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Cross-Cultural Encounters: China and the Reformed Church in America

A Book Review

Cross-Cultural Encounters: China and the Reformed Church in America (Studies in Chinese Christianity) edited by Gloria Shuhui Tseng. Published by Pickwick Publications, 2021, 156 pages. ISBN-13 9781532618918 (paperback); 9781498244800 (hardcover); 9781498244794 (eBook). All three editions available at Wipf and Stock. Cross-Cultural Encounters: China and the Reformed Church in America

As a Reformed minister working alongside Chinese pastors, one of the pressing contextual questions I have had to wrestle with is: What sort of formal relationship should I as a foreign worker have with local churches and their Chinese leadership? Am I a leader? A partner? A student? Something else? This is not a new question. From the earliest days of Protestant (and Reformed) mission work in China, foreign workers have been wrestling with it.

Enter my initial encounters with the history of missions in China by the Reformed Church in America (RCA). In the late 1800s, RCA missionaries (along with the Presbyterian Church of England) crafted a strategy that advocated that Chinese believers take the lead in ministry while still allowing for missionaries to serve alongside them. This would become known as the “Amoy Plan,” a strategy that my colleagues and I have adapted and use today. Consciously or not, many foreign workers now default to a version of that plan, even though they may never have heard of the RCA.

In her new book, Cross-Cultural Encounters: China and the Reformed Church in America, Gloria Shuhui Tseng has compiled six accounts of past RCA mission work that demonstrate similar stories of interactions between missionaries and their Chinese partners.

Cross-Cultural Encounters is a recent addition to the “Studies in Chinese Christianity” series edited by G. Wright Doyle and Carol Lee Hamrin. Tseng is professor of history at Hope College (the denominational college of the Reformed Church in America). Together with six of her undergraduate students, Tseng and the authors have done a fine job presenting a concise history of topics related to the mission work in China by the Reformed Church in America. This slim volume is not a history of RCA missions work in China in toto, but rather focuses on individual missionaries and mission works. This book is a history of one Reformed denomination’s mission work in China, not a defense of Reformed theology or Calvinism.

Here are two key contributions you can expect from Cross-cultural Encounters.

Highlighting Neglected Missionaries

From 1842 to 1950, the RCA sent 151 missionaries to serve in China. During that time, the RCA planted churches, founded hospitals, a nursing school, schools for boys and girls, cared for refugees, and provided wartime humanitarian aid. In six chapters, Cross-Cultural Encounters profiles twelve missionaries, seven of whom are women.

This volume is a valuable contribution because it highlights Individual missionaries and types of missionaries who have previously been overlooked, notably the wives of missionaries and single women missionaries.

In her chapter, Victoria Longfield spotlights the wives of missionaries and how crucial they were to ministry success. Wives not only were responsible for “four principal ‘household’ tasks while in the mission field—moving or relocating the entire family, managing the household staff, homeschooling the children, and maintaining an ‘American’ house,” but Longfield shows how wives were also able to minister to women and children in ways their husbands never could (p. 50). With their combined home-ministry duties, missionary wives were often overlooked in ministry.

Single women and their importance in ministry has also often gone unnoticed. Gloria S. Tseng and Madalyn DeJonge give a helpful look into the mission work of Tena Holkeboer, a single woman who served in China for over 20 years. Holkeboer was a teacher, a principal, Bible study leader, evangelist, she served on various committees, worked with refugees, and more. She saw great spiritual fruitfulness and had a palpable zeal for mission work.

That fire was seen in incidents such as her determination to return to the mission field during World War II. Because of the war she was forced to travel roundabout from the US to China via “Lisbon, Portugal, then Portuguese East Africa and Durban, South Africa, and finally land her in Calcutta, India. She wanted to go on to China from there, but wartime conditions made it impossible, and she served in the RCA’s Arcot Mission in India until she was given permission to fly to Shanghai on a military plane in December 1945. Holkeboer arrived on Gulangyu on January 9, 1946, after a harrowing journey from Shanghai that included near shipwrecks, attacks by pirates, rats in bed, hunger, and cold” (p. 103).

