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Community and Witness


Cross-cultural workers have long debated the merits of devoting more or less time and energy to relations with other expatriates.

For some, the encouragement and emotional support that is (relatively) easily garnered from like-culture colleagues is considered essential to the long-term mental and spiritual health of the long-term cross-cultural worker. Many others, however, argue that the purpose of cross-cultural work is precisely to serve the cultural "other," and to that end all resources (time, energy, money, etc.) should be focused on connecting with and understanding the people amongst whom the cross-cultural worker is living. To divert these limited resources to maintaining relationships with or serving the expatriate community (assuming they are not your target ministry community) is therefore poor stewardship, a squandering of talents. Still worse, because of the relative comfort of working with people from the same or at least relatively similar cultures, these kinds of service and community building can very easily—often unintentionally—usurp the primacy of the originally intended cross-cultural work. Ministering to people more similar to oneself is typically less stressful, requires less effort, and does not demand the radical changes in life rhythm and identity that cross-cultural service often requires. For all these reasons, it is argued, interaction with other foreigners is best limited if not altogether avoided.

In general I am quite sympathetic to this more cautionary position. I myself have advised countless new workers to manage their time in accord with many of these principles. However, as I look back on nearly 20 years of life and ministry in China, I have to acknowledge that there is another dynamic at work—one that somehow must be kept in mind even as we continue to pursue deeper integration into the "other" culture.

A colleague of mine who spends a lot of his time on university campuses has spent the last year asking young people what it was that led them to become a Christian. He was surprised at how different their answers were to the kinds of things typically heard in the west. No one talked about going to heaven, or finding meaning in life. While a few mentioned deliverance from difficult circumstances, the vast majority talked about the inescapable, undeniable lure of Christian community—of their desire to be part of this group of diverse people who accepted and loved one another so freely. In his well-known book The Rise of Christianity author Rodney Stark argued convincingly that this same humble, loving, and widely accepting communal aspect of Christianity was responsible for its remarkable growth in the first few centuries after Jesus. For anyone who has spent time in contemporary China's often cruelly competitive society, the parallels with Stark's account are powerfully suggestive: it is easy to see how this alternative community would be attractive to Chinese people today.

Unfortunately, the language barriers, political realities, and very high thresholds for trust and cultural acceptance within the contemporary Chinese context can make it difficult for cross-cultural workers to become accepted and fully participating members of Chinese Christian communities. This is not denying that it can be done, only saying that it is problematic. In many cases it either requires the patient expenditure of years of effort to become accepted, or else a too rapid acceptance leads to an early and unwilling removal from the community at the behest of local security officials. Despite these challenges, this locally-conditioned participation is certainly the ideal to be aimed for, a cultural transformation that enables the cross-cultural worker to become—as much as possible—an insider, a healthy functioning member of an accepting and loving Chinese Christian community. With this as the context for one's life and ministry in China, the witness of the cross-cultural worker will be a powerful and natural outgrowth of the local Christian community, and the absorption of new believers into the local Christian community will have the best chance for success.

And yet, regardless of the focus of one's ministry, the visible and powerful witness potential of the foreign Christian community also cannot be denied. As any expatriate in China is well aware, the lives of foreign residents are glaringly conspicuous, often observed in minute detail by the people in our communities. If ever I need to locate a foreign colleague in my city, I can rely on getting solid information on their comings and goings from the various stoop-sitting elders and gate keepers in our respective housing developments. Lest we imagine that these observations rarely stray beyond the mundane, it is a commonplace for visitors to our organization's main office to remark on how friendly, peaceful and happy our workplace environment seems to be: whether delivering water bottles, doing a news story for a local paper, or collecting payments for train tickets these same expressions of wonder and envy have been expressed to us time and time again. I recall numerous neighbors marveling at foreign children's ability to put their ice cream wrappers in the trash bins—and then asking me how we discipline and care for our own and for each other's children. On another occasion many years ago, an article appeared in our local paper describing the love, trust and joy shared between a western mother and her two daughters as they rode bicycles together in their courtyard (if only the author had known that it was not a mother and her children, but rather a single colleague babysitting my two daughters!). This striking visibility means that the actions of and interactions within our foreign community have an outsized capacity to impress the people around us.

I am currently reading N.T. Wright's After You Believe on the nature and central importance of Christian virtue, and just the other day I came across a paragraph that neatly summarized some of my thoughts on the ways in which our relations with and behavior towards one another affects everything else we do. In His wisdom, God has designed his people to live as part of a body, giving us each our measure of the varied giftings and vocations that enable that body to function. Accordingly, Christian virtue—the pursuit of holiness or fully human living—is learned and expressed in community. And all of this is central to our task on earth. As N.T. Wright explains,

The high calling of Christian morality is therefore the necessary handmaid of the still higher calling of Christian worship and mission. The virtues which constitute the former are the vital components of the latter. The only way for worship and mission [the defining purpose or telos of the Royal Priesthood] to become second nature to the followers of Jesus is for the virtues, the Spirit's fruit, the passion for unity, and the celebration of the multiply varied vocations within the one body all to become second nature as well. Otherwise, worship will be a sham and mission a mere projection of ideologies. Reflecting God's image means learning the disciplines [virtues] of a God-reflecting human life.

While we should continue to strive for the Apostle Paul's ideal of cultural empathy and accommodation (1 Corinthians 9:19-23), let's not be too quick to dismiss all interaction with expatriates as mere distraction. To the degree that they express and are shaped by the fruit of the Spirit, these highly visible communal interactions hold great attraction in Chinese societies. As Jesus said, "By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another" (John 13:35). May God give us wisdom as we seek to balance these too-often competing impulses.

Photo Credit: Joann Pittman

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