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When the Pillar Moves: Transition and Providential Grace

By a pillar of cloud you led them in the day, and by a pillar of fire in the night to light for them the way in which they should go. Nehemiah 9:12

From the moment God filled the void with time and reality, he brought order in the midst of chaos—and used even chaos for his perfect purposes. He has used chaos and order in the great land of China over the last 100 years to bring about perhaps the greatest Christian revival in history. Fenggang Yang, author of Religion in China: Survival and Revival under Communist Rule, commented that: “By my calculations, China is destined to become the largest Christian country in the world very soon.”[1] This is occurring some 50 years after Mao Zedong set out to replace God with himself, and Time magazine’s cover posed the question “Is God Dead?”

As his spirit moved, God led a veritable army of men and women from various nations to take the Word into this inscrutable land; their testimonies abound of his faithfulness and mercy in times good and very bad. However, today it seems that the pillar of cloud and fire is moving for many foreign Christian workers in the Middle Kingdom. These movements or transitions are taking several different forms: some are leaving full-time ministry for professional positions in China; some are returning to home countries to minister; some are changing locations within the country; others are walking away from China and ministry to follow a new path. Why are the transitions occurring now, when church growth is so encouraging, discipleship opportunities so plentiful and, with increased prosperity, daily life so much more comfortable than in the China of the past?

Each individual decision is by nature personal and unique; however, there are trends and circumstances that are contributing to this transitioning of career ministry personnel from current postings to something new.

God led his people by a pillar of fire through the night, and it is often at night that he makes his marching orders clear. It was so for Richard.[2] He had wearily climbed out of bed to help his wife care for their newborn daughter a day after her birth in the city hospital. Richard and his wife had both committed to work in China before they were married. She was passionate about adoption and he saw business as a way to connect with locals. After ministering on a US campus for a time, they felt God opening the door to their heart’s desire; they packed up their two children and headed for China. After settling in, they began the process of adopting their third child. Richard worked with his team in meeting and sharing with local businessmen while running his own cleaning business which provided him a visa and platform to be in China. Victoria cared for the children, worked at a local school, and learned all she could about foreign adoptions in China to equip her to become an advocate for Chinese children languishing in orphanages. 

The couple were called and committed to ministering in China; when the “pillar” moved, it came as a shock. Yes, both had been feeling more and more anxious about providing for the future needs of their growing family. Yes, it was becoming more and more difficult to find the time to do business, care for the family, help couples wanting to adopt, and foster meaningful relationships with friends and acquaintances. Now, there was a new baby. When Richard’s feet hit the cold floor that night, he knew that the “pillar of fire” was moving. As he walked the baby, there were tears. Transitions are hard. As he shared with Victoria over breakfast, there were tears. However, together they followed the “pillar.” Richard has begun a new job that pays double the salary in the same megacity and provides housing as well; now he has more time for his ministry relationships with local businessmen. Victoria runs the house with the help of a cook/housekeeper, continues to minister and advise adopting parents, and does home studies for an international adoption agency. They are resting in God’s provision and path for the future, still in their beloved China.

Financial pressures, like those experienced by Richard and Victoria, have become a concern for many serving in China. The cost of living in first tier cities—where church growth and discipleship needs are currently the greatest—has skyrocketed. In 2012, the South China Morning Post was already reporting on the rising prices. “The fast rising cost of living in the mainland’s international cities like Beijing and Shanghai is making it increasingly hard for expats to justify the decision to live and work on the mainland. Perhaps in no area is this clearer than in the soaring price of groceries. In the capital, the prices of most items on the supermarket shelves now far exceed the prices of similar items in Hong Kong and London, which have long been among the world’s most costly cities.”[3] This increase in prices has continued to accelerate in the past five years. Christian workers are no longer the “haves” in urban China, but rather find themselves riding bicycles, buses, and subways while Chinese neighbors buzz about in their Peugeots and BMWs.

Yet, God’s timing is perfect—even with regard to the cost of living. For the past 20 years, a key goal of many mission agencies has been for foreign missionaries to “work themselves out of a job,” that is, to train up national Christians to become the leaders, teachers, and trainers in Christian churches, schools, and business enterprises. Nationals can do evangelism much more efficiently and often more effectively than outsiders and, as the church in China matures, more national pastors are receiving seminary training abroad and more lay leaders have been trained to disciple new believers. Consequently, some ministry transitions are occurring because long-time workers have poured their lives into their charges, have done a good job of training them up, and feel comfortable stepping aside for their former students.