In the face of many challenges, unsung missionaries dedicated their lives to China, preached, taught, built infrastructure, and provided humanitarian aid to large numbers of people. How many of us would yearn to have the zeal of Tena Holkeboer for ministry who, despite all those challenges cried, “Oh, there are so many opportunities for service—open doors on every hand!” (p. 97).

Cross-Cultural Encounters helps remind us that missionary wives and single women in particular play an important role in ministry.

Cross-Fertilization in Ministry

Cross-Cultural Encounters is worth reading becauseit does more than simply provide short profiles of unique missionaries. Rather, the book goes deeper to address the question of cultural imperialism and the oft-heard charge that Western missionaries attempted to impose their way of life on the Chinese people they encountered.

As Tseng mentions in her introduction, criticism against Western missionaries as tools of imperialism do not neatly stick against these RCA missionaries. Yes, they were products of their time and had Western privilege, but Tseng and the authors argue that the reality is much more complicated. In fact, far from imposing a way of life, there was a cross-fertilization going on between the two peoples. Hence the title of the book, Cross-Cultural Encounters. This is one of the big payoffs of the book, particularly when it comes to thinking about today’s Reformed church in China.

Cross-cultural encounters can be seen in the poetry of William Angus, for example, an RCA missionary in China from 1925 to 1951. Eric Dawson’s chapter on Angus shows how, “In Angus’ case, his poems confirm how natural it was for missionaries and local Chinese to notice the differences in one another” (p. 22). These observations often had an iron-sharpening-iron effect. In fact, William Angus said later in life, “My work in China was done mainly in cooperation with Chinese pastors and preachers, traveling with them, visiting them, talking with them, listening to their stories, stories of themselves, of their lives and work, or stories told to them by others” (p. 24).

Cross-fertilization can also be seen in how missionaries desired to respect socio-cultural norms and to honor one’s host country while at the same time staying true to the mission. Katelyn Dickerson’s chapter on the RCA nursing school and the debates over something so seemingly innocuous (from a Westerner’s perspective) as nurses’ uniforms demonstrate how foreigners and Chinese locals can work through and grow from these encounters.

Dickerson’s chapter on the nursing school is also a good example of how many missionaries were dedicated to developing strong bonds of friendship with Chinese colleagues and neighbors. “The missionary nurses introduced another way of building relationships that was not based strictly on kinship and was less hierarchical than was prevalent during that time in China,” she writes (p. 67). Missionaries recognized the importance of friendships and relationships over domineering leadership.

Tseng and DeJonge also show friendship encounters in their chapter on Tena Holkeboer. Holkeboer, a teacher, moved into the student dorm to build relationships with her students and they in turn opened up more.

Did the RCA missionaries get everything right in their mission work? Tseng and the authors don’t sugarcoat their stories. Just like today, sometimes missionaries served well, but sometimes they made a real mess of things. However, Cross-Cultural Encounters pushes back against claims of cultural imperialism perpetrated by missionaries and shows how valuable exchanges took place.


This brings us back to the broader Reformed church in China today. What lesson can foreign Reformed workers (indeed, any foreign worker) learn about ministry among local believers today? What relationship should we as foreign workers have with local churches and their Chinese leadership?

As Cross-Cultural Encounters reminds us, foreign ministry is most blessed when there is a two-way exchange, a cross-fertilization between foreigners and local Chinese believers. Chinese Christians today (including Reformed Christians) are taking the lead and developing their own flavor of Reformed Christianity. As foreign workers, we are blessed to walk alongside of our Chinese brothers and sisters as we see this unfold. We will do well if we learn from our Chinese colleagues just as much as we teach our Chinese colleagues.

Decades from now we should hope to look back and see how today’s cross-cultural encounters have not only benefitted the Chinese church and foreign workers in China but have also shaped and influenced the church outside of China.

Our thanks to Pickwick Publications, imprint of Wipf and Stock for providing a copy of Cross-Cultural Encounters: China and the Reformed Church in America for this review.

For more about the Reformed church in China see the 2021 winter issue of ChinaSource Quarterly.

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Image credit: Sixteen Miles Out via Unsplash

Daniel Dakota

Daniel Dakota (pseudonym) lives and serves in mainland China working with Chinese pastors and churches to provide pastoral training.View Full Bio

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