Most foreign Christian organizations working in China today are unequivocal about their commitment to sharing Christ. Indeed, many describe church planting, evangelism, and discipleship as their main reasons for being in China. It is understood that this is their real “work,” while other projects they engage in may be viewed simply as the means of maintaining a presence in the country. Underlying this approach to work in China is an assumed dichotomy between work and ministry, a conflict typically resolved by slighting so-called secular work in favor of the “more significant” ministry.
This article will describe briefly some of the characteristics of effective nonprofit work in China, and then go on to give a number of concrete examples of how this kind of work relates to evangelism. I believe that China’s nonprofit sector provides a healthy resolution to the false work-ministry dichotomy; however, this may require us to adjust our understanding of what it is we are supposed to be doing.
A Model from Scripture
The Apostle Paul is not the only model of Christian service in a foreign country contained within the pages of Scripture. In particular, Joseph and Daniel can serve as powerful examples for today’s foreign Christian professionals. Remember that both men served as officials in pagan nations that were not always friendly towards God’s people. The excellence with which they did the work that had been entrusted to them greatly increased the influence of their testimonies.
In the New Testament, it is clear that there are certain things expected of all believers. Rather than creating a class of super Christians who do real ministry while the rest of us muddle about in second-class secular works, scripture admonishes all believers, “whatever you do in word or deed, do all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks through Him to God the Father” (Col. 3:17). Though Dualism has always been a temptation to a church under stress, many strands of the Reformation sought to reclaim a fuller understanding of vocation and recover the role of faith in all aspects of life. As Martin Luther so famously explained:
If you ask an insignificant maidservant why she scours a dish or milks a cow she can say: I know that the thing I do pleases God, for I have God’s work and God’s commandment. God does not look at the insignificance of the acts, but at the heart that serves Him in such little things.
This understanding of the Christian mission is often called life-style evangelism. In fact, it is not a technique but rather something that God expects of all His people. All of Israel proclaimed God’s character through its very existence. As John’s Gospel shows so eloquently, Christ also revealed His identity through His deeds. Finally, verses such as 1 Peter 3:15 remind us that how we live our lives—particularly when we are suffering—will draw others to ask us where our hope comes from. In this sense, all of life is a witness. The Puritan minister Richard Sibbes summarized this approach to Christian living in the following way:
There is nothing that we do but it may be a “service to God.” No. Not our particular recreations, if we use them as we should. We would not thrust religion into a corner, into a narrow room, and limit it to some days, and times, and actions, and places. To “serve” God is to carry ourselves as the children of God wheresoever we are: so that our whole life is a service of God.
The Model at Work in China
In China today, an organization guided by these principles will evince certain characteristics. First and foremost, this approach to work in China demands excellence in our work. Whether medical or educational, giving loans or scholarships, our nonprofit public benefit programs should be done as well as possible. Rather than seeing our work as an inconvenience to our ministry, we should be like Daniel and Joseph using all God has given us to do our work well. In so doing we show the world how excellent God is.
Given China’s current bureaucratic structure as well as her cultural background, most effective nonprofit programs will also require a long-term approach. Put another way, excellent work in China will almost always require years, if not decades, of hard work. In addition, this work will be done in a specific local context, and tailored over time to meet very specific local conditions. For the same reasons, excellent language skill—and the cultural awareness that it requires—is almost always a key to effective work. Recall that Daniel and his companions had done so well in their studies of Babylon’s literature and culture that they were considered ten times more knowledgeable than the local magicians and wise men (Dan. 1:17-20).
Finally, many of the more effective nonprofit Christian organizations working in China place great emphasis on teamwork. While this can certainly have a multiplying effect on the work, teamwork is also an essential means for maintaining accountability. Discussions with teammates can often help us avoid some of the more tricky cultural pitfalls of working as a foreigner in China. More importantly, teammates serve as a constant check working to ensure that we are being both salt and light—maintaining a witness that is both visible and distinctly Christian (Matt. 5:13-16). Some organizations require all members to circulate their prayer and support letters amongst their teammates. This keeps us honest and can help keep us faithful.
Though there are many opportunities for glorifying God through nonprofit work in China, I would like to present just a few examples from three general areas wherein nonprofit work rightly understood can yield significant fruits for God’s Kingdom.
Example I—Work as Witness
The assumption behind the approach to work being described here is that what most people think of as ministry should actually flow out of the kinds of activities that most people describe as work. This is especially true for those working in China’s burgeoning nonprofit sector.