“Maturing” of charges also sometimes precipitates a transition back to home cultures. The Word teaches us that caring for spouse and family comes before ministry; pressures on families in China and living the cross-cultural life are perhaps greater than ever. Twenty years ago, foreign parents easily controlled the total environment for their children: travel was inconvenient and rigorous; there was no place fun to go, no foreign movies to watch, certainly no discos to visit. Now travel is convenient and cheap, and there are all kinds of thrills and trouble available. Foreign teens do not need a car or gas money, just subway fare and a cell phone to enable a night out with foreign and Chinese friends who are always ready to play! God has on occasion brought families out of temptation and back to their home culture for help by moving the “pillar.” Sadly, it is not only teens, but sometimes a parent that needs to be rescued; moral failure has cut short many a term on the field—especially in Asia.

Then there are times when the “pillar of fire” moves in the dark of night with a knock on the door. Victor, the head of an educational training company, was working late when a friend who had been tasked with renewing Victor’s visa appeared at his door with a warning. “Pack up and leave tomorrow. They have decided not to renew your visa and if we continue to ask, they will revoke your current one and you will have a very difficult time ever returning to China.” Even though Victor had lived and worked for over a decade in China and had developed many influential friends and important contacts along the way, someone—perhaps an up-and-coming local party official seeking to curry favor—had decided it was time for him to go.

Likewise, Arthur received a visit after dark as he was helping his wife get their three young children ready for bed. It was the vice principal from the Uygher school where Arthur and his wife taught English to middle school students. An hour of tea, nuts, and chatty conversation ended with a terse announcement: “I am sorry to inform you that the school no longer has need of your services. The students have progressed so well that our own teachers can complete their instruction. We have a fine, farewell send-off planned this weekend for all of our foreign staff. Let me know how I can help arrange your transportation.” With a warm handshake he departed and, within two weeks, so did the ten foreign Christian teachers that had planned to stay indefinitely in that poor dusty village—their work cut short by officials angry with ethnic unrest in a neighboring city and seeking a way to hurt minority families.

Only in the last decade has the nighttime visit, always terrifying to Chinese Christians, become so to some foreigners as well. The political climate in China is changing, and so it seems is the privileged status that formerly accompanied the foreign passport. The Houston Chronicle reported last year that the case of a detained Houston businesswoman “…raises questions about the safety of Americans doing business in China.” The current government “…has arrested at least nine foreigners on allegations of spying in the past two years and oversaw the passage of a sweeping national security law last summer that grants authorities broad discretion about what constitutes espionage.”[4] Foreigners with Asian faces are feeling particularly vulnerable and, though only those ministering to politically sensitive groups have been detained, that line can be easily and unknowingly crossed. A Chinese-Korean pastor was killed in 2016, probably by North Korean agents, for aiding North Korean refugees[5] and many long-time Asian workers have been deported in the past 18 months.[6]

A foreign resident with years of service in China and currently ministering in private, Christian education for nationals shared that harassment in his circle is at an all-time high. Private Christian schools and house churches are frequently visited, the same questions asked repeatedly, documents requested by this bureau and then a different bureau, by local police and then district police. “The constant threat of closure makes it difficult to plan for the future and to assure parents that we will be open when the school term begins. They are taking a big risk by withdrawing their children from the national system and placing them in our school, but they are learning to trust God to protect and provide . . . and that’s why he has us here. We are to model that trust in his faithfulness and power.”[7]

Will the “pillar of fire” move for that educator with a knock on the door some dark night? Will it become too expensive for his family to live on the small salary provided by his school? Will he have just a few days to pack up and leave his family’s home of many years at the whim of an ambitious local official or by fiat of a national policy? Perhaps, perhaps, and perhaps. As in years past, only God in his sovereignty can open and close the door for foreign Christian work in China, and only he knows what lies ahead. However, when God moves the “pillar,” as he lights for them “the way in which they should go,” his people will follow.

Image credit: Fire on the Mountain by Tom and Lauren via Flickr.
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BJ Arthur

BJ Arthur (pseudonym) has lived in China for many years and was in Beijing in June 1989.View Full Bio