It was a delight to read the thought-provoking article, “When the ‘Golden Age’ Is Over,” in which Chen Jing calls for a missiological review of China ministry during the past four decades. My thoughts resonate with Chen’s appeal to revisit past efforts, from policy to method and from mindset to rationale behind China ministries.
I am privileged to lead a frontline China ministry and mobilize support behind the lines. I keep a careful eye on how the course of events is developing in order to adjust what we should be doing in a changing environment.
Obviously, there has been a tightening with respect to religious activities in recent years. And yet, from my perspective, religious policy has remained consistent throughout the past decades. The degree of openness in any given situation depends on two factors. The first factor is whether the government leadership leans towards moderate or radical socialism; the second is whether national security is threatened.1 Openness is relaxed when the ideology is less radical and defensive. However, the policy implementation swings like a pendulum, sometimes slightly to the left (restrictive), other times more to the right (loosened). Yet its movement is confined. We must be alert to changes in movements and be ready to change at any time as the pendulum swings.
Cross-Ideology Is the Key
A survey on religious restriction conducted by the Pew Research Center helps us understand the situation in China from two perspectives: (a) social resistance to religions from outside and (b) government control. The survey reported a moderately low degree of social hostility but very high government restriction in China.2 This means that Chinese society in general is highly tolerant of accepting different religions. The challenge in evangelism is not so much related to cross-cultural barriers; rather resolving ideological conflicts is the key.
In fact, missions have been weighed down with a political burden since the expulsion of the Jesuits in the Qing Dynasty due to the Chinese Rites controversy. The conflict was not only a matter of religious beliefs but an ideological collision. In ancient China, the filial piety system constituted a foundational social order stretching from the family to the clan. This philosophy even extended to upholding loyalty to the ruling government and emperor. Disruption of the ancestral rites would upset the socio-political structure and cultural matrices.3 The emperor could not afford the impact. Expulsion of the Jesuits was the inevitable result.
Unfortunately, during the re-entry of Christianity into China in the nineteenth century, some missionaries took part in events connected with imperialism. Such involvement created the suspicion that all Westerners harbored political ambitions as they preached the good news.4 A bad apple spoils the whole barrel. Monlin Chiang, who was president of Beijing University from 1919 to 1927, an influential educator, and a politician, commented:
For a religion (Christianity) seen arm in arm with force changes its color, and the Chinese were unable to dissociate the two. This naturally gave rise to the impression that while Buddha came to China on white elephants; Christ was borne on cannon balls.5
Such a misconstrued impression has lasted to this day. Preventing infiltration through preaching, seen as a national security concern, has become a valid reason for prohibiting foreign missions whenever the pendulum swings towards the restrictive side.6 If you claim to be a missionary, you will be suspect. Being locked into this dead end, I propose revisiting the concept of missions in order to find a breakthrough.
“Missions” Does Not Sound Right for China
The word “missions” is not based on a biblical Hebrew or Greek word. We need not call ourselves missionaries. Instead, we are emissaries with the aspiration to bless others wherever we may go. This is not just a matter of nomenclature. Considering our terminology renews our legitimate identity and mindset.
In his book, The Mission of God, Christopher Wright explains that the Bible presents the universal God with a universal mission which was announced to Abraham, accomplished in anticipation by Christ, and is to be completed in the new creation.7 A diagram in one of my previous posts delineated a storyline that begins in the Old Testament and continues through the New Testament and echoes Wright’s understanding of God’s ultimate plan to bless all nations. This overview helps us relate our kingdom ministries to God’s holistic blessings for unreached people.
The conventional theme of a church mission probably guides us to focus on increasing the number of conversions, planting churches, and conducting Sunday schools. However, a blessing-based vision opens us up to a broader horizon. The blessings God showered upon the Garden of Eden were holistic: pertaining to body, mind, spirit, social relationship, work, and environmental wellness. Such blessings will be fully restored in the new heaven and new earth. But at present, on the interim journey towards that end, God blesses us and calls us to partner with him as a channel of blessing to others and to all nations.8
Blessing is ingrained in many facets of Chinese civilization. Chinese people seek and pray for blessing during the New Year, at festivals, weddings, funerals, and in daily life. This provides a natural interface for us to introduce the bountiful blessings of God.
