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Stopping the Spread

From the series Our China Stories

Reading through the latest issue of the ChinaSource Quarterly on the theme of “Doing Missions with Chinese Characteristics,” I am reminded again that, when it comes to equipping cross-cultural workers, there are no shortcuts. Language and culture learning takes time. So does nurturing a new generation of field-experienced leaders who are capable of directing newly formed indigenous agencies. While short-term teams and reliance on foreign support and training may appear to shorten the journey, there are no quick fixes for enabling China’s church to bridge the distance from mission vision to a sustainable missions ecosystem.

Which brings to mind the book Changing the Mind of Missions, a sharp critique of the contemporary missions scene written 20 years ago by James Engel and William Dyrness.

While the two did not address China specifically, their observations provide insight into the origin of the narratives that dominate today’s Christian discourse on China, including the missionary church narrative that envisions a new wave of cross-cultural workers emanating from China in the near future.

Drawing on the work of Bosch, Newbiggin and others, Engel and Dyrness made the case that 20th century missions thinking was a product of the 18th century enlightenment, which ushered in the era of modernity. Any problem could be understood through human reasoning and solved through science. Adopting this mentality, missions has been characterized by the uncritical adoption of strategic planning, preoccupation with numerical success, and an unhealthy relationship between numerical success and funding, giving rise to what Samuel Escobar has termed “managerial missions.”1 “Mission, Inc.,” as the authors referred to the Western-driven global missions enterprise, has reflected an identification with power and influence: “For many decades Mission, Inc., has tended to move from the Western center to the periphery, ablaze with technological firepower, large-scale programs and a visibly Western worldview.”2

This contemporary model, they contended has “made us blind to the fundamental realities that lay behind the mission of the early church and to the political and economic realities of our own missions structures.”3

Published in 2000, their book carried the subtitle, Where have we gone wrong?

Were it to be rereleased today, an appropriate subtitle might be, “Have we learned anything?”  Or, perhaps, “What has changed?”

For, although the past two decades have witnessed much healthy discussion taking place in organizational and academic circles around the themes introduced in the book, the enduring Christian narratives about China suggest that not much has changed. Engel’s and Dyrness’s description of “Mission, Inc.,” brings to mind former China missionary Ralph Covell’s chapter on “The Gospel of Power” in his book, Confucius, the Buddha and Christ, which describes the “gunboat diplomacy” that opened the way for Protestant missions in China in the 19th century.

While today’s political realities are vastly different, recent decades have witnessed a similar projection of Christian resources and influence from the West into China. The resulting narratives have largely emphasized in linear fashion what the church outside China will do to, or for, the Chinese church. Power goes one way. There is little said about reciprocity, much less about how the nature of this relationship impacts believers in China.

Today as the missionary church narrative ignites in the mind of global mission leaders a vision for training cross-cultural workers from China, how will the methods and structures imported from outside China shape such a movement?

As Engel and Dyrness warned, “Our Western churches and agencies are still functioning in a world missions mindset established well over one hundred years ago. Furthermore, we have infected a world church with the disease of modernity through our failure to discern the signs of the times decades ago.”4

In the midst of this year’s global pandemic, masks have become essential equipment in efforts worldwide aimed at “stopping the spread.” The purpose of the mask, as we have been told countless times by health professionals, is not to keep germs out, but to keep us from spreading our germs to others. Those partnering with China’s emerging missions movement would do well to consider what they may be passing on without even realizing it. Careful filtering of concepts and methods—but more importantly, values and unspoken assumptions—could help guard China’s future mission leaders from replicating painful mistakes. Or, to borrow a phrase from back in the day when many of us were spending a lot more time in the air, “Please secure your own mask before helping others.”


  1. James F. Engel and William A. Dyrness, Changing the Mind of Missions: Where Have We Gone Wrong? (Downers Grove, IL: Intervarsity Press, 2000), pp. 68-69.
  2. Engel and Dyrness, p. 166.
  3. Engel and Dyrness, p. 41.
  4. Engel and Dyrness, p. 78.
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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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