The traditional roles of foreign Christians in China are changing.
For the past three and half decades, foreign believers have traditionally served in one of two ways. They have sought to witness for Christ as professionals in education, business, or humanitarian endeavors, or they have served the indigenous church directly, primarily in the area of training.
Today the maturing of the church, along with heightened official suspicion toward foreign involvement in China, are giving rise to new modes of engagement. Here are seven trends to watch:
- From Training to Mentoring. Much of the equipping formerly done by foreigners can now be done by local Chinese. What is missing is an older, more experienced generation who can encourage today’s leaders as they navigate uncharted territory.
- From Leading to Modeling. Particularly in the NGO sector, where restrictions on foreign involvement are increasing, it is no longer either feasible or advisable for foreign workers to continue taking the lead. Their most constructive contribution is modeling effective leadership as they pass the baton to emerging local leaders.
- From Doing to Paving the Way. Whereas some roles in the past were simply not open to local Christians—or there were no local Christians available to fill them—foreign Christians today have the opportunity to introduce local counterparts into roles they once occupied.
- From Solutions to Shared Innovation. The creativity that foreign Christians learned in an environment where “anything is possible, but nothing is easy” may not be what the church needs going forward. Instead, foreign and local Christians need to innovate together as the church finds culturally appropriate ways to step into new areas of opportunity.
- From Sending to Receiving. In the past much effort was put into developing “platforms” for a legitimate foreign presence in China. Today, as the Chinese church prepares to send workers from China, entities outside China need to look at ways to receive these workers.
- From Trailblazer to Fellow Traveler. The “lone ranger” approach of breaking into new social sectors or geographical areas represents an outdated paradigm. Foreign and local believers need to be journeying together.
- From Entrepreneur to Catalyst. For foreign Christians whose relationships span multiple cities or networks, their most important contribution may not be starting anything new, but rather bringing local resources together in new ways.
Christians from around the world have met critical needs during a period of rapid growth and social transformation. Although few would argue that the foreign believer is no longer needed, the particular skills and characteristics desired today may be very different from past decades.
Image credit: 7 by Linda Åslund via Flickr.
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