Recently, I met with two other foreign Christian brothers in our city for coffee. I decided that I would open up a bit and share with them about a struggle I am having—namely, the feeling that I am not making much of an impact here. I didn’t know how they would respond, but it turned out to be insightful and encouraging.
Since 2018, serving in China has been much more difficult for me. At that time, many of my ministry partners left, and a regional partnership in which I was involved stopped meeting. I no longer have a sense of collaboration or synergy with others. I wish I had a team, but I don’t. I have tried to work together with others in my city, but that hasn’t led to anything significant. I was hopeful when I discovered that a Chinese family involved in ministry was living in my apartment complex, but they moved to a different city only a couple of months after we met.
When I shared my struggle with the brothers, I was very encouraged by their responses. The first brother said, “I feel like I’m failing if I stay; I feel like I’m failing if I go home.” When I heard this, I was struck with the thought that not only was I not alone, but that others are perhaps dealing with this more than I am. That was comforting.
His response also highlights two important points. One, it demonstrates the emotional stress caused by a sense of disappointment and failure. I remember hearing a lot about culture shock, the stress of living in another culture, and the difficulties of getting along with teammates, but I do not recall hearing much about the stress that comes from feeling like a failure. As this first brother and I have discovered, however, it is a real issue that weighs heavily on you and eats at you from the inside.
To make matters worse, last year I received an email from a church leader back home saying that he’d like to “talk.” Since those dreaded words are almost always an indication that a difficult conversation is impending, my mind immediately began to race and think about what he wanted to talk about. You can also imagine the anxiousness leading up to our scheduled call, and how I felt sitting and waiting when he did not show up. If nothing else, I just wanted to know what he wanted to talk about.
When we finally did connect, he told me that the elders had had a meeting and were concerned about my involvement in ministry; they had not heard too much about ministry in my newsletters and updates. Out of all the possible topics that I was concerned about him bringing up, this was the one that I dreaded the most. I told him about a few small things that were going on, but that I do not typically include them in my newsletters. This seemed to satisfy him, and he went back and reported to the elders. While I feel that this church does care for me, this also showed me that, at least to some degree, they want results, and that puts considerable pressure on me in this current environment.
My friend’s comment about being a failure also revealed a second insight. I suspect that many like him have narrowed decisions about the future to one of two possible options: stay in China or return to one’s home country. However, I don’t think these are the only two options. I see a compelling third option: relocate to an area outside of China to serve diaspora Chinese or train Chinese missionaries (or both). At present, now that the borders are open again, it seems likely that many more Chinese will be able to travel outside the country to receive training. I know of at least two cities where this is currently happening, but I am sure there are more.
The second Christian brother also gave helpful feedback. He said he feels “guilty” at times about not doing more. However, his attitude and comments revealed that he was in a different place emotionally from me and the first brother. The issue didn’t seem to bother him as much. He then shared that if one wants to stay in China, he or she needs to “find peace” about the current situation. In my interpretation of what he was saying, I sensed that he meant that one would need to be satisfied with meager results or with a seemingly insignificant ministry. Judging by this brother’s attitude, it seems he had found that peace. Undoubtedly, doing so is going to be more difficult for some than others. It is especially hard for me knowing that folks back home, like the church I just mentioned, have certain expectations of me.
My second friend made another point. He said another option is to “take more risks” and become “bolder.” While he indicated that this could be a real possibility for some, he personally did not feel “peace” about doing so since he perceived that taking more risks would mean almost certain expulsion from the country. His comment reminded me of another foreign friend in my city who studies the Bible almost daily with believers around the country using WeChat—and no one has ever said anything to him about it. Many would perceive that as taking a huge risk, but perhaps it is not. And perhaps it is a risk worth taking. We will all need to decide before the Lord what risks we should take, but boldness was definitely a mark of Jesus, Peter, Stephen, Paul, and others.
I hope my experience will be an encouragement to others out there who feel the same way as my friends and I do. Whatever our situation, may we press on and not grow weary in a tough environment in which to serve, and have the wisdom to know what our next steps should be.
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