Blog Entries

Cultivating Chinese Missionaries Faithfully and Realistically

There is a Chinese saying 《十年树木,百年树人》 which means, “It takes ten years to grow a tree but a hundred years to cultivate a person.” As a lifelong educator and cross-cultural trainer, I am a firm believer that the goal of education is to cultivate people. Ministry trainer Robert Ferris specifically stated, “The ultimate goal of missionary training is the continuing growth of the trainee.”1

Growing trees and growing missionaries takes three things: adequate time, a suitable environment, and intentional nurturing. Below are reflections and comments related to these three aspects in response to reading the recent ChinaSource Quarterly on the indigenous missions movement from China.

Learning and Growth Require Adequate Time

Wang and Kam (Lessons Learned, point 3) make an important point that “missionary training takes time” and should not be like “quick turnaround, fast-food outlets.” Chinese mission training programs (CMTP) range from one month to two years. This is not wasted time if we see it as an investment. If we spend enough time preparing people with the skills and support they need, isn’t that setting people up for success? Taking shortcuts by giving minimal or no training is a disservice and heartache to those sent and creates unnecessary crises for the senders if workers crash and burn.

Once on the field, adequate time for language learning was mentioned as a major challenge in all three articles by Wang and Kam, Gudao, and Wu Xi. Gudao specifically lamented that some churches were “unable to support and wait for them to learn the language.” This indicates a wrong understanding of the importance and difficulty of learning a language and unrealistic expectations of missionary results. How can one expect missionaries to minister spiritually to people without speaking their heart language? That is like asking a person to share the gospel and lead a person to Christ while the person’s mouth is taped shut.

According to professional language learning scales such as ACTFL or ILR, a “superior” (or 3+ professional) proficiency level is needed in order to communicate on deeper abstract topics like spirituality.2 For a reference point, the most difficult languages for native English speakers to learn (like Chinese and Arabic) take a minimum number of hours of language learning to reach.3 For example, in my experience English-speaking foreigners learning Mandarin Chinese took at least four years of full-time language learning to reach that level. That is assuming the person is well-trained and uses the time doing the right kinds of activities consistently. You cannot make a tree grow faster than it can, but you can create an optimal environment to encourage healthy growth

Learning and Growth Require a Suitable Environment

Just like plants need good soil and sunshine, a good learning environment will optimize the time of learning. Many CMTPs are wisely taking into consideration effective training environments. Since many Chinese trainees have had little or no cross-cultural living experience, choosing a cross-cultural, non-Chinese speaking location such as Thailand provides an ideal opportunity for putting theory into practice. Cross-cultural attitudes, skills, and knowledge learned can be applied immediately in the community.

CMTPs that require participants to live daily life together are simulating what cross-cultural community looks and feels like. Living in community can help missionaries process and learn from the tensions of cultural adjustment and hidden personal issues mentioned by Wu Xi. It is excellent grounds for practicing communication skills, team building, emotional and stress management, and conflict resolution. As Wang and Kam (Lessons Learned, point 11) have already emphasized, culture and language are best learned when immersed in the field setting. But teaching missionaries pre-field language-learning methods and intercultural communication principles is necessary for them to know how to use the resources in their environment.

Learning and Growth Require Intentional Nurturing

Planting an apple seed into the right soil and just leaving it for a certain amount of time will not guarantee it will grow into an apple tree and produce fruit. Gardeners water, fertilize, and prune a tree throughout every stage of its growth. The same is true for growing missionaries. Pastors, church leaders, and mature believers in the church must invest personally in discipling people with missionary potential. As Wang and Kam mention (Lessons Learned, point 6), Christians need to be discipled either one-on-one or in small groups and, as they mature, be taught how to disciple others and shepherd small groups. The concepts of multiplication and fruitful life-on-life influence practiced in one’s own culture first are more likely to transfer into another culture.

CMTPs are learning that formal classroom and one-way lectures are hardly effective for nurturing missionaries who stay on the field long term. Education is not just about information, but transformation. Cultivating character, relational skills, and resiliency are soft skills that require wholistic, transformative learning models. Missionary life requires a lot of change: changes in food, climate, habits, thinking, and most of all, in new ways of relating with people of a different language and culture. There are different ways of learning that the trainers of Chinese can learn from, such as adult learning, intercultural teaching being applied to mission training, and learning models based on brain science like Duane Elmer’s new book.4 (For a list of some articles about intercultural learning methods and mission training see Resources at the end of this article.)

Ideally, once a new worker is on the field, experienced missionaries should be assigned to provide apprenticeships. But knowing they are hard to find, mission agencies that can recruit and connect others to provide virtual mentorship for new workers would be a great service until more experienced Chinese missionaries are raised up. If experienced missionaries are not available to do some of this mentoring and accountability, faithful and mature church members can provide encouragement and prayer support.

Member care (Lessons Learned, point 5) must be proactive. Before departure, churches or agencies and the missionaries should discuss what kinds of support they will likely need, how often communication with the home base is realistic, and which people are available to faithfully follow-up on the missionaries’ well-being. These check-ins can be in the form of emails, texts, phone calls, and/or videochats on a regular basis. They should not be seen as an evaluation of the missionary’s performance but shepherding and communication of real needs.

In Colossians 1:28 (NIV) Paul reminds us what the focus of God’s church must be: “He is the one we proclaim, admonishing and teaching everyone with all wisdom, so that we may present everyone fully mature in Christ.” As we look to the Great Gardener to provide, may the church in China provide the time, environment, and nurture needed to raise up a healthy forest of Chinese missionaries that grow strong like oak trees that bear much fruit for his kingdom.


Bowen, Earle and Dorothy. 1991. “What Does It Mean To Think, Learn, Teach?” In Internationalising Missionary Training, edited by William Taylor, 203-16. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic.

Lingenfelter, Judith E. and Sherwood G. Lingenfelter. 2003. Teaching Cross-Culturally: An Incarnational Model for Learning and Teaching. Grand Rapids: Baker Publishing Group.

McKinney, Lois. 1991. “New Direction in Missionary Education.” In Internationalising Missionary Training, edited by William Taylor, 241-50. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic.

Plueddemann, James E. 1991. “Culture, Learning and Missionary Training.” In Internationalising Missionary Training, edited by William Taylor, 217-30. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic.

The International Missionary Training Network “Designing a Missionary Training Programme.” Includes link to The Missionary Training Guide by Ian E. Benson, The Missionary Training Service, 2002.


  1. Ferris, Robert. 1995. “Building Consensus on Training Commitments.” In Establishing Ministry Training: A Manual for Program me Developers. Edited by Dr. Robert W. Ferris. Pasadena, CA: William Carey Library, p. 13.
  2. “Relationship of ILR to ACTFL Scale,”
  3. “Language Difficulty Ranking,” Effective Language Learning,
  4. Elmer, Duane and Muriel. 2020.The Learning Cycle: Insights for Faithful Teaching from Neuroscience and the Social Sciences. Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic.
Image credit: Micromoth from Pixabay.

Qiao Liang 良巧

Qiao Liang 良巧  (pseudonym) served in Asia since 1999 and has been involved with training for Asian cross-cultural workers since 2006. While presently focusing on doctoral studies in education, facilitation of cross-cultural training and coaching resources for Chinese missionaries remains a joyful area of service.View Full Bio

Are you enjoying a cup of good coffee or fragrant tea while reading the latest ChinaSource post? Consider donating the cost of that “cuppa” to support our content so we can continue to serve you with the latest on Christianity in China.