Serve with a Renewed Mindset
The blessing motif drives us to form a different strategy for kingdom ministry but without deviating from the main thrust of missio dei. Apart from church activities, we can serve to create shalom in the community. The concept of shalom comprehensively includes everything that is implied in the blessing of God.9 We are then prompted to ask a fresh set of questions regarding the role of an emissary of shalom:
- To which people group can we become a channel of blessing?
- What can we do to care for their holistic health?
- Which suitable government policies (in the light of biblical truth) can we take part in to build up shalom?
- In what areas can we pray for the officials and governors so that the community may live a peaceful and quiet life in all godliness and dignity as mentioned in 2 Timothy 2:2?
- Through our work with the community, how can we set people on a journey to seek the truth?
- How can we nurture local leaders to carry on the torch, as the emissaries will leave one day?
The challenge of proclaiming the sovereign God in a hostile environment with government restrictions can be exemplified in the story of the Prophet Daniel.10 Here I would like to highlight that Daniel was the first emissary of shalom in exile. The paradigm for proclaiming God’s sovereignty and blessing was changed from a centripetal approach to a centrifugal one. Instead of attracting the nations to appreciate the Mosaic law as implemented in the Promised Land, the Jews would be dispersed to the nations. Jeremiah had announced that God would radically execute his plan to uproot and break down, to destroy and to overthrow, to build and to plant (Jeremiah 1:10).
Daniel and his companions were sent out for a purpose (Jeremiah 29:4–7). They were exposed to a full measure of cross-cultural indoctrination. They had to learn a different language, study foreign literature, adapt to a pagan culture, master new skillsets better than the magicians and enchanters, and manage matters in the court. They undertook what Jeremiah told them to do in the foreign land. They were to seek the peace and prosperity [shalom] of the city to which God had carried them into exile. They should pray to the Lord for it, because if the city prospered [in shalom], they too would prosper [in shalom] (Jeremiah 29:7). Therefore, Daniel and his companions served the kings and the community as civil servants. Daniel, in particular, was able to establish trust relationships with the kings in several regimes so that they would reign over the land under God’s sovereignty. Daniel was successful in turning the kings’ hearts to the Lord (Daniel 4:1; 6:25–27).
At the conclusion of the book, Daniel was encouraged to continue his role as a channel of blessing. The angel told Daniel, “Go your way till the end” (Daniel 12:13). The same Hebrew word “go” was used when God called Abraham to leave his homeland and carry out his plan to bless all nations (Genesis 12:1). I hope we can renew our missiology to “blessiology” and get ready again to “go.”
- Fuk-Tsang Ying. “The CPC’s Policy on Protestant Christianity, 1949–1957: An Overview and Assessment.” Journal of Contemporary China 23, no. 89 (2014), 899.
- Chris Baronavski, Samirah Majumdar, Virginia Villa, and Bill Webster. “Religious Restrictions around the World.” Pew Research Center, September 30, 2021. Accessed November 22, 2022. https://www.pewresearch.org/religion/interactives/religious-restrictions-around-the-world/.
- Christina Miu Bing Cheng, Macau: A Cultural Janus (Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press, 2009), 64.
- 段德智, 境外宗教渗透研究,(北京: 人民出版社, 2018), 36-37.
- Monlin Chiang, Tides from the West: A Chinese Autobiography, (Hong Kong: Commercial Press, Hong Kong), 253-255.
- 段德智, 境外宗教渗透研究,(北京: 人民出版社, 2018), 362.
- Christopher J. H. Wright, The Mission of God: Unlocking the Bible’s Grand Narrative, (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic-InterVarsity Press, 2006), 252.
- Yajie Ji & Thomas Hale, “Restoring Blessing: A Preferable Paradigm to Today’s Mission,” The Journal of the International Society for Frontier Missiology 37, no. 3-4 (2020): 171-178.
- Sara Gehlin, Pathways for Theology in Peacebuilding: Ecumenical Approaches to Just Peace, (Leiden, the Netherlands: Koninklijke Brill NV, 2020), 97.
- Readers may refer to two of my previous ChinaSource Blog posts for details: “Daniel—A Model for Hong Kong in Creating Shalom” and “Make Me a Blessing in the Tension: Being a Blessing in a Hostile Environment.”
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