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From the series Our China Stories

Talking with a Christian from China who serves cross-culturally in Asia, I was struck by the contrast he drew between colleagues in foreign organizations with whom he seeks to partner and his fellow Chinese workers in the field.

I had asked about how these organizations were coming alongside China’s emerging mission movement as it engages with unreached peoples abroad.

Usually their help hurts.

With their well-crafted organizational missions, proven methods, and measurable goals, Western and Western-influenced entities can easily overpower the less experienced workers from China.

They all want to help, but it’s overwhelming. Not a lot of them understand the situation of the Chinese field workers. They just want to get the job done. They want to make progress on their organizational agendas.

He did acknowledge that their influence has been instrumental in helping the Chinese to see the big picture and to understand how to reach people groups holistically, but practically speaking, they seemed to be talking past one another.

Chinese workers don’t know a lot about how to reach the people group. They don’t have a professional perspective on Bible translation, media production, or such things. They only want to be able to stay there, to be accepted by the local people, have friendships, and share the gospel. It’s very simple.

Mission: A Task to Accomplish?

Over the last century, the Western missionary enterprise has boiled down the Great Commission into a defined task. Ralph Winter’s introduction of people group thinking in the 1970s allowed the task to be further quantified and to envision the day of its final completion, when the last out of thousands of unreached people groups receives the gospel in a language they can understand.

Winter is rightly credited for highlighting the vast numbers of people without a credible gospel witness. Yet the task-oriented approach that has come to characterize modern missions turns the Lord’s final command in Matthew 28 into a to-do list:

  • Go!
  • Disciple!
  • Baptize!
  • Teach!

Over the decades, metrics have been established to ensure that the right things are getting done, and funding—contingent on being able to demonstrate measurable progress—raised around the completion of these activities. The partnership movement that emerged in the 1990s has broken down the task into its component parts (research, Bible translation, seed sowing, evangelism, and so on), with each agency taking on its appropriate role.   

As the established mission force meets new workers from China, it is this mental operating system that informs their approach to partnership on the field. The underlying narrative is that we have a job to do, and those being sent out from China are part of God’s provision for getting it done.

Or a Life to Live?

In contrast to the command contained in the closing verses of Matthew 28, the Great Commission appears in Acts 1:8 as a promise: “You will be my witnesses….”

Christ’s messengers here are characterized by who they are, not by what they do. To bear witness obviously requires action, but a witness is first of all someone who testifies to what they have seen and heard. The implication is that out of a lived relationship with Christ, empowered by the Holy Spirit, his followers will bear witness through their lives, beginning at home and extending to the ends of the earth.

In his high priestly prayer recorded in John 17, Jesus addresses the corporate nature of that relationship. As his followers live out the unity they have in Christ, the world will come to know who Jesus is.

I couldn’t help but think of this passage as I reflected on the words of my friend from China:

Most Chinese workers care about the trustworthy relationship more than tasks or organizational goals. I feel like to build up the trustworthy relationship through caring, listening, is a good start…. The question is how you can help from their perspective, not give them another task….

As Chinese we value community. We value relationships. But in the field, it’s really challenging when you are alone…. If the… global body of Christ can be there and say, “We are together here with you. I have my struggles, and you have your struggles, but we are together, praying to God together and seeking his guidance and help together”…that can be very comforting and can be an encouragement.

Rethinking Our Common Mission

Rather than assuming that the Chinese mission force will naturally find its place within the established Western-led mission enterprise, perhaps it is time for some deep conversation about what it is that God is calling us to do together. As this Chinese worker reminded me:

We are together for God’s kingdom. It’s not for your organizational goals. It’s not for field workers to be successful. It’s for expanding God’s kingdom here. So, to take a step further, what can we do together to make that happen?

Perhaps those seeking to come alongside this emerging movement need to experience their own ethnocentric conversion, what missiologist Darrell Whiteman describes as a reexamining of the cultural mores that have conditioned how they see God at work in blessing the nations.

Where to start?

If you don’t know how to help them, just listen.

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Image credit: Priscilla Du Preez via UnSplash.
Brent Fulton

Brent Fulton

Brent Fulton is the founder of ChinaSource. Dr. Fulton served as the first president of ChinaSource until 2019. Prior to his service with ChinaSource, 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 …View Full Bio

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