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A Missed Opportunity

How Our Questions Shape Our Narratives

From the series Our China Stories

An article in last year’s inaugural issue of the Chinese-language Journal of Chinese Mission titled “The Development of the Contemporary Chinese Church Mission Movement” offers an in-depth look at the formation of what became known in the 1940s as the “Back to Jerusalem” movement. Included in this survey is a brief anecdote about a missionary to Tibet who had been a student of pastor and theologian Dr. Jia Yuming, founder of Chinese Christian Bible Institute.

Every day Rev. Jia Yuming of the Chinese Christian Bible Institute in Chongqing would lead the faculty and students in praying for world missions. He would also often invite missionaries from the front lines to come back to share and encourage the students. Pastor John Ding, who served in Kangding, Xikang Province,1 was a particular favorite with the faculty and students at the Institute.

John Ding’s missionary career was cut short in 1958, when he and his wife were arrested for spying on behalf of the Western missionaries who had served in the region. Following more than two decades of prison and labor camp, during which his wife passed away, Ding made his way to Southern California, where he reunited with some of his former colleagues from America and eventually settled.

I had the privilege of getting to know “Pastor Ding,” as he was affectionally called, in the late 1980s. A book about his life, penned by an American missionary who had served with him prior to leaving China in the early 1950s, unfortunately never saw the light of day, as publishers did not feel it would command a sizeable enough audience. Nevertheless, many did have the opportunity to hear part of Pastor Ding’s story. He was often invited by churches to give his testimony, and on at least one occasion was interviewed on Christian radio.

Accompanying Pastor Ding on many of those church visits, I became quite familiar with his story. He usually started with his childhood years growing up in a Christian home in Shanghai, during which he was miraculously healed from tuberculosis. The bulk of his testimony, however, focused on how he was arrested, then cruelly tortured in order to extract a confession to his nonexistent crimes, imprisoned, and subjected to years of humiliation and mistreatment in labor camp. His story would reach its climax with his singing a song he had learned in Bible school, which had brought him comfort during his dark days of confinement. The words were taken from 2 Corinthians 4:16–18:

So we do not lose heart. Though our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day. For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal.

Pastor Ding’s story had a profound effect upon his listeners, and by the time he finished there was hardly a dry eye in the room.

Through his testimony, many became acquainted with China’s suffering church. His story was one that needed to be shared, and by God’s grace it became a great source of encouragement to those who heard it. At a time when hopes for true reform in China seemed to be fading and concern for the church in China was growing, his tale of China’s persecuted church resonated in the hearts of Western Christians. With news reports of the Tiananmen tragedy still fresh in their minds, Pastor Ding’s listeners had their darkest assumptions about China confirmed.

There is another story, however, that could have been told if anyone had thought to ask. As his brief appearance in The Journal of Chinese Mission suggests, Pastor Ding was not only a pastor who had been persecuted for his faith; he also witnessed and participated in the extraordinary early days of the contemporary Chinese mission movement. His story encapsulated the zeal of young believers to spread the gospel to the frontiers of China and beyond. He experienced firsthand the struggle of adapting to a new culture in a land very different from his home. Just as he encouraged the students in Jia Yuming’s seminary, Pastor Ding might have fanned the missionary zeal of another generation of Christians in the West, had he been invited to do so. The lessons learned from his cross-cultural endeavors could well have been instructive for those seeking to engage Tibetans with the gospel at a time when China was opening up to outside involvement.

Yet it would be another decade before the Chinese mission movement gained a broader hearing through the publication of Paul Hattaway’s Back to Jerusalem, igniting the imaginations of Christians in the West with a new narrative about China’s church.

Like Pastor Ding, whose casting as a symbol of China’s persecuted church overshadowed his role as a pioneer missionary, the Chinese church’s richness and complexity can easily be lost when it is forced to fit into simple categories imposed from outside China. Too often the questions we ask (or fail to ask) drive our constrictive narratives about China and its church.

How many Christians are being persecuted for their faith?

What does the church in China need?

How is the church changing culture?

Do Chinese Christians follow [fill in the blank] doctrine?

The answers to questions like these say as much about what we value outside China as they say about the Chinese church itself. Especially in an era when so much is changing in the church and the ministry environment in China, taking the time to enter into their narratives and to listen first rather than leading with our own questions would go a long way toward better understanding our brothers and sisters in China.


  1. Kangding is a town in western Sichuan Province and the capital of Ganzi Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture in China. See “Kangding” in Britannica,
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Brent Fulton

Brent Fulton

Brent Fulton is the founder of ChinaSource. Dr. Fulton served as the first president of ChinaSource until 2019. Prior to his service with ChinaSource, 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 …View Full Bio

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