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Serving China’s Missionary Church

From the series Our China Stories

Despite pandemic travel restrictions, persistent tightening at home, and hostility toward the gospel in many countries to which they are sent, China’s missionaries continue to venture forth in obedience to the great commission.

Many of the challenges Chinese missionaries face are not so different from those of their predecessors from Western countries or elsewhere in Asia. In “Concerns of Cross-Cultural Workers from China,” Lisa Tsai, a counselor from China who researches member care of Chinese missionaries, writes that “Cross-cultural living has its unique challenges and cross-cultural ministry adds more. These include depression, broken relationships, premature departure, burnout, and third culture kid (TCK) challenges. These are challenges common to both Chinese and Western cross-cultural workers.”

Based on the long experience of missions from the West, narratives about China’s missionary church often assume the most formidable obstacles facing the current movement are logistical. With sufficient training, funding, and sending structures, China’s missionaries should be able to emulate the successes of past generations of cross-cultural workers.

All of these components are important, and China’s emerging mission leaders are grappling with what these should look like in the Chinese context. But as Lisa Tsai points out, there are significant differences between the Western sending environment and China’s relatively restricted setting, where sending structures are still in the developmental stage and where missions cannot be promoted openly. China’s honor/shame culture and the high value placed on education further nuance the unique needs of missionaries from China:

Chinese culture is honor and shame-based, and the education and social system in China are significantly different from that in the West. Most Chinese cross-cultural workers serve in developing countries, especially Muslim ones, where evangelizing activities are dangerous and restrained. These create special challenges for workers sent from China. Those challenges include the impact of honor/shame culture, their identity as a cross-cultural worker, their children’s education, language learning, theological training, and so on.

While China’s mission movement may appear to mirror many of the same characteristics as traditional missions from the West, it would be a mistake to assume that the same structures that have served missions so well elsewhere in the world are appropriate to the China situation.

A specific example concerns finances. Mission agencies in the West routinely set support goals for their workers, who are required to obtain sufficient commitments from friends, family, and churches before going to the field. In China, however, where recruiting and sending must be done quietly, candidates do not widely publicize their plans or their needs. Most are expected to take up secular work in the countries to which they are sent. Furthermore, soliciting funds would be seen as out of place in China’s honor/shame culture. In Tsai’s words:

Most of the people I interviewed don’t rely on fundraising for their support, so they don’t need to tell exotic stories to encourage others to support their ministry. The concepts of raising money and writing prayer letters were new concepts to most of the missionaries I interviewed. They rarely thought of telling an impressive story rather than working in obscurity. Most of those I interviewed did not publicize themselves or their stories.

Tsai adds, “Many sending agencies in Asia (the majority of them in Taiwan, South Korea, and Hong Kong) have a very different budget for the workers being sent out from their home regions/countries than those from China. This worsens their financial embarrassment.”

A leader of an organization with a long history in China asked recently whether China’s church was poised to take the lead in world missions. If this means following in the footsteps of Western mission leaders and building a comparable infrastructure to support the training and sending of thousands of workers to the nations, I suggest not. If, however, it means taking the lead by introducing new modes of sending that are less cost-intensive, more creative, and better suited to today’s challenging global environment, then, yes, the Chinese church has an opportunity to assume a leading role.

Serving China’s missionary church will require seeing “success” through a new lens, defined not by big-budget projects and exotic stories, but by the faithfulness of those who are willing to labor in obscurity on the margins, often unannounced and unnoticed, with perhaps few visible results. Their story may not fit the contours of our traditional missionary narratives, but as they move into uncharted territory, their experiences may have much to teach us about what it means to be Christ’s witnesses in today’s world.

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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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