Beginning in the late 1980s there was a concerted effort among international faith-based organizations to get to China. Whether by placing teachers, facilitating the entry of professionals and business people, engaging with local officials on development projects, or working directly with China’s growing church, there ensued a sustained wave of sending, resulting in tens of thousands heading to China in the succeeding decades.
In recent years a reorientation has been taking place as China’s church develops a growing vision to send workers from China. Greater personal freedoms, more financial resources within the church, increased global awareness, and growing business opportunities abroad provide the impetus for this movement. In response, more international organizations are now asking how they can receive these workers as they venture to foreign lands.
A 2015 survey of Chinese Christian leaders and foreign organizations that serve with them suggests the type of support churches in China will need most in the future is in the area of building mission platforms. Both agreed that the Chinese church’s greatest future contribution to the global church would be in this area. Yet only 20 percent of foreign and overseas Chinese respondents viewed assisting the Chinese church in this area as a priority, compared to 69 percent of China respondents.
Both sides need to ask whether they are prepared to assume new roles. While many in China strongly promote sending workers abroad, others caution that, at present, the Chinese church still lacks sufficient infrastructure, experience, training, and grassroots support. International organizations welcome the prospect of a flood of new workers from China. Yet those within their ranks who have served long-term in China point to ongoing needs within the church, such as training, mentoring, and discipleship, that must be addressed if the church in China is going to engage effectively in sustained cross-cultural outreach.
Writing in the 2016 winter issue of ChinaSource Quarterly, guest editor Wu Xi cautioned international organizations against recreating colonial structures by viewing China as a recruitment ground:
Hoisting an outside agency’s flag will not help China build its own mission program unless an explicit agreement is reached to train such aspiring missionaries for a specific period of time and then release them back to their own church or sending structure in China. What China does not need is a structure of branch offices of outside agencies similar to the way Western denominations organized as they carved up China as a mission field before the 1940s. What China does need is to develop its own mission leaders so they can build mission structures that can be owned by the Chinese church.
The transition from sending to receiving has begun, but it must be negotiated carefully for the sake of the Chinese church’s long-term role in fulfilling its global mission.
Brent Fulton is the founder of ChinaSource. Prior to assuming his current position, 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 US director of China Ministries International, and from 1985 to... View Full Bio