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China Ministry and Transformational Development (1)

The End of an Era?

From the series Expats Serving in Transformational Development

Social service has been a key component of Christian mission ever since the Apostle Paul first collected funds to support the impoverished Christians in Jerusalem. While humanitarian aid waxed and waned in importance within mission circles during the intervening centuries, at the beginning of the twentieth century it came under great scrutiny particularly within American evangelicalism. Skepticism around aid work was largely a reaction against the Social Gospel crusades that emerged from the fundamentalist-modernist debates. Unmoored from its Victorian era roots in evangelical urban mission, the term Social Gospel was repurposed to refer to mission work that eschewed conversionist evangelism in favor of this-worldly development.1 This imbalance in Western (American) evangelicalism persisted for half a century, until the global church managed to penetrate American confidence and lead Western mission back to its biblical foundations.

In his recent book Facing West: American Evangelicals in an Age of World Christianity, David R. Swartz tells the tale of this globally inspired American re-awakening. Two incidents in particular seem to be central to the recovery of humanitarian aid for evangelical mission. First, the courageous challenge raised by a majority of world theologians at the First International Congress on World Evangelization held in Lausanne, Switzerland in 1974 forced Western theologians and missionaries to begin wrestling with the assumptions related to wealth and power that post-war Americans carried with them into global mission. Stirring words from Samuel Escobar, Rene Padilla, and a host of other theologians, missionaries, and pastors from around the world convinced influential evangelical John Stott to join their call and include social justice in the Lausanne Covenant.2 This was the opening phase of a watershed shift away from the “Christian Americanism” that had undergirded the engagement of Christians from the newly crowned American superpower with the rest of the world.

A decade later, World Vision, the reigning powerhouse of American Christian global engagement, was in crisis. As Western colonialism fell into disrepute at home and abroad, World Vision found that their inherited ethos of triumphalism, technology, and power was facing great resistance. In the early 1980s, the Philippine chapter of World Vision began experimenting with a new approach to Christian mission in the towns of the island of Occidental Mindoro. They used techniques that were first developed by Y. C. James Yen (晏阳初) in his “People’s Schools” during the Rural Reconstruction Movement in Hunan, China before the Second World War. The new Filipino “Children of the School of the Sweat” training programs emphasized the participation and empowerment of the local people.3 The resulting set of initiatives produced remarkable fruit—easing both the financial difficulties and the crisis of reputation that had threatened to end World Vision’s overseas work. World Vision quickly cycled their leaders from the West and around the world through intensive training sessions with Yen, resulting in a shift away from the imperialist culture the organization had inherited from its roots in America’s fight against Communism. One World Vision worker, Bryant Myers, emerged at the end of the 1980s as a leading proponent of the culturally sensitive, holistic approach to Christian mission that today we know as transformational development.4

Christian development projects enjoyed a remarkable degree of growth and influence across China during the 2000s. In the run-up to China’s successful 2008 Beijing Olympics—and particularly during the religious riots in western China that followed that success—the China ministry development “industry” began to face official resistance. Many projects or organizations lost their registrations and were forced to either leave China or dramatically change their work. China’s 2017 NGO laws were a targeted effort to further restrict the ability of expatriate Christian individuals and especially international agencies to engage in the kinds of projects that had earlier shown so much promise.

Over the last few years, stringent enforcement and an increasingly anti-foreign mood have combined with these new regulations to make it harder and harder for expatriate development ministries to partner with local entities, let alone operate their own independent relief or development projects. Visas for development workers are increasingly hard to secure, while funds from overseas are closely watched and very difficult to process. NGOs are specifically targeted as hotbeds of foreign influence and espionage, and even locally owned and registered non-profits face an uphill battle against official suspicion and resistance. Several international Christian organizations experienced these constraints first-hand when their expatriate workers were threatened and sometimes removed from China by the Chinese state in 2018 and early 2019. The dramatic increase in the quantity of surveillance technology and its ever-broadening use by the state now works alongside targeted negative media messaging to ensure that foreign participation in most areas of transformational development is both tracked and viewed as a potential risk to national security. COVID has provided a convenient rationale for extending and expanding these restrictions to even further constrain the influence of foreign individuals or agencies within Chinese society.

Holistic Christian mission is clearly difficult to sustain in China today. Does this mean that transformational development no longer has its place in China mission? Is Christian development (in education, public health, poverty relief, and other areas) no longer a viable aspect of expatriate Christian ministry in China? Or, as some have suggested, are we in the midst of a second exodus of China cross-cultural workers, spelling the end of nearly all expatriate China ministry?5

While it is foolish to make long-term prognostications based upon the current situation with all its COVID-related exceptions, the experiences of the few remaining expatriate cross-cultural workers in China suggest that while we are not at the end of Christian development work in China, we are confronted with a substantially different ministry context. Rather than abandoning these ministry imperatives, the current environment challenges the Western mission community once more to learn from our brothers and sisters around the globe. Our infatuation with triumphalism, technology, and power remains as ever before: can we escape our cultural captivity and learn to serve our global siblings in humility?

The second part of this post looks at an example of expatriate participation in transformational development from today’s China, giving us new insights into what the future of China ministry may hold.


  1. For an introduction to this history, as well as the contemporary practice of social service ministry in China today, see Swells in the Middle Kingdom, “Social Service Ministry in China,” available to download at
  2. This story is found in David R. Swartz, Facing West: American Evangelicals in an Age of World Christianity (New York: Oxford University Press, 2020), chapter 4.
  3. See Swartz, Facing West, chapter 5.
  4. His still influential 1999 publication has since been revised: Bryant Myers, Walking with the Poor: Principles and Practices of Transformational Development (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 2011). Some of the ideas Myers learned from Yen have been simplified for contemporary lay readers in Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert’s When Helping Hurts: How to Alleviate Poverty Without Hurting the Poor—and Yourself (Chicago, IL: Moody Publishers, 2009).
  5. For more on the experiences of the many China workers who have left in the past few years, see the blog series “When the China Dream Comes to a Halt” at
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Image credit: Oliver Roos via UnSplash

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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