was prayer. Prayer went from being an exercise to being the life itself.

When foreign Christians began to have contact with Chinese Christians after the Cultural Revolution, quite naturally they wanted to know how to help. Over and over again the answer was simply, “Pray for us.”  The steadfastness of this response from the older generation of Chinese Christians, especially those who were house church believers before the Cultural Revolution, has perhaps been God’s way of speaking prophetically to the church outside China. Prayer is a means of getting to know God himself, not just of getting things we want for others and ourselves.

The emphasis of the older generation on prayer should not be taken as a refusal of all help from the foreign church, especially as younger leaders cope with the needs of a rapidly growing church. This younger generation of leaders also credits prayer with a key role in the revival that brought many of them and millions of others into the body of Christ over the past two decades. Story after story has been told of healings occurring in response to prayers in the name of the Lord Jesus. However skeptical some outside China may be, Chinese Christians have no hesitation in crediting their revival to their prayer-answering God. Intercession is the exercise of getting the mind of God about the people or circumstances that he has put on our mind and heart.

This message on the importance of prayer has not been lost on the church outside China, but it also may not have been heard as clearly as it needs to be. Although the vast majority of Christians outside China will never be physically present “in” China, they are able to minister “in” China through prayer. Many ministries publish prayer resources about China that are available for Christians living outside China.

Christians outside China should consider accelerating their involvement with prayer as the 200th anniversary of the arrival in China of the first Protestant missionary, Robert Morrison, approaches in 2007. Can we mobilize one million prayer intercessors for China by that date?  God is clearly at work in China at this time in an unprecedented way, and the foreign church needs to be about the business of having prayer warriors join in this magnificent work.

Giving and Going

The door into China slammed shut after 1949 and remained largely closed to any foreign Christian entry for 30 years. The door today is not open to overt foreign Christian missionary activity as it was before 1949. However, God has opened many doors for foreign Christians to serve in China.

The Great Commission was given to the entire church. It is important for foreign Christians to recognize that God, in his sovereignty, has the right to channel the work of the church. He did not allow Paul to go to the outer regions of Asia Minor when that was Paul’s desire (Acts 16:6-10). Years passed before God chose to direct Paul to a ministry in Ephesus where he made disciples and saw all of Asia Minor reached (Acts 19:10). In like manner, God did not allow foreign Christians to go to China for nearly 30 years. He chose to allow the passage of time during which foreign Christians examined their work in China.

Today, foreign Christians play a limited role in China in the areas of evangelism, church planting, and pastoring. In other areas, such as pre-evangelism and discipleship, God has given foreign Christians greater roles to play. What follows is a survey of some of those roles.


The door has opened the widest in education. Teachers have played an honored role in China for thousands of years, so this door has enabled foreign Christians to play a role that is particularly strategic in Chinese culture. Tsu-Kung Chuang has written words about Chinese in the West that are equally true of those in China:  “Many Chinese Christians have a strong conviction that unless we can win many of these Chinese intellectuals, Christianity will not be fully contextualized in China and the foundation of the Chinese church will still be very shaky.”[3]

The emergence of “Cultural Christians,” like Liu Xiaofeng, and of apologetic literature, like The Song of the Wanderer, by Dr. Feng Bingcheng are surely not unrelated to the involvement of thousands of foreign Christian teachers in various disciplines in China’s key universities over the past two decades. These foreign Christians have responded to invitations to come to China as teachers or language students. Note the key word “invited.”

China’s teachers and students have been influenced by the contrast between the lifestyles of Christians and non-Christians from foreign countries. In the 1980s, foreign teachers and students were largely confined to key universities in major cities. Now the use of English teachers has spread down to elementary schools, into smaller cities and counties and into the rapidly growing number of private schools.

Christian English teachers have played a major role in China’s modernization process, and language students have brought much needed hard currency into the country. Foreign Christian teachers and students have done yeoman’s work in dispelling negative stereotypes about Christianity and the supposed conflict between science and faith in the Creator God of the Bible. In the future they may also be used to help China nurture a healthy patriotism that focuses on love of country in contrast to a destructive nationalism that takes delight in the misfortune of others.


China’s hunger for foreign investment and trade has opened another strategic door. Unlike the respect accorded to teachers, China’s Confucian heritage looked down on business people. Such people are expected to be liars and cheats. Imagine the amazement when it turns out that among foreign business people there are Christians who live by Biblical standards of ethics and honesty. As “New China” falls more and more in love with money, the need for a Christian witness in this sector becomes more vital. Christian business people have also played a key role in establishing international fellowships in several cities in China, and their families often develop significant ministries in both the foreign and national communities.

