In her survey of China’s past mission history, How Christianity Came to China, Kathleen Lodwick features short biographies of several intrepid foreigners who ventured to Asia at a time when China was reluctantly yielding to outside pressure to engage with the international community. She groups these into several categories, one of which is entitled “Pioneers.”
Here we find the story of Elijah Bridgman, who came from America in 1829 and later married Eliza Gillett after her arrival as a single missionary in 1845. Together they were pioneers in literature work and education. In Taiwan, George MacKay served as a self-taught doctor, becoming quite proficient in rudimentary dentistry, and married a local Christian woman. Frank Gilman, a college classmate of Woodrow Wilson at Princeton, met his wife (also from New York), in India on his way to China and went on to establish outposts on Hainan Island in the south.
In another section entitled “Adventurers” we read about James Gilmour’s path-breaking work in Mongolia and the exploits of the CIM’s Mildred Cable and the French sisters, who together pioneered Muslim work in Central Asia.
The China of the 1980s seems worlds apart from the era covered in Lodwick’s brief survey, but someday a book will be written about another generation of intrepid foreigners who also broke new ground as China was reopening—on its own terms this time—to the outside world.
Motivated by a passion not dissimilar to that which compelled previous generations of foreign Christians to come to China, these trailblazers also ventured into difficult locations. They stepped across cultures, founded new institutions, translated books, established training centers, embraced the marginalized, brought innovations in education and science, planted churches, started businesses, raised families, and served alongside a church that was moving from a period of severe repression to an era of unprecedented opportunity.
Today as China’s Christians seize the opportunities before them, it is their turn to plow new ground. Urban church leaders, many of them first-generation Christians themselves, survey with a mixture of excitement and trepidation all that is to be done. They look to the previous generation and ask, “How did you do it?” But that previous generation does not exist. They have become the trailblazers.
Foreign workers do not have all the answers, but they do have a unique base of experience, some of which can be helpful. They can offer a broadened perspective and serve as a sounding board, not prescribing what should be done, but thinking through together with their local counterparts about how the church should move forward in certain areas. Moving from trailblazer to fellow traveler may not seem as exciting, but those who invest in the ones who will blaze new trails for decades to come are sure to make a lasting contribution.
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