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Who Will Be China’s Issachar Tribe?

From the series Research and the Indigenous Chinese Church

In all disciplines of academic or scientific pursuit, strategy is always driven by the results of solid and sound research. Sound, solid research is like scientific experimentation—unbiased and reproducible by others using a similar approach. Good strategy demands a strong foundation based on properly conducted research. Good strategy is never based on just feelings or personal convictions. In mission history, the Holy Spirit also moved hearts based on intuition or a hunch, but always backed up by insight from research. Newton and the discovery of gravity is a classic example that illustrates this truth.

For mission from China, an example is the Back to Jerusalem (BTJ) movement that started in the 1940s. God used a China Inland Mission worker, Helen Bailey, who happened to know of various groups in China that shared the same vision—to bring the gospel to the northwest of China. Bailey published a newsletter in England to promote the vision and opened a bank account under the name BTJ. It is worth noting that the BTJ label was never used by the various “arms” of the movement in China and they did not know of each other’s existence.

A good working definition of missiologist is the equivalent of the description of the Issachar tribe who “understood the times and knew what Israel should do.” (I Chronicles 12:32) Bailey definitely qualified for the label “missiologist.”

We can find more illustrations in the history of the modern mission era. Donald McGavran invented the idea of “people group” based on what he learned while serving in India in the 1950s. (Perspectives, p. 335) In 1974, Ralph Winter took the idea further and coined the term “unreached people group” (UPG) (Remembering Dr. Ralph Winter).

These two missiologists transformed the entire Western mission movement of the last 70 years, changing the focus from country-based mission to UPG-based mission. Country-based missiology resulted in a moratorium on missionary sending whereas UPG-based missiology identified over 10,000 UPGs who still need the gospel.

Another missiologist of the modern era is Cameron Townsend. He was challenged to commit to scripture translation when a local unbeliever said, “If your God is so smart, why can’t he speak my language?” (Perspectives, p. 335)

Truly, a missiologist is one who knows the times and can challenge the church to respond appropriately based on insights from sound research and illumination from the Holy Spirit.

The most urgent question facing today’s Chinese missiologist is “what kind of missiology does China need today?”

Western missiology has developed from an Open Access Nation (OAN) approach to a Creative Access Nation (CAN, 創啓宣教) approach in the 1990s. In 2010, Lausanne II in Cape Town brought up the idea that mission sending is no longer monopolized by the West but is “from everywhere to everywhere” (從全地到萬邦). This was developed further into “polycentric mission” (多源宣教) in recent years, focusing on sending from everywhere.

However, both OAN and CAN missiology are based on the target people group’s receptivity to the communication of the gospel. Whereas “from everywhere to everywhere” and “polycentric mission” merely bring out the fact that the global south majority world is an equally valid participant in sending. None of them address the unique features of sending from China. Thus, some researchers brought up the notion of “Indigenous Mission Movement from China” (IMM from China) as a proper missiology from China.

IMM from China focuses on the fact that sending from China is not in the same league as CAN and OAN; it is not a receptor-based missiology but a mobilization-based missiology. China is creative access due to government policy, so any sending from China is under creative access restrictions. Mission mobilization and sending cannot be openly discussed and presented in the churches as in the West. Missionaries from China need to have a creative platform before they are sent out and have a bona fide status that is consistent with their roles both in China and in the field. This requires a totally new paradigm but also opens up new applications.

IMM from China missiology can be applied to mission sending from other CAN countries to equally restricted countries, such as from one part of Indonesia to another to reach an UPG, or from Iran (where Christianity is emerging fast) to other Islamic states. See, for example, the newly published book Too Many to Jail. Perhaps this is the unique gift that the Lord has reserved for China to develop and contribute to the majority world.

This is a totally new category of missiology. A more descriptive name is “CAN to All” missiology, shortened to CANTALL (增多宣教) missiology. This missiology is yet to be written although researchers are already building the framework for it. It is still waiting for a large enough group of missiologists from China who are present day Issachars. These are people who are trained to do solid research, accumulate significant field experience, and know what the church should do. We do not need too many. I Chronicles only tells of 200 such people and they could lead the whole nation of Israel.

Chinese missiologist, where are thou? (cf. Genesis 3:9)


Winter, Ralph D., Hawthorne, Steven C., editors; Dorr, Darrell, R., Graham, D. Bruce, and Koch, Bruce A., associate editors. Perspectives on the World Christian Movement : A Reader, 4th edition.

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WU Xi (pseudonym) began serving China during the mid-70s, just before China’s Open Door policy was implemented. He served in many different capacities including working with Chinese scholars studying in the West, front-line evangelistic work, and church mobilization for China. He now focuses on developing China’s mission ecosystem.View Full Bio

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