The End of the “Golden Age”?
Chen Jing has incisively drawn some missiological reflections that are pertinent in the aftermath of foreign cross-cultural workers being expelled from China. Chen raises important points that call for a critical look at how mission has been done in China during the so-called “Golden Age” of mission work and church growth from the late 1990s to mid-2010s. While I agree with Chen’s advocacy for a critical missiological examination, I would suggest that a better starting point may be to revisit the idea of a “Golden Age” itself. What does the popularity of this notion reveal about how foreign workers and their roles are viewed in the Chinese context?
The idea of a “Golden Age” tends to make two assumptions. Either foreign workers had open access to China during this period, or their mission activities led to significant growth of the church in China. Sometimes both of these assumptions are simultaneously present. While it was certainly true that a significant number of foreign workers entered China during these decades, there were still many restrictions upon religious practices and evangelization. Foreign workers typically gained access to China under the guise of an alternative identity—as students, teachers, professionals, or some other role. Their activities were often under state surveillance of one kind or another. Thus, the notion of a “Golden Age” is a bit illusory, though it is correct that the government approved visas for foreigners more freely then than now.
Aside from the efforts of foreign workers, the church in China has been undergoing different stages of revival and reconfiguration since the doors to churches re-opened in the 1980s.1 Chinese Christians also have contributed significantly to evangelization locally and to cross-cultural missions in China and abroad. Some of these efforts have been catalyzed by foreign workers, but some are solely the initiatives of local Christians. Hence, the growth of the church is not merely the result of foreign mission work.
In this regard, Sylvia Yuan adds needed nuance to Chen Jing’s comparison between the latest restrictions and events in the early 1950s by highlighting the cyclical nature of mission activities in China’s history. Ji Yajie and Brent Fulton also rightly point out that foreign mission access shifts according to the dynamic interaction between politics and religious activities. These insights help to situate the current limits on mission work in China within the broader frame of China’s political ambitions as well as Christian responses to them—whether from Chinese Christians, foreign workers, or Christians worldwide. Furthermore, it is noteworthy that the growth of Chinese Christianity may not correlate directly to the activities of cross-cultural workers in China, though the contributions of the latter also should not be dismissed. On this note, Swells in the Middle Kingdom wisely reminds us of the dramatic growth of the church in China after the removal of foreigners in the 1950s.
Therefore, whether the period from the late 1990s to the mid-2010s was indeed a “Golden Age,” history clearly indicates that the mission of God continues onward despite the absence of cross-cultural workers’ activities.
Christianity in China and Restrictions on Religious Freedom
The significance of the recent expulsion of foreigners lies instead in the Chinese government’s increasing control over religious activities, though the Constitution of the People’s Republic of China protects religious freedom (Article 36), technically speaking. What will become of Christianity in China as religious freedom becomes more limited? While the work of foreign workers has indeed been disrupted, the greater impact of such restrictions has fallen upon Chinese Christians themselves. At the same time, it is too early to assess how Chinese Christians themselves are bearing up under such pressure. It may yet be that this generation of Chinese Christians is more innovative, more resourceful, and more experienced than previous ones in responding to government restrictions.
Religious restrictions also raise the question of how Chinese Christians will have access to the resources of the global church even as foreign workers depart. From my own experiences working with mainland Chinese Christians in Singapore, it is apparent that departure of foreign workers in the last few years did not sever Chinese Christians’ connections to global Christian networks. Many Chinese Christians are using digital technologies and international travel to facilitate access to resources for their growth and training. Especially since the 1980s, there has also been an increased diasporic presence of Chinese nationals in numerous countries around the world. These Chinese nationals come from various socio-economic backgrounds—students, professionals, businesspeople, migrant laborers, service providers—and a notable number of them encounter Christianity when they are abroad. While overseas, these diasporic Chinese maintain transnational connections that allow them to become conduits of the gospel and disciple-making activities, both at home and in diaspora.
These transnational connections help Chinese Christians cope with religious restrictions after the departure of foreign workers. This is significantly different from the situation in the 1950s.
Chinese Christians and the Global Church
The importance of foreign workers should be evaluated in light of the twin phenomena mentioned above—Chinese Christians’ self-initiated evangelization and transnational connections. Missiological reflection should include a re-orientation in how the global church engages Chinese Christians. For these reasons, I propose three questions for re-conceptualizing mission activities to China:
- Building bridges. Given the current restrictions on foreign mission work, should foreign workers—whether or not they still have access to China—be re-conceived as bridges between the church in China and the global church? What can they do to strengthen the connection between the church in China and the global church?
- Intercultural exchange. In view of locally initiated evangelization gaining momentum in China, what are the lessons for the church in China and the global church to learn from one another in intercultural exchange? This would lead to a better understanding of God’s mission locally and globally.
- Mutuality in God’s mission. The need for better partnership between local Christians and foreign workers has already been discussed in other blog posts. How can a partnership built upon mutual respect continue in advancing God’s mission?
Finally, we should concede that it is probably impossible to differentiate the impact of foreign mission work from that of local Christian efforts. This is because the two sides are too intertwined to separate. As the apostle Paul explains in 1 Corinthians 3:6, the work of planting seeds and watering then may be human activities, but it is God who ultimately brings about growth. Hence, as mission in China goes through changing circumstances, it is important to remember that the growth of the Chinese church is primarily the missio dei (mission of God) rather than our mission.
- For more in-depth treatment on the resurgence and reconfiguration of the Chinese church in recent decades, please see the following selected works: Daniel Bays, A New History of Christianity in China, 2012; Alexander Chow, Chinese Public Theology, 2018; Aminta Arrington, Songs of the Lisu Hills, 2020; and Wang Yi, Faithful Disobedience, 2022.
Image credit: Manos Koutras via UnSplash.
Jackie J. Hwang
Jackie Hwang is a Taiwanese American whose journey has taken her from Asia to the US then back to Asia. She considers herself a global citizen whose home is everywhere and nowhere. She has served with OMF International in Singapore since 2010. She is currently a PhD candidate in World …View Full Bio
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