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Should I Stay or Should I Go?


China has never been an easy place to serve. In the past year or two, government pressure against Christians has grown. Stories of authorities shuttering prominent house churches have increased. I know of many cross-cultural workers who have been forced to leave by the government and many others who have preemptively left China for fear of being kicked out at any point. That’s not to mention other workers who have decided to leave because they consider China to no longer be a safe or healthy place for them to serve. There are also many others who delayed their return to China because of the coronavirus.

So, how do you know when to stay or when to go?

That question is even more pressing today, given the coronavirus situation. And, of course, there are no easy answers and each person’s situation will be different. However, I want to offer four questions that I believe every worker should consider when they ask themselves, “Should I stay, or should I leave?”

1. “Have I prayed about it?”

A call to prayer sounds so familiar to most us, but the danger to that familiarity is that we won’t take prayer seriously.

Hudson Taylor, the legendary missionary to China and founder of China Inland Mission, was no stranger to asking himself this question. He was also no stranger to immense challenges and uncertainties that led him to prayer. Taylor and his colleagues lived through dangerous situations in China, including the deadly 1868 anti-missionary Yangzhou riot. And, in 1870, Taylor and other missionaries were facing new challenges in the aftermath of the Tianjin Massacre. Missionaries were again direct targets.

To add personal sorrow to suffering, Taylor’s son Samuel died in February of that year. Another son, Noel, who was born in July later that year, died 13 days after birth. Taylor experienced even more heartbreak when his wife Maria died three days after Noel.

Taylor, overcome by grief and trials, certainly considered leaving the mission field and had good reason to do so. He was regularly asked for wisdom by missionaries in similar situations whether they should leave their mission stations while Chinese were targeting missionaries. Taylor wrote,

Almost daily I had letters from some group of workers asking for guidance, and wondering whether to stay or leave the station, as work for the time being was impossible. I knew not what to advise, but in each case, like Hezekiah, I spread the letters before the Lord, and trusted Him to teach me how to reply to them.

There was no conscious revelation, but in every instance I was guided to reply in the way that led to the best results, and I sent each letter off in the joyful peace of knowing that I had asked, and He had granted, the wisdom that is profitable to direct.[1]

When faced with the difficult question of whether to stay or leave, Taylor’s response was to turn to the Lord in prayer and trust that God’s will would be done.

Taylor ended up sailing home to England the following year, not knowing for certain if or when he’d return to China. Yet, he lived in that “joyous peace,” prayerfully trusting in God’s will. In fact, he did return a year later and spent the rest of his life serving China.

Do you have that same joyful peace knowing that God will grant wisdom to those who ask? Have you thanked God and rejoiced for what he’s already done? Have you prayed and regularly pray? Have you prayed sustained prayer even with others—your spouse, teammates, local friends and partners?

As J.O. Fraser, missionary to the Lisu people and Hudson Taylor’s colleague, said, “Solid, lasting mission work is done on our knees.”[2] Any decision about your current and future mission work must start with prayer.

2. Have I humbled myself?

Whether you stay or go, remember the work doesn’t depend on you. God has grown his church in China greatly with and without cross-cultural workers. Our first duty is to glorify his name, not our own.

Robert Morrison, an English-Scottish Presbyterian minister, was the first Protestant missionary to China. For most of his ministry, Morrison lived just off mainland China in Macao or in the restricted foreigner enclave in Canton (Guangzhou). Morrison longed to enter the interior of China so that greater work could be done. Yet, he had to resign himself to working from the sidelines. Morrison worked tirelessly to produce and translate resources in Chinese, such as dictionaries and Bible translations. He also regularly preached, evangelized, and taught. However, in his day the fruit of Morrison’s work seemed sparse. It took seven years for Morrison to baptize his first covert. When Morrison passed into glory after 27 years of ministry in China, he had baptized all of 10 people.

To observers, Morrison’s fruit seemed sparse during his day. Yet, after his death God used Morrison’s work tremendously. His translation and publishing ministry proved to be invaluable and laid the groundwork for future literature ministry.

In his day Morrison was not obsessed with his own glory and proving himself. He sought to be faithful to God and glorifying God’s name. As a testament to his humility, “Morrison was asked shortly after his arrival in China if he expected to have any spiritual impact on the Chinese, he answered, ‘No sir, but I expect God will!’”[3]

What do you seek most in your ministry? God’s glory or your own? Lifting up God’s name or making a name for yourself via your ministry? As you consider staying or leaving, have you humbled yourself?

“You must not look to the mission, but to God,”[4] Hudson Taylor famously quipped. “God’s work done in God’s way will never lack supplies.”[5] That’s easier to say when you know you’ll be a part of the mission in some way for years to come. But, can you be content if the work might lack you. One of the biggest mistakes we can make when deciding whether to stay or go is to think that we are indispensable to God’s work in China.

3. Have I sought counsel from and submitted to my local church, my sending organization, and my sending church?

If you have none of these, I want to suggest that the current situation should be a reminder that cross-cultural workers need support and oversight from their church and sending organization. Just as Paul and Barnabas were sent out by the church in Acts 13, we need churches that send and support our work.

Not only is this the biblical model, but oversight from the church carries with some practical implications that help us confront thorny issues on the field. Let me offer three implications. Oversight provides:

  1. Objective observation. You may think you know the situation better than outside observers. But, you may have emotional or material investment that is clouding your judgement.
  2. Assessment of your gifts, your growth, and your potential. Perhaps this situation can open up a potential area of ministry that fits your gifts well. Outsiders can help you see where your gifts fit the current needs, or where you need to grow to meet those needs. They may also know of new places that need those same gifts.
  3. Member care and counseling. Serving in China is never easy. We need people who can offer spiritual and emotional counsel when the going gets tough. Member care and counseling can be a safety net when the situation around us gets difficult. They will also be some of the people who welcome us back with open arms should we decide to leave.

Are you lone-rangering it? Aside from the biblical precedent, sending churches and organizations provide outside evaluation and member care. Because of the rise in recent tensions and now the coronavirus, now is a good time to be in close communication with your church, or to quickly seek out the oversight of a healthy church.

4. Have I counted the cost of staying or leaving to my personal and family life?

As cross-cultural workers, we know serving overseas isn’t easy, and following Christ requires sacrifice and service. However, there is a difference between necessary suffering and foolish suffering. One honors God, one honors self. Causing foolish suffering to yourself and your family doesn’t equate to serving well.

“Suffering for Jesus” is not an excuse to wantonly ignore one’s physical health, or allow one’s marriage to implode, or to relationally orphan one’s children. Here are some diagnostic questions that will help get at that larger question of counting the cost:

  • Am I thriving in this environment, or am I one failure away from a nervous breakdown?
  • Am I loving my spouse as Christ commanded, or are we at best roommates passing in the night?
  • Are my children getting the best of my energy, or do they get the scraps leftover at the end of another exhausting day?
  • Do I listen to the fears my spouse and children, or am I quick to dismiss them?
  • Am I honoring my family back in my home country, or do I assume their concerns are unjustified?

Have I done everything I can to prepare myself and my family for a possible transition back to our home country, even if we aren’t planning to leave yet?

You and your family must be healthy before you can properly serve to others. New stress with the “New Normal” in China will only add more challenges to personal and family dynamics.

Of course, this is in no way meant to be an exhaustive list. There are many other questions that we can ask ourselves when it comes to staying or going. Nevertheless, these should be some of the first questions we ask. And these are questions that we should regularly come back to even when things seem to be going well.

Image credit: Piotr Piotrowski from Pixabay