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The Challenges of Localization

Why Localize Now?

From the series The Challenges of Localization


This is the first in a five-part series on localization of China ministry. Each essay centers on a different issue that the author has encountered as his organization goes through the process of handing over key leadership to local believers. The challenges are real, and the process is ongoing, meaning that some essays contain as many questions as answers.

Like many organizations working in China, we have all along stated our desire “to work ourselves out of a job.” For the most part we have used this phrase as a handy way to express our desire to pass on our skills and vision to local believers, a noble goal and a sure sign of a healthy approach to cross-cultural discipleship.

Over the last three years, however, something has shifted. While we have talked in these terms for nearly twenty-five years, now we are actually starting to act on them—and by act, I mean more than just “mentoring” local leaders. By the end of this year our China operations will be under the direction of a local colleague. This is only the most visible step in a long process involving training, restructuring, and cultural shift that we intentionally began three years ago in order to force real change upon our organization. Why are we doing this now? This essay will highlight four of the main reasons why we are—and really why any China ministry organization should be—pursuing localization, not someday but right now.

Support for and interest in China ministry from western countries has been dropping off ever since the 2008 Beijing Olympics. The financial crisis in North America had a real impact on the ability of many supporters to give, while Chinese success and affluence as epitomized in the Olympic ceremonies suggested that China was no longer an object deserving of pity (still a key motivator for North American charity). News media emphases and trends in the North American mission “industry” mean that now other parts of the globe exert a more powerful pull on churches’ hearts and checkbooks. At the same time, generational changes in North American church populations, with Millennials taking the place of Builders, has also reshaped evangelical interest in mission resulting in less giving to organizations and less support for long-term service. Simply put, it is much harder to raise financial support or even attract prayer attention for long-term expatriate China ministry than it was ten years ago.

Second, China has experienced a change in national mood. Again, the 2008 Beijing Olympics demonstrated China’s growing self-confidence—a confidence that resulted in a general feeling that there was much less need for help from outsiders. Practically, foreigners were no longer admired and pursued. Xi Jinping’s arrival marked a highpoint in this confidence, an intentional return to the glory days of the revolution, with the government painting foreign influences in an extremely negative light. Foreigners are less welcome today than they have been since 1978 and the beginning of the period of Opening and Reform.

Third, and not coincidentally, the regulatory environment has become increasingly hostile to foreign residence and activity in China. From financial regulations and local implementation practices that actively disadvantage foreign entities from participating in the local economy to the expansion of public security oversight of foreigners under the rubric of “social management,” there is less and less room for expatriates to operate in China. The new NGO law and the recent revisions to the religious regulations are proof of the concept that the current regime is committed to tightening control over most aspects of expatriate China life and work.

Finally, if the concurrence of all these negative indicators is not enough to encourage expatriates to explore ways of decreasing the prominence of foreigners in their China work, there is one extremely significant positive factor: the state of the Chinese church. The Chinese Christian community today is not only better equipped with leaders and more financially powerful than ever before, but they are also experiencing a surge of interest in global mission. Simply put, Chinese Christians are ready to step up and take the lead.

These four factors (waning western support, anti-foreign Chinese nationalism, new more restrictive regulations, and developments in the Chinese church) finally pushed our organization to stop talking about local leadership and to begin taking concrete steps to localize our organization in real ways. How are you responding to this new reality?

Swells in the Middle Kingdom

"Swells in the Middle Kingdom" began his life in China as a student back in 1990 and still, to this day, is fascinated by the challenges and blessings of living and working in China. View Full Bio