In his recent piece, “When the ’Golden Age’ Is Over,” Chen Jing draws attention to an important task facing our community at present. As the number of expatriate cross-cultural workers in China, and the scale of their work, has shrunk dramatically, it is vital that we take time to reflect on what we have done and how we have done it. We have seen a lot over the past forty years—both good and bad—and we must learn from our past if we are to avoid making the same mistakes in the future.
The Need for Reflection
I am very sympathetic to considering the five questions raised by Chen at the end of the article. Like so many cross-cultural missions endeavors throughout history, our most recent efforts to reach China in the wake of the Cultural Revolution never fully recognized the degree to which our habits and cultural preferences became entangled with our methods and strategies. This is perhaps especially true of the outsized American contribution to that effort. Chen’s questions point to things that could have been done to avoid some of those cultural biases and the resultant missteps.
Cross-cultural missions can never completely avoid the personal and ethnic prejudices that arise from the all-too-human love of self, and many nationalities struggled with prioritizing mainland Chinese cultural preferences in their work. While the failures of Koreans and Americans to adjust to Chinese culture are frequently mentioned, I have seen many from the Chinese diaspora struggle as well—in some cases more so than more obvious cultural outsiders. Ultimately, no one can fully remove themselves from their own cultural identity, but, as the Apostle Paul says, we must always strive to be more sympathetic to the people we hope to win (to be all things to all people). All of us working cross-culturally need more humility, and greater love and sympathy for those we are trying to serve. Like Chen, I hope we can take the time and effort now to learn from our past failures and successes so that our next efforts will be more faithful and more fruitful, bringing God greater glory.
Not One or the Other but Both
I also agree that this reflective task is largely a missiological one, and that now is surely a good time for a little less doing and a little more reflecting. But as someone with the degrees and publications of a missiologist and the life and work of a practitioner, I wonder if what we really need is not more information from missiologists, but actually more overlap between field workers and theoreticians.
Each time I read or write a monograph or journal article, I am left with the often-challenging task of bringing those ideas to bear on actual life in the field. I would like to see more people engaged in mission who can wear both hats, who have real experience on the field and yet who have the skills and training to ask careful theological questions about what they are doing. As Chen says, let’s encourage one another to think more about where we have been, where we are right now, and where we think China missions is going—before we leap back in and make the same mistakes once again. But let’s do this without elevating the missiologist at the expense of the field worker; neither of these roles is valuable without the other. Perhaps now we finally have the time and space to bring these two vital missional roles into closer communion and cooperation.
Life from Death
There was a lot of handwringing in 1950, as not just Christians but many American politicians were overwhelmed by a sense of having “lost” China. This sense of “debacle” had a lot to do with entitlement and cultural pride, and an unexamined confidence in the American (and, by association, the Christian) way. In hindsight we see that moment as straddling the end of the era of cultural imperialism, and the beginning of the period of decolonization—though China, of course, took its own route towards independence.
While it is certainly possible to look upon the dramatic reduction of foreign Christian influence within China today as a loss, as our failure to win a victory for God’s kingdom, this is not the only way to understand our current situation. The biblical record tells a story of advances and seeming defeats, of ebbs and flows, that are all used by God to achieve his good purposes. No defeat seemed more final than the death of our savior, and yet…. Often the gospel advances precisely in the moments we perceive as losses.
The dramatic growth of the church in China following the so-called debacle of the 1950s already suggests that this current moment might not be a defeat but could instead augur yet another ironic inflection in God’s divine plan. Like the pattern of peace and persecution throughout the book of Acts—and even like the cross itself—this current moment of constriction may be God’s means for compelling a new and dynamic scattering. Far from a failure, our current situation could be the beginnings of a redeployment—not just of the many foreign cross-cultural workers who have served in China for so long, but also of the rising community of Chinese sisters and brothers who feel the call to go wherever God sends them.
We serve a God who brings life from death. As Chen Jing says, let us by all means learn from the past so that we can be more faithful—better stewards of all God has given us—in the future. Despite our momentary sense of defeat, the unshakable truth is that the victory already belongs to our God, and he holds the keys to the future.
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