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Can the Chinese Church Say No?

The people of China have a history of being ambivalent toward knowledge and technology imported from the West. The ti-yong debates of the late-19th and early- 20th centuries highlighted their desire to enjoy the practical benefits (yong) of Western learning while maintaining the essence (ti) of Chinese culture. The rush toward Westernization that seemed to characterize the 1980s was subsequently replaced by the "China Can Say No" spirit of the 1990s. With China's rise in this century there is a new confidence in China's ability to chart its own unique course.

For the church in China as well, there can be a certain degree of ambivalence when it comes to partnering with the church abroad. Generous offers of literature, training, and other helps have, in recent decades, been welcomed by a church that has been stretched in all areas, yet one often hears later that the resources provided did not ultimately meet the needs.

While Chinese Christians may appreciate the practical help given by Christians outside, perhaps more important to them are the fellowship and moral support which these contacts provide. Rather than risk losing a valuable link to the outside world, Chinese Christians may tend to go along with ministry initiatives suggested by foreign Christians in order to keep relationships intact.

Secondly, traditional Chinese norms governing relationships with foreigners affect how Chinese Christians respond to assistance from abroad.

Since foreigners are viewed as guests while in China, it is natural for their hosts to respond favorably to what they bring. Particularly when China is just one stop on the whirlwind itinerary of a busy organizational or church leader from outside, this gracious reception may be taken as an unconditional welcome of the ministry he or she represents. In reality, it is more likely a signal that the Chinese Christians appreciated the fellowship and desire further dialogue.

The missing ingredient in these relationships is time. Chinese hospitality has a wonderful way of making first-time visitors feel like old friends, but genuine friendships require many subsequent meetings in order to mature. Only then will Chinese believers be comfortable expressing their true feelings about the nature of their partnership with outside Christians.

Effective partnering requires the building of long-term relationships that permit real dialogue on what is best for the church in China. In order to sincerely say "Yes," the Chinese church must first be allowed to say "No."

Adapted from "Can The Chinese Church Say 'No'?" ChinaSource Journal, Fall 1999.

Image credit: Joann Pittman

Brent Fulton

Brent Fulton

Brent Fulton is the founder of ChinaSource.  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 China Ministries International, and from 1985 to... View Full Bio