During the early stages of the pandemic, my family and I were confronted with the option to stay in China or leave for North America. At the time, North America seemed very safe and protected from the virus. Some friends chose to leave for North America. We chose to stay behind.
This past year we’ve seen a lot of loss. Loss of friends who can’t return to China because of closed borders. Loss of friends who decided to leave China and not return. Loss of ministry opportunities. Loss of fellowship. Loss of a sense of stability.
For those of us “left behind” or who chose to stay behind in China, there has been much to lament. But, there has also been much to celebrate. I want to highlight three areas to celebrate from my perspective of one who has stayed behind in China.
1. Resiliency of Ministry
COVID-19 has reinforced what most of us involved in China ministry have long known: Chinese Christians are resilient. Disruptions to ministry are myriad: a stubborn landlord who wants to raise rent, hour-plus commutes, workaholic culture, hyper-fast pace of life, family expectations, and, yes, sometimes harassment from the local police.
For those of us “left behind,” we have had the chance to learn (or re-learn) lessons of resiliency from Chinese colleagues. Ministry has not stopped during the pandemic. Chinese Christians have found ways to gather and continue ministry, whether through online forums or face-to-face in small groups.
2. New Opportunities for Ministry
Not only are many Chinese Christians resilient, they can also be go-getters. The pandemic has forced some ministries to pause, but it has also opened up the door to new opportunities. Some Chinese Christians are taking advantage of new media to reach brothers and sisters. Some are taking the opportunity to plant new churches.
In my ministry, I have seen not one but three church plants begin during the early stages of the pandemic. For some, because large groups have been unable to gather during the pandemic, smaller groups have broken out to form church plants and small groups. Many Chinese Christians are accustomed to this model of church planting: When one church has grown too big, plant a new one. For some churches, the pandemic is a new face to a familiar situation.
For one who has stayed behind, I have had a front-row seat to see how God continues to grow his church in unexpected ways.
3. New Era of Ministry
On a recent call with veteran workers involved in a variety of ministries in China, we noted that China isn’t what it used to be. We are no longer in the “Golden Era” of ministry when almost anything seemed possible in China. The simple fact is that it’s much harder to do ministry in China today than it was twenty or so years ago. Although foreign workers face more obstacles today, this has actually prompted them to hand over more ministry to Chinese leaders.
We are also no longer in an era when the Chinese church is heavily dependent on resources from the Western church. There are abundant resources coming into China but also resources are being produced at the grassroots level in China. The amount of teaching material online in Chinese these days was unthinkable twenty or even ten years ago. Of course, that doesn’t mean no resources at all are needed in China. It does mean that foreign workers need to be more discerning when it comes to what resources are needed versus what could be achieved by Chinese Christians.
The spread of COVID-19 and the closing of borders has brought the reality of this new era even closer to us. As more foreign workers leave or are shut out, it becomes more apparent to those who stay that the Chinese church is quite capable of standing on its own in many ways. This in no way means that foreign workers are not needed. Rather, it means that foreign workers ought to rethink ministry strategy. No longer are foreign workers “experts” across the board. Instead, their ministry strategy will go farther if they grasp that they are not the saviors of the Chinese church, but partners with Chinese Christians in this new era.
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