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Being a Western Christian in the Global Church, Part 3

How You Can Serve the Chinese Church

From the series Being a Western Christian in the Global Church

Changes taking place in the world and in China in particular are causing many ChinaSource readers to reconsider our China ministries. Publications by Andrew Walls, a British scholar of the African Church who pioneered the study of World Christianity, and Hans Rosling, a Swedish physician known for his statistically grounded global health advocacy, provide much needed perspective for those of us from outside China that are asking questions about our future role in the Chinese Christian community.

In part 1 the current state of world Christianity is presented, while part 2 looks more closely at the place of western Christians within the global church. In part 3 suggestions are offered for how western Christians—in light of all this—should approach their service to the Chinese Christian community.

How You Can Serve the Chinese Church

Given all that has changed in the church in China and around the world—it is past time for cross-cultural workers in China to reevaluate our role in the Chinese Christian community. Following are some suggestions for how to better serve the Chinese church in today’s world.

1. Serve local congregations

In the past, western Christians were so convinced of the merits of their strategies and visions that we often jumped into local churches and simply assumed that we knew what they needed. An informed and godly humility quickly suggests that a better path to healthy ministry starts with an assumption of equality, and the simple act of “being with them.” Discover the gifts of the local congregation, and strive to learn from these sisters and brothers in Christ, remembering all along that possession of a western passport and western training does not mean you are an expert in all things or places. And then, after the local church has had an opportunity to learn about you and your gifts, ask them how you can best serve their community. Of course, current security trends may make this more difficult in coming years, but surely the principle remains true: allow local believers and church leaders to guide and direct your service.

I had an experience with this myself a few years ago that was very eye-opening. A leader in a local congregation that I had know for many years asked me to present a formal introduction to Reformed theology for the elders and pastoral team of their fellowship. After providing the historical and theological context for the Reformation, I began my presentation of the standard TULIP formulation of the Reformed distinctives.[1] I watched in real time as one by one their eyes glazed over: none of the issues covered in TULIP resonated with my listeners! During the discussion time, little was said regarding the five points, but instead the conversation focused on issues that were central to the Chinese expression of Reformed Christianity: children’s education, political activism, fundamentalism and divisiveness, and tendencies towards abuse in Reformed church leadership.

Through this experience I learned that the education I received in Reformation and Reformed theology was not incorrect, but it was insufficient. Though trained to serve as a cross-cultural worker, I had nevertheless been equipped for a world where the western church and its context was normative, and I was clearly not an expert on what the church outside the west needs or ought to do. This church continued to encourage me to serve in this way (theological training) but going forward I worked hard to ensure my trainings were shaped and directed by the context and concerns of this local congregation, rather than blindly trusting in my “expertise” and passing on coursework that resonated with my western Christian identity.

2. Serve the western church

As the church in other parts of the globe grows and flourishes, cross-cultural workers from the west may find an increasingly important part of their work falls into the category of “reverse mission.” This term describes the historical pattern of missionaries bringing the things they have learned in other places back to their sending churches and over time actually changing their home churches.[2] Many of us have experienced this phenomenon in our own lives, but perhaps in our current moment in China ministry it is time to embrace this ministry more fully. How can you enable brothers and sisters in the west to hear from and learn from their sisters and brothers in China? Given current trends in China and the west, this ministry will likely prove vital in the coming years.

3. Serve in different ways

So much of western education—theological or otherwise—is focused on training leaders and influencers. But what does it mean to be a missionary? Can you be something other than a teacher or a leader? Must all missionaries be either a pastor or an evangelist? And does God measure our service based on our place on an organizational chart? If we embrace Jesus’s prioritization of faithfulness (Mat 25:21), and pursue the Bible’s fully-orbed conception of God’s global mission (summarized in the Lausanne Covenant as “the whole church taking the whole gospel to the whole world”) then we are free to see the value in a host of different missional roles.

Honesty about our own gifts—honesty towards both those who send us and those who receive us—is still important. It is embarrassing to think that we still have instances of 23-year-old western English teachers with no formal theological training who are “mentoring” 45-year-old Chinese pastors with decades of experience ministering in extremely challenging circumstances. But if we set aside our cultural and prideful need to “lead” then perhaps we can redirect the actual gifts of our cross-cultural workers in more faithful ways.

