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4 Drivers of Change for Foreign Workers in China


A recent post by Swells in the Middle Kingdom (SMK) on China’s “new normal” highlights the changing situation facing foreign Christians who serve in China.

While the effects of President Xi Jinping’s policies upon foreigners in China have become increasingly evident; the changes go beyond simply a tightening political environment. Understanding the multiple factors that are reshaping the context of Christian ministry in China is essential for organizations seeking to formulate a credible response.

Faced with these changes, some may feel a bit like the mice in Spencer Johnson, MD’s Who Moved My Cheese (Putnam, 1998), the fable that became a must-read in the business world during the 1990s.

Spencer’s title captures well the response that is often triggered by change. “My cheese” speaks to the assumption that we somehow ought to be able to continue enjoying the status quo to which we have become accustomed. Yet SMK’s recent post reminds us: “The things we said and did in past years may not be appropriate for this new context.”

The "who" in Spencer’s title suggests our propensity, whenever we encounter change, to try and identify the person or entity responsible. But seeking to assign one single cause for the change we experience results in our missing other important factors. In China there is rarely one single "who.” It is only by bringing the other drivers into view that we can respond effectively to change.

Earlier this year I suggested seven transitions for foreign workers in China. Behind these changes it is possible to identify at least four main drivers, two that are external to the ministry community and two that are internal. These drivers combine to form the new normal that foreign workers in China now face.

  1. A Maturing Church. Much of what needed to be done by outsiders two or three decades ago is now being done by local believers. As the capacity of the indigenous church expands the role of foreign workers will continue to shift.
  2. The Policy Environment. China’s Foreign NGO Law, new draft religious regulations, tightening visa restrictions, and a less hospitable business climate are all indicators of the larger policy shifts taking place under Xi. As SMK cautions, the current trend shows little sign of abating any time soon, suggesting that those serving in China need to look at long-term changes in their positioning and procedures.
  3. Attitudes among the Global Christian Community. Whereas China was viewed as an urgent priority for ministry in the 1980s, it has since lost its allure as a “closed country.” Its rapid economic development has caused some to question whether China truly needs help from the West. Meanwhile, concern for the Muslim world has shifted much of the church’s attention to the Middle East. The result has been a slowdown in new workers headed for China.
  4. Ministry Community in Transition. The sizeable generation of those who went to serve in China two or three decades ago is itself undergoing change, as family concerns, organizational transitions, and personal refocusing prompt more workers to leave China.

These internal changes will affect the community’s response to the external ones. In what may appear to be an era of diminishing space for involvement and diminishing resources, much creativity is needed to discern the new opportunities inherent in this emerging environment.

Brent Fulton

Brent Fulton

Brent Fulton is the president of ChinaSource and the editor of the ChinaSource Quarterly. 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... View Full Bio