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Is There a Role for the Western Church in China?


I have been reflecting recently on Brent Fulton’s challenge to rethink partnership between Western and Chinese churches. I have had an interest in the church in China for the past twenty years and have traveled there frequently for a variety of reasons—including work with several Chinese churches. My PhD thesis focused on historical efforts to reach the Chinese intelligentsia for the Christian faith. China has always been near the top of the list of places where exciting things are happening and where I, as a pastor of missions, would like to see our church make a contribution.

We want all of our church relationships to be partnerships, especially in areas with established churches. The trouble everywhere, but particularly in China, has been identifying partnerships that are actually useful, meaningful, potentially successful, and mutual. The difficulty in finding partnerships which fit these criteria has nearly led me to abandon the search.

Yet, here I am continuing to think aloud about what we can do. Is there a role for us in China?

I have listened to a range of Chinese opinion on this. Some argue that Westerners should stay home while others appeal for as many workers as we can send. Most opinion falls somewhere between these two extremes.

Since the Chinese church seems to have achieved, in large measure, the three-self ideal in terms of support, governance, and propagation, is Western input, by definition, no longer necessary? Since the Chinese church has seen its most dramatic growth in the absence of Western cross-cultural workers, it is hard to argue against that conclusion.

But what of partnership? The cynic might say that Western talk of “partnership” is simply a way of making traditional missionary work sound more collaborative. And the cynic may be right in some cases.

Indeed, some of the forms of Western Christian input in China strike me as problematic at best. I won’t offer specific examples here so as not to disparage those undertaking faithful work. I believe that partnerships are best and that genuine partnerships are possible, some of them along the lines that Brent suggests: building relationships, living the Christian life together, even evangelism among groups that are perhaps more open to Westerners than Chinese.

But I also believe that we need well-trained Westerners to be most effective in this. Specifically, we need Western partners educated in language and culture. Relationships built on English language and Western ways of doing things are effective only in work with the cosmopolitan, English-fluent elite comprising, surely, less than one percent of the population. (An exercise in putting yourself in another’s shoes: imagine teams of Chinese partners arriving in the US to work with Anglo churches, but without a single person who knows a word of English. Absurd, yes?) Work undertaken in the Western idiom will have limited success and fuels Chinese suspicions that Christianity is, after all, a Western religion, available to those few who like their films with subtitles.

Which raises one more important point: any partnership effort must take into greater account the strong and persistent legacy of colonialism in China’s past relationships with the West. Though many peoples in the world faced Western colonial domination, and indeed more comprehensively than in China, the Chinese have a unique sensitivity to Western actions that raise the specter of the imperial era. Christianity has never succeeded well when viewed as a foreign imposition. And yet, in my observation, only a small minority of Westerners with an interest in China have a sufficient understanding of this dynamic. Some are, in fact, completely unaware of the history behind it.

This being the case, perhaps the best approach is to allow Chinese churches to generate most, if not all, of the partnership ideas, where they take the initiative and the lead. I have adopted this approach elsewhere with gratifying results. The partnership initiatives that are founded in this way rarely seem imposed and usually address real rather than imagined needs.

Right now, our church has no partnerships or work in China. This seems to me a shame. I am open to any suggestions that others might have about a way forward that is consistent with the overall philosophy outlined here. 

Brent Whitefield

Brent Whitefield

Brent Whitefield is pastor of missions and outreach at Northpoint Evangelical Free Church in Corona, California. His work takes him to Asia several times a year. 'He has taught East Asian history and Communication Arts (Valparaiso University, Biola University, California Baptist University) for sixteen years. View Full Bio