Discipleship is at the core of Christianity. It is not simply a pastor’s or cross-cultural worker’s job to make disciples, but every person who flies with the banner of Christ over their heads. Although disciple making is a universal task with consistent components and principles rooted in scripture, there are unique discipleship distinctives found in every culture. In this post I will highlight several discipleship distinctives I have discovered in the thousands of hours I’ve spent making disciples within the Chinese context.
Discipleship begins with finding and connecting with the right people. This has always been complex in China, but in recent years these challenges have been exacerbated. The days when teams of American university students could openly walk into a Chinese university cafeteria and strike up evangelistic-filtering conversations with anyone are gone. In fact, with the onset of COVID measures non-affiliated students or faculty can rarely step one foot onto a campus, let alone into the cafeteria. This is an age when students are paid to report religious activities on Chinese campuses, when neighbors to Christians are often threatened under police intimidation to report large gatherings, and employers have complete liberty to fire Christians for any representation of Christ (public or private). How are disciple makers among Chinese people to throw a fishing line into discipleship waters in such an environment?
There is no easy answer. Rather, there is a tightrope balance between boldness and wisdom, accompanied by extreme creativity. Early Christianity was birthed and flourished in a hostile environment, and it can do so in the spiritual oppression of China. It is not a crime in China to radiate Christ through natural friendliness and helpfulness. Chinese Christians must passionately pursue natural connections with those around them, demonstrating Christ in their speech and living. Disciple makers must also attentively look for natural opportunities to insert a small Christ-centered testimony into everyday conversations. Wisdom must be sought and used to discern those who may be insincere or hold ulterior motives.
Fishing techniques in China must also take a long perspective. Just a decade or two ago, China was spiritually like fishing in a fish hatchery. There was such deep spiritual hunger that finding someone interested in spiritual matters was as simple as starting a conversation. China today offers new discipleship challenges.
There is growing skepticism on many fronts. Most Chinese have had negative experiences with “snake-oil salesmen” who have sought to slip their fingers into the wallets of the unsuspecting and this has produced a skepticism to “strange” or new ideas and products. Others have encountered cults themselves or been thoroughly warned by the government of religious cults which prey on the simple. The older challenges are still present as well, for example Chinese people rarely have basic biblical and Christian worldview understanding. When they hear the gospel, it often sounds confusing and detached from the atheistic secular education or the folk-religion and philosophical backgrounds they learned from their parents or grandparents.
These obstacles mean that disciple makers must be willing to view discipleship as a long-term process rather than an event. Disciple makers must invite seekers to follow Christ clearly and often. This means growing accustomed to long U-turns rather than quick flips. In the west we often hear testimonies of those who mark their “conversion” to the very day. Chinese often make a long U-turn that can’t be marked by a specific date, but rather a specific season in which they walked a long road toward Christ resulting in their baptism on a certain day.
Among the list of discipleship distinctives is the guanxi factor. Guanxi is roughly thought of as the connections one has with others. As disciple makers, we are not only bringing seekers to Christ, but they are also being brought into connection with others—namely the church. Discipleship in the Chinese context must be looked at as more than a regular one-on-one meeting with a new Christian, but a connecting point to a new guanxi network which can serve to spiritually edify a new believer.
Modern China is slowly eroding the value of some guanxi components and replacing them with a supreme admiration for education. After all, no one can deny that education has been a crucial component of lifting over 850 million people out of poverty over the last 40 years. This presents another unique disciple making challenge. Both Chinese disciple makers and new Christians often look to grow their Christianity through courses rather than modeling. It is essential that disciple makers model prayer, Bible reading, and Christian living, rather than simply assume a course on these things has done the job!
Discipleship is a broad subject and I have only scratched the surface here. In the midst of an ever-evolving China, disciple makers must continually evaluate the unique discipleship challenges found in the Chinese context.
Will Baxter (pseudonym) has served the global church in a variety of roles and capacities over the past 20 years. For the past decade he has served China as a disciple making, church planting, and leadership training cross-cultural worker. He holds a MDiv (International Church Planting) and a MA (Intercultural …View Full Bio
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