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When the “Golden Age” Is Over

A Call for Missiological Reflection on China Missions of the Past Four Decades

From the series Reflecting on the End of the “Golden Age”

In the early 1950s when all foreign missionaries were expelled from China—once the largest mission field—and the new communist regime closed the country’s door to mission work completely, the so-called “China debacle”1 sent shock waves across the international missions community and triggered extensive soul searching and rethinking of missions theology and methods alongside the emergence of powerful nationalist movements in the non-Western world in the following decades. What emerged from the “debacle” and rethinking was a very fresh missiology characterized by themes such as contextualization and the “Missio Dei.”

What foreign cross-cultural workers and the churches in mainland China have experienced in the past six or seven years resembles to a significant extent the “China debacle.” It is no wonder some observers have already begun to compare these two eras. The current situation may not be bad enough to be considered another “debacle,” but the consensus seems to be that “the Golden Age” (late 1990s to mid-2010s) of mission work and church growth in China is over, and a new normal of social and political pressure and marginalization is settling in. As the mission community tries to cope with China’s new reality and to adjust accordingly, a legitimate question to ask is whether any valuable missiological reflection will be done, and valuable lessons drawn such as what happened in the 1950s and afterwards?

When we take a closer look at how North American-based missions agencies respond to the changes in China, we do have reason to doubt. Expelled from the country, many foreign workers and agencies have demonstrated their resilience, and begin to explore ways to continue serving the Chinese church. This response is certainly courageous and admirable. However, most of their exploration so far appears to be tactical, technical, and managerial in nature. In other words, they are overwhelmingly trying to identify the needs of the Chinese church and the possibilities of re-entering, re-engaging, and serving either directly or indirectly, setting new goals, and finding concrete methods to achieve these goals. Most of these endeavors are program- or project-driven and, to a significant extent, business-like in their approach.

These conversations primarily seem to be dominated by practitioners; the voices of missiologists are largely missing. Very few missiological questions are raised. Overall, there seems to be a powerful push to re-mobilize, re-connect, and re-start in the wake of the shock waves of the governmental crack-down of the past several years, and the push is primarily about immediate actions, things we can do. It is so much so that one can almost feel the pulse of the trademark activism American evangelicalism is known for.

Yes, all these efforts and action plans are commendable and helpful.

On the other hand, however, one might ask how likely it is that some of these plans will go wrong again, and how far they can actually go without any serous and meaningful “soul searching” and missiological reflection. With the end of “the Golden Age,” it may be necessary for us to slow down and take a step back for a season of self-examination and missiological re-thinking.

From my perspective, we need to do at least two things.

First, we should assess in a systematic and consistent way what we did right and what we did wrong on an operational level. What should be preserved, improved, or discontinued from the past four decades (the 1980s to present). Second, and even more important, we should engage with the success and failure of the past four decades missiologically.

By missiological reflection, I do not mean purely theoretical analysis and speculation. Rather, I mean a process similar to what sociologists call “middle range theory.” On the one hand, we do not need to construct any grand theological theory and narrative immediately; on the other hand, we do need to transcend the realm of policy, operation, practice, and method. What we really need to focus on is the patterns behind programs and projects, the mindsets behind practices and actions, and the ways of thinking and the rationale behind policies and strategies.

To put it another way, our purpose should be to go deeper to the roots beneath the phenomena. If we do this, we may be able to draw some hugely valuable lessons that can re-shape our posture and attitude, re-set our theological outlook, re-orient our ministries, and keep us faithful, humble, and effective in our future service. Otherwise, we may be very likely to continue operating under old mindsets and frameworks, even though we are appearing to “invent” new strategies and “create” new methods. Let us remember the conventional wisdom: if we do not deal with the past thoroughly first, our chance of failure in the future will become much greater.

In order to facilitate a process of missiological reflection, I would like to tentatively raise a few questions for consideration:

First, before and while serving in China, did we do our homework adequately to understand the history, culture, and politics (CCP) of the country? Did we understand the evangelical tradition and the characters of the Chinese church well enough? If so, we should have been better prepared to contextualize our ministries, to set realistic goals and expectations, and to some extent anticipate hardship.

Secondly, related to the first question, did we unintentionally assume that the same types of programs working well in America would work well in China also, and thus transplant them to the field in a wholesale and uncritical way?

Thirdly, why should American denominations be re-introduced into China especially in early twenty-first century, and denominational traditions be promoted there? How much did we value what have grown out of the indigenous revivals of the 1980s and 90s?

Fourthly, did we sometimes rely too much on our own resources and programs? When we did that, were we still able to maintain a posture of humility and servanthood in working together with Chinese Christians?

Fifthly, did we have solid theology to counter such questionable ideas and the rhetoric of associating the gospel with power and prosperity and turning China into a so-called “Christian nation,” which were and still are prevalent among some Chinese Christians?

I am sure there are many more questions we could ask about the legacy of the past four decades. If we do not ask hard questions about ourselves and our own ministries, we will risk perpetuating the old patterns and mentality into the future under the guise of “new initiatives,” and we will miss a historic opportunity to learn significant lessons that will serve China missions well in the decades to come.

In the past God has sometime allowed the church in some contexts to plunge to low points before new paradigms of ministry emerged. What has been happening in China the past several years could be a historic moment like that. If we grasp the opportunity offered by this moment, what might we discover about ourselves and our ministries that could well benefit the Chinese church, as well as the global church, and could even contribute to the birth of a new mission paradigm for the future just as what happened during the second half of the twentieth century?


  1. For background on this term, see “First Thoughts on the Débâcle of Christian Missions in China” by a China Missionary in African Affairs 51, no. 202 (1952): 33–41. Accessed on October 7, 2022.
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CHEN Jing (pseudonym) is a theological educator teaching in North America and has been extensively involved in theological education for the church in China since the beginning of the 21st century.View Full Bio

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