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An Interview with a Missions Leader in China (3)

From the series An Update on Indigenous Missions in the New Era

Editor’s Note: In this final installment of the interview series, TT lays out some of the challenges faced by Chinese churches wanting to send workers into the field. He also discusses the need for training for workers and ways foreigners can assist, both by teaching online and by teaching in-person in other countries, such as Thailand. Finally, TT emphasizes Chinese workers’ need for long-term mentors, which is another important role foreigners can take on.

Coworkers with a large North American mission have a question: We have strong relationships with several large churches in Beijing, but how can we offer support to churches in smaller cities and in the countryside?

This is a very interesting question, because you stated this special characteristic of the Chinese church very accurately. In fact, there are two main types of church, that is, two types of house church, in China. There are the city churches, which tend to be large and independent. They form the main body of the 2030 movement. But as for mission, they still lack a strategic plan because they are still at the first stage. They are at the stage of educating members about the nature and importance of mission, and arousing interest in mission. This is one reason the Kairos course has become so popular.

The other kind of church is the country house church. These church networks are massive, but they lack knowledge. They not only have no strategy but even lack the basic education that would make them aware of their need for a plan. But what they do have is enthusiasm. They are willing to send out missionaries, and they are willing to be sent out.

Here’s a recent example I saw in Myanmar about three to five years ago. A Chinese countryside house church network sent several hundred missionaries. They invested between 10 and 20 million yuan to build schools, but these have all been closed down already, within just a few years. The reason was not COVID-19. The reason was that the Chinese missionaries didn’t know how to familiarize themselves with the local socio-political environment, and they upset the local government. Those governors in Myanmar are really warlords with communist ideology. They were raised on Chinese communist philosophy. Some of them were even Red Guards in China before they became governors in Myanmar. Needless to say, they do not tolerate openly teaching religion to children and young people.

Added to that, Myanmar needs youth to participate in military service. If you open all these schools, you’ll negatively impact the number of youths who volunteer for the military. So it’s not surprising that the governors felt threatened by the Chinese missionaries and their schools.

So how can overseas Christians bless these Chinese countryside house churches who are keen to send and be sent as missionaries? One method I believe in is for the foreign agency to first build a relationship with these networks, then set up a separate department within their organization for sending and supporting them. Another good alternative is to cooperate with a Chinese sending agency that is already set up. Our coworkers from overseas can offer good training and member care. Both of these are good strategies. By contrast, if you simply encourage us to build our own structures, it is incredibly difficult. The opposite strategy of simply inviting these countryside Christians to apply to join international mission agencies is also very difficult.

There are a number of mission agencies and training centers in other countries such as Thailand. Are there any examples of fruitful practices that we might imitate?

There are a lot of good examples. First, let me tell you my impression. It seems many of the leaders and founders of these training centers are foreigners who have lived in China. They know about Chinese culture and have good Chinese language ability. The roles these centers are playing for Chinese missionaries are very similar to what we talked about earlier: the Christians who have been forced out of China and are looking for ways to continue serving. The number of missionaries who receive training is small. Each class probably only has about ten students. Why so few? One reason is that they are not widely publicized, so the churches don’t know about them. Another reason is that many of the trainers are from a Korean background, and at present, Chinese Christians are somewhat wary of associating with Koreans. There are specific reasons for this wariness, but that is a topic for another day.

There are success stories, though. I know a godly young [Chinese] couple who served for many years in an East Asian location. They were very diligent and persevered through suffering, but it was apparent that their training was inadequate. Their ways of operating were often rough, sometimes even stupid. We sent them to Thailand for a medium-length training and mentoring program. They have grown so much that we have now been able to send them out again to a location in the Middle East.

There is, of course, a limit to how long a person can stay in Thailand for training. What can we do about getting long-term mentoring and training for these coworkers?

This is a great need, and this is why we want to start more things online. We’ve experienced this many times. We have brought our missionaries to training events, conferences, and retreats where they’ve connected with experienced coworkers, and it’s been genuinely fruitful. The problem is that everyone goes home, and that learning and growing community evaporates.

We can use video conferencing for classes and courses, but they must be interactive. Some great resources are available from overseas seminaries and training centers where they have recorded their Chinese language lectures and made them available online. To complement this, the missionaries I’m talking about need person-to-person interaction, which we can achieve through video-conferencing.

In my opinion, the need is enormous. I estimate that 90% of all missionaries from China require extra training.

Here is another excellent way for foreigners who have left China to serve Chinese missionaries. You already have fluent Chinese, and you know about Chinese culture, but you have left your field of service. Why not move to a new country and accompany the Chinese coworkers who are serving there? Of course, you will need to introduce yourself to their leaders first. They will want to see your qualifications and whether you have an official role with a reputable organization. There are countless opportunities opening up all over the world where we need our brothers and sisters from overseas to help us fulfill God’s mission.

What else would you like to say to the readers of ChinaSource?

Right now, China’s mission sending is at a critical turning point. Everyone is very enthusiastic about getting started, and in fact, the economic situation is not too bad. Church leaders have already started recognizing the importance of God’s mission, and their enthusiasm is filtering down to the laity. This is illustrated by the numbers; for example, Kairos has already trained over 100,000 Christians.

These days mission is hot. Everyone wants to do it. In this climate, international mission agencies can offer guidance. We need guides. I don’t mean a simplistic, short-term orientation course. I don’t mean simple encouragement or what so many of my foreign colleagues refer to as “just walking alongside.” But neither do we need a boss who only gives commands and does not truly walk with us. I mean each missionary needs a genuine guide. A guide with authority. A guide who gives direction. If this guidance can be provided, I have faith that the cross-cultural mission movement of the Chinese church will be able to walk down a better path for the long term: a path with stability and a path with direction. This path is already developed, but we need guides to help us learn the way.

At times in the past, some international coworkers have been far too polite to us. They would come to us saying, “We’ve started this ministry; could you join us and help us?” In fact, our people had no idea how to help. That’s what happened in Myanmar. If those expatriate coworkers had truly conveyed their organization’s plans and ideas, we would not have seen such poor results.

You need to build a relatively strong relationship with the house churches, and you need to do this through establishing official positions from which you can have influence and genuinely walk alongside Chinese church leaders and missionaries.

Editor’s Note: This is the third and final post in the series. Read part one here and part two here. In the previous posts, TT laid out the current situation of gospel work in China and ways that Western workers can adapt their methods to better support their Chinese counterparts.

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Image credit: Shubai Ke via UnSplash.


TT is the founder and director of one of the most mature sending structures in China.View Full Bio

Julie Ma

Julie Ma

Julie Ma (pseudonym) is a graduate of Sydney Missionary and Bible College (SMBC) and a member of the Angelina Noble Centre for women in cross-cultural missions research. She left her home in Australia over a decade ago to serve Hui Chinese Muslims alongside her Chinese husband. After all these years overseas, …View Full Bio

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