Social Development and Disaster Relief

China’s economic reforms have removed the government from the comprehensive role it formerly played in society. Cradle-to grave medical care and many other aspects of the centralized state have disappeared or greatly diminished. Foreign Christians have greatly increased their involvement in a wide variety of charitable activities, often on a very quiet, local and low-key scale. Examples include orphanages, senior citizen homes, crisis pregnancy centers and homes for disabled persons. Foreign Christians have also been involved in flood and drought relief projects. With an HIV/AIDS crisis looming, foreign Christians are likely to have an even greater opportunity to minister to some of the “least of our brethren.”

Bibles, Christian Media and Training

While the three areas mentioned above have the explicit or implicit approval of authorities, this is an area of great contention. The Chinese government is still trying to control religious activities through an “established church” system. While this system provides a legitimate outlet for some believers in some places, it raises real issues of conscience for millions of other and will never satisfy their legitimate concerns.

On the one hand, Bibles, Christian media, and training are all available to a certain extent through organizations that are registered with the government like the Three Self Patriotic Movement and the China Christian Council. There are projects in these areas open to foreign involvement, and non-evangelical as well as evangelical Christians participate to varying degrees. Funds are being raised from foreign Christians to construct, remodel, expand and equip registered church buildings and seminaries. The Amity Press was started with foreign financial and technical assistance and prints Bibles and other Christian materials in quantities determined by government regulation rather than popular demand.

On the other hand, it is clear that the vast majority of Chinese Christians are not part of the registered church system and their needs are not met by it. They continue to cry out to foreign Christians for help. The Bible’s teaching that in Christ there is neither “Jew nor barbarian” could be paraphrased as “neither zhongguoren nor waiguoren.” Christians in the unregistered churches would point out that Christ’s love does not start or stop at political boundaries and that our duty to respect the political authorities also means that we respect the limitations on the authority entrusted to them by God, an authority that does not include the regulation of legitimate church activity.

Foreign Christians continue to be involved in the production and distribution of Bibles and other Christian resources. Increasingly these are produced within China, many in the popular CD-ROM or VCD format. These resources are often welcomed by both registered and unregistered leaders who are desperate for materials to train the many young believers coming under their care. The development of the Internet means that foreign Christians can make materials in “cyberspace” available to people living in China.[4]  The government continues to block sites it deems objectionable and uses immense security forces to monitor Internet use, but much material is still available to those searching.

In the area of training, foreign Christians also have a variety of opportunities. Foreign Christians have been speakers at some Three Self seminaries and churches. Many have also worked with unregistered Christians in a variety of settings for many years. Recently, house church Christians have articulated a new way for foreign Christians to help with training.

A Final Challenge

Before his death in 1944, prominent evangelist John Sung Shangjie was one of the Christians who used the phrase “Back to Jerusalem.”  The phrase signified that the Great Commission had been fulfilled in a more or less west to east direction, spreading generally from Europe to the Americas and then to the Pacific Rim. Some Chinese Christians have seen themselves as being God’s primary agent to continue the progression of the gospel around the globe through the Hindu and Muslim worlds of South and Central Asia until the church is “back” to Jerusalem.

The younger generation of unregistered leaders senses this call, but they are also aware of their isolation from much of the rest of the Christian world and their inability to partner with the church outside of China to fulfill the Great Commission and to have access to Christian materials in English. This isolation is due in part to political and geographic barriers over which they have no control. The isolation is also due in part to the language barrier, but the church has the means to lessen this. Leaders of the largely rural unregistered churches know that thousands of foreign Christians have come to China to teach English in colleges, secondary and even primary schools. Their cry now is:  “Come train us in English. Help connect us with the church outside China and equip us to travel outside our borders.”

This request may strike some outside of China as strange, and is probably not on the agenda of most agencies and churches outside China. Perhaps the foreign church needs to consider again the way God chose to build his church in China after 1949. Perhaps we, the church outside of China, need to make sure we are carefully listening to the cry of those whom we purport to admire so much. Perhaps we need to make this a matter of deepest concern.


  1. ^ “Was It Worth It?” Christian History, Issue 52 (Vol. XV, No. 4) pg. 41.
  2. ^ Oswald Chambers, My Utmost for His Highest, Readings for May 26, August 28, Dec. 13. 
  3. ^ Chuang Tsu-kung, Ripening Harvest: Mission Strategy for Mainland Chinese Intellectuals in North America. Ambassadors for Christ, Inc. (Paradise, PA 1995), pp. 1-2.
  4. ^ The Chinese Bible can be accessed at sites like:< www.antioch.com.sg/bible/gb/ table.htm>; <www.ibs.org.hk/onlinebible. htm>; and <www.o-bible.com/gb/hgb. html>. The popular apologetic work Song of the Prodigal can be found at <www.cbible. net/seek/song/prod-main.htm>.

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John A. Swem

John Swem is the director of ChinaInsight, Inc. and a researcher for the Intercessor for China prayer calendar series. He lived in mainland China for more than a decade with his wife and their five children.View Full Bio