Opportunities for collaboration between Christians inside and outside China have evolved as China's continued opening has allowed for more natural cross-cultural relationships. Early attempts at partnering were often one-way, with those outside China providing funds, training, and other resources to an indigenous church with great needs but seemingly little to contribute in return. With the emergence of a new generation of trained leaders who are increasingly connected with the global church, either virtually or directly through going abroad or working with foreigners in country, collaboration has moved to a new level.The church in China is increasingly well-resourced financially and in terms of human capital. Throughout China Christians are harnessing the power of knowledge and relationships through their use of the internet. The Chinese church not only has much to share with the church outside; it has many new channels by which to do so.
All these developments pave the way for more equal and equitable collaboration. Is it happening?
Last year ChinaSource began surveying Chinese Christians who had partnered across fellowships, networks or organizations. Most of these partnering efforts involved counterparts from outside China. While many positive attributes emerged in participants' response to the survey, one overriding dynamic emerged repeatedly, namely, the effect of culture upon partnering. Although none of the survey items asked specifically about culture, a content analysis of the results revealed "culture" to be the most commonly used term in the responses.
As expected, many of these responses went directly to differences in culture between east and west, and, specifically, to the lack of understanding of Chinese culture among those from abroad. This lack of cultural awareness was seen both in terms of general cultural norms as well the local cultures of specific cities or regions. More than one-third of respondents mentioned cultural superiority and a lack of respect for the Chinese culture as hindrances to partnering. Some perceived their foreign counterparts as seeking to impose their own culture upon the Chinese, which created a barrier to their working together.
A lack of cultural understanding was also blamed for attempts to implement programs which the Chinese partners did not see as suitable to their own context. Along with this was voiced the frustration that Western partners coming from a culture that values measurable results did not place enough emphasis on relationship, the cultural currency which in China is essential for any transaction to take place. Overall it was assumed that if a foreigner wants to serve successfully in China then it is incumbent upon him or her to become a student of the local culture and to adapt accordingly.
The frustration with culture was not only one-way, however. Asked about partnering in the unique context of China, many respondents brought up aspects of their own culture which they saw as barriers to effective collaboration. One that stood out prominently was the issue of control. Several respondents mentioned, rather forcefully, an underlying fear of being controlled by others and, on the flip side, the perceived tendency of leaders to want to control others. "In partnering, even a hint of wanting to control cannot be tolerated," commented one respondent.
All cultures stand in need of redemption. Partnering across cultures allows those involved to view their own culture in a new light (a sometimes painful experience) as they are brought face-to-face with a new reality which calls into question long-held assumptions about those things that are most essential. It is in this uncomfortable middle ground that a new "third culture" can emerge, encapsulating the shared values, norms and expectations of all involved. As one survey respondent remarked, ""The partnering relationship is part of our training toward maturity; the specific project or program is temporary, while the relationship is for eternity."
Technologically or geographically speaking, the means of connecting across cultures are more readily available than ever before. The challenge that remains is the hard work of building a culture within which true partnering can take place.
For more on the ChinaSource partnering survey, see Healthy Partnering: A Chinese Perspective.
Image credit: I Think I Have a Fever, by Angie Pinchbeck, via Flickr
Brent Fulton is the founder of ChinaSource. Prior to assuming his current position, 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 US director of China Ministries International, and from 1985 to... View Full Bio