One easy way to approach this: Imagine you are in your church back home. How would you serve? Typically, you might serve the larger community through prayer, fellowship, and the sharing of your practical skills such as maintenance, IT, music, event planning, food preparation, etc. Of course some might serve as mentors, but you would also serve as mentees (perhaps this is what the 23-year-old western English teacher has come to China for!). The point here is to be reflective and honest about your gifts (what can you actually do) while at the same time shifting your expectations for what you consider to be worthwhile service. Notice we are once again talking about humility.

4. Serve responsibly

Be careful with western resources. Being mindful of the many weaknesses and difficulties that plague the church in the west should help us to be more thoughtful in how we share western resources with the Chinese church. This is especially true in light of the growing strength and confidence of the Chinese church. Ask yourself whether or not your resources from back home will contribute positively to the Chinese church’s current need to mobilize Chinese finances for the Gospel; to foster Chinese theological and devotional reflection; and to develop mission-sending patterns and sending agencies that address Chinese concerns (such as income generation, education for children, care for elderly parents, etc.).

Remember that we tend blindly to lead with our so-called strengths, often burying or obscuring the gifts and abilities of the people we are supposedly serving. Do they really need what we are offering? An informed humility should give us pause, and drive us to be more collaborative with local Christians in how we serve and contribute.

5. Serve humbly

At the end of the day, God’s people serve in response to God’s call rather than in obedience to any earthly vision. This too requires great humility, as seasons of ministry come and go, and our own sense of importance ebbs and flows.

A colleague of mine trained for years as a western medical doctor before coming to China—where he spent another two years in full-time language school. He then moved into a rural community to begin medical work in a local hospital. He arrived for his first day of clinical work to find that the elderly local doctor he was paired with was already hard at work mopping the dusty concrete floor. My colleague’s cultural training kicked in, and the next day he showed up early to ensure that he was the one mopping the floor.

However, after a month of this he was frustrated: all this time and effort so he could mop a dirty floor in the middle of nowhere? What a waste of his gifts! Each day he asked God why he was stuck serving in this way. A year or so later he had his answer: mopping the floor was precisely the work God had prepared for him to do! In addition to the humility this task eventually instilled in my colleague, the witness of this simple act became the theme and foundation of his ministry in this community for years to come.

After a few years of extremely (from my perspective!) fruitful ministry, I have had to curtail a lot of my activities in light of recent changes in the local environment. Local friends encouraged me to retreat from some of my work in order to ensure I could remain with them. I have been asking God to show me how I can best serve and use my gifts in this challenging environment.

I am slowly coming to the realization that perhaps one of my primary acts of service for the present may be to pray. I know my brothers and sisters intimately and I am privileged to still have contact with them—more so than I could were I on the other side of the world. Supporting them in this way does not sound “significant” to me, but what right do I have to demand or expect a particular kind or scale of ministry? Isaiah and Jeremiah were faithful, and yet few followed them and they themselves saw little fruit from their service.

As Christians from the west we must stop thinking in terms of “the west and the rest” and embrace our identity as equal members of the world church, no more special or privileged than any of our sisters and brothers. As you step out to serve our one God wherever he places you, ask him to lead you to the good works he has prepared in advance for you to do (Ephesians 2:10). Ask God to help you live as a priest and a citizen of a kingdom ransomed for God from every tribe and language and people and nation (Revelation 5:9–10). And ask him to give you the humility to faithfully carry out whatever he asks of you, no matter how big or small the task.


  1. ^ TULIP is a mnemonic device commonly used to recall the five points of Calvinism as codified by the 1619 Synod of Dort: Total depravity, Unconditional election, Limited atonement, Irresistible grace, and the Perseverance of the saints.
  2. ^ Lian Xi, The Conversion of Missionaries: Liberalism in American Protestant Missions in China, 1907–1932 (University Park, PA: Pennsylvania State University, 1997, 207–228.
Image credit: Swells in the Middle Kingdom.
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Swells in the Middle Kingdom

"Swells in the Middle Kingdom" began his life in China as a student back in 1990 and still, to this day, is fascinated by the challenges and blessings of living and working in China.View Full Bio

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