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On Being Present for Hungry Hearts

Having read Caedmon’s early December 2022 post, “Fragmentation,” about the difficulty in keeping up with his online classes in China from a wildly different time zone, it was thrilling to read later that month that he had miraculously made it back to China! His account of “Café Encounters” with his students spoke of a new openness and spiritual hunger among them, such as he had not known in pre-covid times. It made all the trials he had gone through to make it back seem completely worth it.

Reading his account took me back to the early 1980s, remembering my husband Ross’s account of his first trip to China. After meeting with the underground believers whose contact details he had been given in the West, he found himself with no particular agenda and the time to walk about the streets of Beijing. It was easy to engage with students, who were eager to talk on any subject, once they realized that he could speak Chinese. Many were fascinated with the West and asked questions about life in the UK. But some were deeply hungry spiritually and asked searching questions about God. One young man in particular approached him and asked him for a Bible. He was not yet a believer, but he wanted to find out about the Christian God. Ross asked him why, and his reply has stayed with me. He said that about a third of his contemporaries were interested in anything to do with the West, a third were staying with the Party to make sure of a stable future in China and a third, in his words, were “looking for God.” Ross sought him out the next day and gave him a Bible. Apparently, there is still the same hunger today.

As China began to open up more during the “golden period,” (from the late 1990s to the mid-2010s) God put it on our hearts to continue to reach out to students. Knowing the huge opportunity afforded by the desire of so many to learn English, we focused on bringing qualified English teachers into China and placing them strategically in universities and schools, mostly in under-served cities in the western provinces. All spoke of the wonderful opportunities they had to share meaningfully with their students, especially making use of Christian festivals, which could be taught as “cultural phenomena in the West.” Speaking of the real meaning of Christmas and Easter, as opposed to the commercialized versions of Santa and the Easter Bunny, gave many teachers a platform for sharing spiritual truth.

One older couple, Larry and Beth, of whom I have written elsewhere, had a winsome way of inviting students to their home to provide extra conversation practice. They did so genuinely, but always prayed for “higher purpose” opportunities, which nearly always came. When they sensed someone was ready to hear more, they would use the gospel bridge diagram to explain the message simply and clearly, and in this manner led a good number to faith in Jesus. They would continue with follow up as well as they could, as non-Chinese speakers, but usually they would get local house churches involved. Then, when the students went home for vacations, they would make every effort to visit them and their families. In this way they impacted many young people, mostly from poorer parts in the countryside, who genuinely took them into their hearts.

Another approach Ross used to reach young people during their crucial student days was to bring teams of Christian students from Cambridge to China, including our eldest daughter in the first year, giving them the chance to engage with their counterparts at Beijing University and other top institutions in China. Those times were especially exciting for him, watching the youngsters from the West engage seriously with the gospel for themselves and seeing the fruit of that in good conversations taking place, both in class and in social gatherings off campus. Team meetings would give a chance to process the impact of seeing such hunger in students from a different culture and background, who were being presented with the gospel message for the very first time.

This idea was picked up in New Zealand when a friend began taking cultural exchange teams from Kiwi universities into China. Covid put an end to those, of course, and who knows whether in China’s current climate it will be possible to pursue that endeavor again. But the truth is, there is hunger still—maybe more than ever, as individual freedoms are increasingly curtailed, job pressures increase, and restrictions continue.

The question is, how can those who have a heart for the Middle Kingdom still engage with a call from God to serve there? As the borders have reopened, it is possible once more for believers from the West to take up teaching posts in China. Foreign experts will still be needed to play a role, but it may look different from before. And we rejoice that some we know who are engaged in business and humanitarian projects are still welcomed.

So, for those who are willing to be patient and circumspect and to give a stellar example in the way they live, we can trust that doors will open for a new generation of China workers to walk the land and bear careful witness to God’s name. Let us continue to pray for that long to be so!

On the other hand, it is also true that for a variety of reasons, some who once served there are not able to return. In a follow-up article, I will look at other possible avenues for service to the Chinese that exist outside of China.

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Image credit: Courtesy of Joann Pittman.
Christine Paterson

Christine Paterson

Christine Paterson, together with her husband Ross, has served in the Chinese world over many decades. Ross first went to Asia in 1969. Over the years they have been involved in campus ministry, literature, and radio work, placing of professionals across China, humanitarian projects in minority areas, and recently in …View Full Bio

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