Through our years spent preparing to come to and now living in China, my husband and I have met countless others like us who feel called in some capacity to work for God’s kingdom in the Middle Kingdom. We’ve found that the people we’ve met have generally fallen into one of two categories:
- Professional “missionaries”—those who primarily identify themselves as ministers of the gospel and are willing to pursue any number of job options in China for the purpose of living long-term in China. They often come first on a student visa, then, after studying language for a few years, find a job, start a business, or pursue further study. These individuals almost without exception join some kind of sending agency, undergo training, have a strong sending church, and raise full (or partial) financial support. By God’s grace they can often be quite effective, but the instability of their visa situation can present major challenges. They also face the challenge of identity—many Chinese identify themselves with their career and status, so they don’t know what to think about these foreigners coming for such undefined purposes. Before meeting my husband, I would have seen myself as pursuing this path.
- Missional professionals—those who primarily identify themselves with their career but also have a desire to further the kingdom in China through that career. They generally come to China on a work visa given by an employer in China, or occasionally come on a student visa with the goal of starting a business or finding a job in their field. Some learn language, some do not; some are here for a set period of time, some plan to stay long-term. A few of these individuals do join sending organizations, but most don’t see the need to as they do not need to raise financial support. They have a natural identity among locals, but they can also easily slide into the “expat bubble” and have little impact or, at worst, actually have a negative impact on the Chinese church by unintentionally propagating the myth that Christianity is a western phenomenon. Before meeting me, my husband would have identified himself in this camp as he pursued his studies in graduate school with the intent of becoming a professor.
Needless to say, with my husband and me coming from such different perspectives, we had to do a lot of praying and learning as we moved towards a life in China. We eventually came to the conclusion that we wanted the best of both worlds. We were 100% committed to being the best possible “missionaries” but we were also 100% committed to my husband doing excellent work in his career.
Though we have met others who would say the same thing, few have chosen to join a sending organization and raise partial financial support. However, we’ve found that coming to China with a paying job (my husband is a professor at a university), as well as a sending organization and partial financial support has enabled us to be more effective in all areas of our lives.
So, for those who love China as we do and may be in the midst of making big decisions about how to get here, I’ve outlined some of the pros and cons of joining a sending organization as well as raising support.
To date, we have spent a total of about six weeks in formal training through the influence of our organization, and as we live here we have ongoing opportunities for further training. What we have learned has been priceless. We learned how to observe and learn another culture in order to separate biblical truth from western culture and thus, by God’s grace, have a more reproducible, far-reaching, and authentically biblical impact. We learned some of the basics of Chinese culture and their implications. We heard from others with more experience in raising kids as TCKs (third-culture kids). We learned how to nurture and preserve the intense relationships that develop when working on a team with others in ministry. We were equipped to more effectively learn Chinese and endure the rigors of language study. We discussed security and safety issues, and we gained a team of people in the US who work to keep us healthy and safe. We learned about and prepared ourselves for the realities of culture stress and its potential effects on our marriage and kids.
We have been impressed and encouraged by meeting missional expats in China who have truly given their lives to grow the kingdom here. However, we’ve also been saddened to meet some who were completely unprepared for the difficulties they would face in living in another culture and thus either retreated to the expat bubble or returned home.
Even more disheartening are the examples of those who have had an impact but who have unknowingly exported more western culture than kingdom culture, thus potentially damaging the Chinese church in various ways. For example, we met two young Chinese couples in our area who are trying to start house churches but so far have few or no attendees. In both cases, their methods and forms (such as their order of service, preaching content, and evangelism) seem overtly western, and they either have or are planning to go overseas for further training. We can only guess they have been influenced by well-meaning expatriates who had a very specific idea of what church should look like and simply passed that on. I don’t wish to argue that it would have been better for them not to have come; after all, people have come to know Christ through their efforts. However, our area also has several other Chinese congregations working to evangelize and reach out in more authentically Chinese ways—primarily through relationships—and with seemingly more “success.” How much better would it be if these two young couples worked with the existing church to reach the people around them? How much better if they could share the love of God in ways that most Chinese would recognize rather than labeling as “foreign”?
This blog will be continued next week in part two.