China’s New Era has brought about significant changes for Christians there, and the spring 2023 issue of ChinaSource Quarterly showed readers a clear picture of just how much has changed for believers over the last decade. Shuya Kim, in his article titled “New Era and New Roles,” did an excellent job describing the challenges faced by foreign workers in China over the last several years. He also made several good suggestions as to how we might embrace new roles in the future. Having spent the last 20 years involved in China work, I personally experienced many of the things Kim described.
I often think of the first decade of the 2000s as a sort of golden age for the church in China. I recall one hot summer afternoon, walking down a street in Shenzhen and suddenly hearing a Chinese hymn ringing out over head. The voices came from a nearby office building where all the windows were open. How magnificent, I thought, to hear the Lord’s praises rising over the sounds of traffic and the busyness of daily life in a Chinese megacity. It was a sound I had longed to hear and prayed for in expectant hope. It was a golden age.
I remember feeling privileged to sit beside Chinese brothers and sisters, perched on a tiny pink plastic stool, listening to their prayers, and attempting to join the chorus of “阿门” (“Amen”) at the right time. I treasure the memory of times I was asked to share a word or invited to teach in the church. I remember joyful meals together around the table and passing a plate of freshly cut watermelon around the congregation after service. It was a golden time.
I remember as we rounded into the second decade of the 2000s the excitement of seeing Chinese brothers and sisters catch a vision for doing cross-cultural work of their own among minorities in China. We even dreamed of a day when they might board a plane and fly off to a distant land to preach the gospel. I was asked to help plan and execute a training center to equip Chinese brothers and sisters with the cross-cultural skills they would need for this future work. It seemed that we were on the cusp of a mighty mission movement among Chinese believers. We were seeing the answer to not just decades, but centuries of prayer for the Chinese people. It was a golden era.
And then, I remember 2018. For my family, it was the year that everything changed. But really, that change had begun to creep upon us in the years prior. Increasingly, our local partners told us it was not a good idea for us to join in events. Or we felt rattled by frequent visits from the local police, and regular questions about our purpose in China and the source of our financial resources. We left China brokenhearted in 2018, afraid we would never return, and yet resolved to try and find ways to continue to support the people we had come to love so deeply.
As Kim described in his article, we were among those swept to the periphery, left to attempt to continue work from the outside. We have spent much of the last five years waiting and hoping for the door to reopen, and sometimes fearing that it might never reopen. Like our Chinese brothers and sisters in the mainland, many international workers and their organizations have spent the past several years evaluating what went wrong. We have worked toward developing strategies to make a lasting impact in a challenging and highly sensitive time. It is hard not to look at the changes in China over the last several years as a loss. And it is natural as we go through the mourning process to wonder, “Did we do something wrong?” This is a loss that has certainly traumatized many. I still talk with people who can’t help but tear up as they recount the experience of leaving China.
Over the last year I have also seen a burst of hope among the exiles. Some of that hope is born out of the acceptance we have inevitably arrived at—things have changed, but in the midst of change there is still opportunity. Some of that hope has come from connecting with fellow exiles. Last year, at an international conference called Beijing Brief, I experienced tremendous fellowship and witnessed growing excitement among my fellow exiles. Through listening, encouraging one another, identifying challenges, and prayerfully considering together how to work in unity towards meaningful solutions, new hope for the future of our work in China was born.
And now suddenly, as of March 15 it seems the door is reopening. But what should we make of it? And how does this recent news impact the role of foreign workers going forward? I think Kim does a good job of expressing the adjustment in roles that foreign workers in China must embrace. Certainly, we must recognize that the Lord’s work has not stopped, even amid the restrictions. I agree that the tightening of security means less frontline work can take place in the way that it happened before, and that foreigners certainly must embrace the value and opportunity of being present, even if they are not able to be on the front lines. I do see some additional opportunities I would like to highlight, and some suggestions I would make, especially in light of the March 15 news.
- We must embrace working collaboratively for the sake of God’s kingdom. In times past it was quite easy to toil in our own fields, paying little to no mind to what others around us may be doing. But now that access has become limited, and resources (particularly human resources) restricted, we must consider how pooling our efforts can help us overcome some of the challenges we are facing. God designed us to work together, as the body of Christ—members of one another, united as his hands and feet. Each of us individually, along with our organizations, bring something to the table. But we must consider what God can do if we strive together towards his vision, as opposed to solely pursuing our own individualized visions.
- We must embrace a new role among our Chinese brothers and sisters. Increasingly, the role of the international worker among the Chinese has been diminished due to lack of access. Over the past several years, many churches have not had the level of direct support that international organizations provided in the past. With the March 15 changes, direct access once again seems possible. Yet, when we return, we are not returning to the same church that we left behind. The church still needs support. However, our ability to support them must come from a recognition of our brothers and sisters as true peers. We must acknowledge that they are the leaders and stewards of the direction the church is heading. We must be quick to listen, slow to speak, and willing to take the role of Aaron and Hur—holding up their hands as they lead and battle on the frontlines, rather than pushing our own vision or agenda.
- We should seek the Lord’s purpose for our “exile.” When I moved to Taiwan in 2018 it was the beginning of a large immigration of foreign workers to the island. At that time, we began to ask if perhaps the Lord was moving us to Taiwan to join in a great work the Lord had prepared. Perhaps the Lord has moved other “exiles” to Thailand, Cambodia, or Malaysia for the same purpose. Is that not also true for those of us who have resettled in the West where daily we are seeing a tremendous population of Chinese immigrating and resettling themselves? Is it not possible that God has placed us among these diaspora populations expressly for this time in history? With our experiences and giftings, we are uniquely able to join in the harvest fields that are rising up in our own backyards.
Our roles have changed. Yet, we serve an unchanging God whose heart for the nations is unquenchable. New wine needs new wineskins. I encourage my fellow workers to prayerfully consider what these changes mean for the future of our work among the Chinese people, and to prepare to humbly submit to the new roles God has prepared for us.
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