Some years back, I found myself in a Bible study led by a Malaysian Chinese missionary. He was reaching out to a group of laborers who were sequestered in a gated compound in Johannesburg, South Africa. This community included their dorm, the shops and factories where they worked, and even places where they could buy their necessities, all without leaving the protected area. The people were from an area of China, previously unknown to me, an area where the gospel had not yet penetrated. These eager learners were not only growing in the Lord but were being prepared as evangelists and disciple-makers for when some would return to their homes in China.
Welcome to the World of Diaspora Ministry!
God is using faithful people to reach into the world of diaspora peoples. He is working through believers to help carry out “reverse missions” back to their home communities, and to go beyond their communities to other unreached people groups nearby. Here is a more recent testimony:
My wife and I took the Kairos course 1 at our local church in Cape Town. At the end of the course, we were challenged to pray about which unreached people group God would have us connect with. The Chinese here in South Africa came to mind! Mind you, I don’t speak a word of Chinese, but that is what God impressed on me, so I had to obey. The first couple of times I went to our local Chinese shop, the owner was downright rude to me! She just kept talking through her ear bud, and we couldn’t really communicate about anything. However, we persevered in prayer and continued to attempt to befriend them.
This story, from a white Afrikaner, is not atypical of how people have gotten involved in ministry with, and to, the many thousands of Chinese diaspora students, workers, and long-term immigrants who currently live in South Africa. God prompts people and, as they respond in obedience, they discover an openness on the part of the Chinese people. And God continues to build the church.
In this post we consider diaspora Chinese communities—specifically Chinese people in South Africa. Statistics on how many Chinese people live in the region of Africa’s Southern Cone, vary widely from 250,000 to half a million, or 750,000 or more (including neighboring countries like Botswana, Eswatini, Zimbabwe, Mozambique, and Namibia). Part of the difficulty in achieving an accurate number is that there is a hesitancy on the part of many Chinese people to divulge much about themselves, due to political or legal sensitivities. Though clear statistics are hard to come by, there are many pockets of Chinese people not only in the major cities, but also in outlying towns and suburbs.
Observations from Those Serving among Chinese in South Africa
The illustrations and comments that follow are drawn from personal interviews and answers to a questionnaire posed from January to March of this year. The questionnaire was given to those, like the couple quoted above, who are involved in the South Africa Chinese Outreach Network (SACON). SACON is made up of over thirty individuals and church leaders—some are ethnically Chinese, though not all are from China proper. Several are cross-cultural workers with prior experience in the Chinese world. Some, like the couple above, are native to South Africa and have never connected with Chinese people before. Together, this group is carrying out significant evangelistic, discipleship, and church planting ministries within the Chinese diaspora in Southern Africa.
Here are three of the questions and some of the answers.
How have you become involved in outreach to Chinese people through SACON?
As part of the Chinese diaspora in South Africa [SABC—South African-born Chinese], we grew up in local English churches. We didn’t have much opportunity, time, or effort to search out or attend “Chinese churches” because of the distance, and mainly cultural challenges. Believe it or not, as we grew up in English churches, we feel uneasy when we attend Chinese churches! But, by God’s will, the Chinese Outreach Network needed “Chinese helpers” to help them translate and bridge the gaps, so the Lord led us to join the team.
I went on a vision trip with other members of SACON to Eswatini and Zimbabwe. Chinese people were everywhere. God put them on my heart! Now I’m reaching out to them using fitness and sports outreach.
Several members are former cross-cultural workers to Taiwan or China who have now relocated back home to South Africa. They are contributing to outreach and Bible study development in several cities.
How have you seen God work in special or unexpected ways?
The Lord works in miraculous ways. We have heard testimonies of how non-believers experienced God in their extreme need, whether physical, emotional, or financial, and decided to give their lives to the Lord. Others have seen healing in answer to prayer for both non-believers and believers. God has touched the lives of many Chinese families in the area, and they open their hearts to learn more.
The respondents made several comments that reflected how practical help and extending blessing to families has borne significant fruit. For example:
A shopkeeper who was very rude at first has a son who needed help with passing his driver’s license exam in English. He didn’t speak English and I didn’t speak Chinese, but we used translation software and managed to communicate over three months while he prepared. He managed to pass, missing only three questions! Since then, we have spent time with the family, and he has married—into a Christian family it turns out! The mother is also showing interest in joining a local Bible study in Chinese!
What are some of the greatest challenges to sustainable ministry among the Chinese people?
Church Service Times
The majority of those attending Chinese churches here are shop owners. However, it is a great challenge because most Chinese shop owners open on Sunday mornings—it is their busiest working time. One of the solutions is that we have evening services to accommodate these church members.
Lack of Church Planting and Limited Network within Churches
Some of the biggest (well-known) Chinese churches are: South Africa Chinese Covenant Church (SACC) located in Johannesburg, Rosebank Union Church in Sandton, the Methodist Church and Da-an Church both in Cyrildene, and Pretoria Chinese Church.
These are some of the known churches, where the church population exceeds 120 people in each fellowship. There are other smaller, less known churches which may be difficult to find.
Lack of Church Attendees.
There are few people attending church due to several factors including:
- Chinese people are scattered throughout the area.
- They go to local churches instead of “Chinese churches.”
- Gap in attendees due to limited numbers in the children, youth, and 20–35 age group. (Those in the work-force age group lack interest in attending Chinese church)
- Taiwan and mainland Chinese churches. They prefer to go to Chinese churches of their nationality
Due to the current COVID situation, evangelism and other ministries have slowed down. The discrimination against Chinese people due to the pandemic, loss of loved ones back home, and the inability to go visit, have brought great challenges and some question their faith.
Rise of Chinese Extreme Churches
Extreme churches such as 东方闪电(Eastern Lightning) have established churches in Johannesburg and Cape Town.
Finances are always a challenge. Except in the more established churches, most leaders have to be bi-vocational, which stretches their personal capacity and family relationships.
This post provides a brief overview of the work being carried out by the South Africa Chinese Outreach Network. So, to answer our question—how can God reach these people? These dispersed and displaced people of the Chinese diaspora? God continues to bless through a variety of means and through his faithful servants of different races, ages, and backgrounds resulting in many hundreds of Chinese people coming to faith and being discipled to God’s glory.
Behold, God is my salvation, I will trust and not be afraid; for the LORD GOD is my strength and song, and He has become my salvation. Therefore you will joyously draw water from the springs of salvation. And in that day you will say, “Give thanks to the LORD, call on His name. Make known His deeds among the peoples; make them remember that His name is exalted.” Praise the LORD in song, for He has done excellent things; let this be known throughout the earth.
In my next post we’ll explore several related issues:
- Have any of the groups in their context reached beyond the diaspora Chinese community to other people groups in their area?
- What hopes or aspirations do those currently involved in the network have for ministry going forward?
- Could they use new co-workers? If so, what kind of people would be most helpful?
- Kairos is a missions mobilization course run by Simply Mobilizing.
R. Coleman (pseudonym) and his wife have served in Asia since 1980. They began by helping facilitate church health and disciple-making in established churches. Over the years, the Lord opened up a work of facilitating missions mobilization in several countries of East Asia. Most recently, they have begun a new …View Full Bio
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