Since public benefit work is by definition doing things that benefit people, it should come as no surprise that the recipients often ask why they are being helped. This is especially true in China today where fifty years of communist rule has produced great cynicism and a general lack of hope. It is rare to have a day pass by where foreigners working in China with medical training, disaster relief, English teaching, microloans, scholarships or anything else for that matter are not asked to give the reason for the hope they have within them. One foreign microcredit loan program has been so successful in changing people’s lives that the foreign worker is perceived locally as something of a hero: people want to meet him, and they want to know why he would help them if he is not getting rich himself. Starting with “Love your neighbor as yourself,” it does not take long before these conversations about work are transformed into encounters with the Christ.
The better we do our work the more opportunities we will have to share our reasons for working. This is seen most clearly perhaps in the growing number of nonprofit initiatives that target children throughout China’s provinces. In one example, foreign Christians were asked to provide physical therapy services through a large city hospital. The evident care and consummate skill of the foreign workers earned the admiration of local hospital officials—and now they have been asked to expand their work into homes and hospitals throughout the region. In another location, foreign Christian workers began a private orphanage. Their compassion has since earned them the trust of local officials who have granted permission for them to open three more private Christian foster homes. In both cases, local workers and officials are curious to know more about how these foreigners do such good work and why they do it at all. Excellent work has made these successful operations that impact the children, their parents, and local officials for Christ.
Example II—Building Bridges or Planting Churches?
In the West today we see those sent abroad to serve as people who personally bring others to Christ. It is often difficult for us to admit that we Westerners may not be the most effective evangelists. If we do accept this as true, then it seems as if there is nothing for us to do. This dynamic is most evident in recent debates on the appropriateness of Western church-planters working in China today.
Nonprofit service that is openly Christian provides a middle road—if only we Westerners are humble and willing to take a smaller role. I know of one recent instance in China where the presence of long-term foreign Christian professionals engaged in nonprofit work led directly to the establishment and registration of a local church. The medical and development programs that the foreigners were running took them into villages and townships throughout the county. Over time, the small number of local Christians were drawn to the openly Christian foreign workers—and in some cases joined them in their work. In addition to discipling a handful of key local believers, the foreign organization used its relations at the provincial level to help the local believers establish contact with Christian leaders throughout the province. At this point the Chinese believers took over, sending teaching elders from a nearby established church. They are now helping the local believers there to register a meeting point and appoint a shepherd for their flock. This whole process has taken seven years—with the same foreign workers persevering in their work and prayer all along. The local church has now grown to over 200 believers. No foreigners preached, and only a few local people were brought to Christ through the direct agency of the foreign workers.
Example III—Enabling the Church
There are many ways in which nonprofit work can make positive contributions to the growth of God’s Kingdom in China. Many of these ways, however, require that we foreigners take on roles that attract little attention in our home churches. In my experience, nonprofit foreign organizations that see themselves as enablers of the local church are able to make great contributions to God’s Kingdom through their support efforts.
In one case, there is a Christian nonprofit organization that regularly participates in the local and provincial church’s own aid programs. When the registered church announces clothing collections for the poor, or church building programs in poor areas throughout the province, the foreign workers mobilize their resources to assist. Churches back home are contacted to contribute; the local foreign fellowship contributes; and in some cases, the nonprofit organization authorizes its own relevant programs to cooperate directly with the church. Since this is the kind of work that these particular foreigners actually do—and since it is under the authority of the local religious bodies—it is not only legal but in many cases encouraged. The result is that the church’s work is multiplied and local believers are becoming known in the city for their generosity and concern for the poor. In the villages where aid has been distributed, a testimony also exists upon which the church’s own itinerant evangelists can build on subsequent journeys.
Yet another example of enabling is found in the growing number of instances of foreigners teaching English through local churches. With Chinese society’s growing emphasis on English language skills, the churches in more and more areas are responding offering classes either to young people in the church or sometimes as components of weeklong “Vacation Bible School” programs. By advertising such programs and making them available to interested parties from the local community, the church is given a natural evangelistic opportunity. The presence of a foreign teacher lends creditability to the program and helps draw students. Having the Chinese language skills necessary to communicate clearly with church leaders, long-term attendance and participation in other church activities are the keys to earning the trust that makes these opportunities available to specific foreigners.
Conclusion—Planting or Watering?
I once heard a Chinese pastor discussing the role of foreign Christians in the growth of Christ’s Kingdom in China. He had seen foreigners in his local area engaged in various forms of campus work, and he had also witnessed the fruits of a foreign nonprofit organization’s long-term presence throughout the province. When asked what purpose foreigners could best serve, he responded simply. “Foreigners are able to go to places where we Chinese Christians rarely go. They can talk to people we rarely meet. Foreign Christians are like the spade that breaks up the soil.” Afterwards, we need to step aside so the Chinese laborers can come in and plant seeds, water the seedlings, and eventually harvest the crop. There is plenty of work for us to do—but we may have to adjust our definition of work to see it.