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Who’s in Charge?

From the series Our China Stories

When Christians from China take the gospel to other nations, they encounter a double-edged cultural challenge. Not only do they need to adjust to the language and customs of their new host country; they must also negotiate relationships with Christian workers from other parts of the world with whom they will be serving.

As one believer from China related to me last year, this latter cultural encounter highlights the difference in approach between the Western task-oriented mindset and the relational emphasis of many Chinese missionaries. Armed with decades of experience, proven methods, advanced technological tools, and considerable financial backing, workers from established international organizations have a clear idea of what needs to be done and how it should happen.

Yet, he noted, “A lot of Western organizations now have the realization, ‘We need to let them be in charge; let them lead.’”

But how?

Chinese workers don’t know a lot about how to reach the people group,” he explained. “They don’t have a professional perspective on Bible translation, media production, or such things. They only want to be able to stay there, to be accepted by the local people, have friendships, and share the gospel. It’s very simple.

Given their fundamentally different expectations on the field, it is no surprise that when either party attempts to call the shots it inevitably results in misunderstanding and disappointment.

Furthermore, this brother pointed out, “Since they are new, I don’t think they are able to lead, in many ways…. They don’t have the competence [to be] a qualified missionary.”

Passing the Baton

“Passing the baton” has long been a staple in the vocabulary of Western Christians’ China narratives. From James Hudson Taylor’s metaphor of missionaries as “scaffolding,” to optimistic proclamations about China’s church taking the gospel back to Jerusalem, foreign workers have served with the expectation that their Chinese colleagues would eventually take the lead.

But if efforts on the field are largely the product of strategies, budgets, and priorities set in agency boardrooms thousands of miles away, how can the workers from China be expected to lead? Multiply this tension by the number of different agencies represented on any given field, and it is no wonder this brother from China, when asked about partnering with international organizations, said, “It’s overwhelming.”

Instead of trying to figure out who’s in charge, he prefers “a co-laboring partnership.”

We are together for God’s kingdom, not for organizational goals, not for the field workers to be successful. It’s for expanding God’s kingdom…to reach more people. So I think it’s a kingdom mindset…. We are mutually partnering.”

Polycentric Leadership

For what this could look like in practice, we might turn to the work of Joe Handley, Alan Yeh, and other missiologists who have suggested a new approach to leadership. As it turns out, it is actually not so new. Handley and co-author Micaela Braithwaite write,

Christianity is the only religion which has no single holy place, no city or country that we attribute greater spiritual significance to, or which represents our faith. There is also no majority ethnic group or one culture which depicts our beliefs. Even the Scriptures were written by numerous different authors, from different geographic locations, and the Gospel accounts of Jesus’ life are an interweaving of different accounts into a single narrative. Embedded in Christianity is the idea of polycentrism.1

Polycentric, or “many-centered,” leadership enables a community of people from different backgrounds, operating in collective fashion and inspired by the Holy Spirit, to utilize their unique gifts and potential. Handley sees polycentric leadership as a welcome corrective to the historic unidirectional view of missions, often articulated as “from the West to the rest.” He describes it as neither centralized nor decentralized, but as a hybrid structure in which power and decision-making are diversified within a network of individuals unified by a single goal.

In a discussion with Handley, Francis Tsui, a Christian business leader in Hong Kong, pondered the relevance of polycentric leadership to the current Chinese mission movement, particularly as it relates to the broader Lausanne vision for global evangelization:

I observe that the Chinese church is still struggling in how to situate itself [in] its role in global mission. How close they should work with established West-based mission movements and organizations (and infrastructure), or should they develop their own missiology, infrastructure, and mechanism? There are still many differing opinions on both sides of the arguments….

It is not about what and how Lausanne may like to lead/serve, but, rather, how the Chinese church might like to drive. Maybe there, in fact, is a wider application of polycentrism in missional development.2

As with many Christian China narratives, the questions we ask shape the storyline. If “Who’s in charge?” is not the right question, attempts to answer it will undoubtedly prove unsatisfactory.

Perhaps a better starting point would be, “How shall we lead together?”


  1. Joseph W. Handley and Micaela Braithwaite, “What is Polycentric Leadership?” Lausanne Movement, September 20, 2022, accessed May 23, 2024,
  2. Joseph W. Handley, Polycentric Mission Leadership: Toward a New Theoretical Model for Global Leadership (Oxford: Regnum Books International, 2022), 90.
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Brent Fulton

Brent Fulton

Brent Fulton is the founder of ChinaSource. Dr. Fulton served as the first president of ChinaSource until 2019. Prior to his service with ChinaSource, 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 …View Full Bio

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