Much discussion of China’s contemporary mission movement draws upon the legacy of what became known in the 1940s as the “Back to Jerusalem” movement. The progress of this movement was unfortunately cut short due to political events. Had the initial efforts of those early mission pioneers been allowed to continue, we might be able today to assess the fruit of their cross-cultural ministry, in particular the nature of the gospel message as it was transmitted across cultures and the characteristics of the churches eventually planted as a result.
Now as China’s church reengages in mission, the question of how the gospel will be conveyed cross culturally and what kind of churches will result is central to the long-term success of the Chinese mission movement. The current missionary church narrative unfortunately seems to overlook this larger concern, focusing instead on the immediate tasks of training and sending workers and building platforms for witness overseas.
A key aspect of this question concerns the unique cultural aspects of China’s church and how these will manifest in its cross-cultural ministry. Attending a church in Africa that bore an unmistakable resemblance to the denominational churches of missionaries who had first evangelized the region, missiologist Sherwood Lingenfelter asked why, in the process of establishing the church in other cultures, do we transfer our own church cultures?
Can we find a biblical basis for this practice? Are missionaries planting biblically founded indigenous churches, or are they transferring their culture of Christianity to every nation of the world?… Is it possible to bring a truly transforming gospel, or are we always limited to reproducing our own cultural reflection of Christianity wherever we carry the message?1
As the church in China embarks on cross-cultural mission, Lingenfelter’s question is worthy of careful reflection. Since it seems inevitable that cross-cultural messengers will bring with them features of their home culture, some of which are not particularly useful or appropriate, they need to cultivate a healthy sense of self-awareness about how their own church culture has been shaped by their wider cultural background. This would include how they understand and communicate the gospel, how they treat one another, their style of worship, how they view gender and generational differences, and how power is distributed within the community, to name just a few topics.
Taking a low view of culture, Lingenfelter asserts that Christians ministering cross-culturally must discern their own “cultural palaces,” the cultural prisons that may provide comfort and security and meaning, in order to break down the walls that keep them from relating effectively to people of other nations. The very things in our church culture that make us feel “at home” could become impediments to the gospel as we move across cultures.
Only by recognizing that cultural blindness is the rule, not the exception, and that our philosophies are our windows onto the world, can we free our fellowship and our theology from the bondage of our cultural philosophies and worldview. We must look through multiple windows if we are to genuinely apprehend the transforming power of the gospel and apply kingdom principles interculturally. Each believer sees through a glass, narrow and constraining, but together as disciples with differing perspectives we can begin to comprehend the wider impact of the Scripture in a pluralistic world.2
Today it is still too early to discern the cultural impact of China’s missionary church upon the peoples to whom cross-cultural workers are currently being sent. Will patterns of leadership closely match those of today’s Chinese church? How will the sacraments be understood and administered? How will scriptural truths be contextualized? How will church leaders choose to relate to secular authorities? Should the Lord tarry, perhaps the next generation of missiologists—or maybe the generation after them—will be able to begin researching questions such as these. In the meantime, China’s church, standing at the crossroads on its cross-cultural journey, has a historic opportunity to reexamine its own cultural heritage, realizing that some traditions, attitudes, habits, and practices that have served well up to this point would be better left behind, while others are uniquely suited for the road ahead.
Brent Fulton is the founder of ChinaSource. Dr. Fulton served as the first president of ChinaSource until 2019. Prior to his service with ChinaSource, 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 …View Full Bio
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