The growth of the church in China has fueled a passion among Chinese Christians for an indigenous cross-cultural missions movement. Chinese have already begun to send their own missionaries to fields outside of China. The past several years in particular have seen renewed emphasis on such cross-cultural missions activities through movements such as the “Back to Jerusalem Movement,” the “Mission China 2030 Conference” and China’s first "Urbana-style" missions conference, and other missions activities. The church has also experienced one particularly heartbreaking event this past year with the death of two Chinese missionaries in Pakistan.
The WeChat blog “Good Tidings” recently interviewed several experienced missions workers at the annual assembly of the Chinese Pastors’ Fellowship. These missions workers reflect on the pressing opportunities and challenges for the Chinese church.
Opportunity and Challenges for the Chinese Church in Missions
Before he ascended into heaven, the Lord Jesus entrusted the disciples with this Great Commission: “Spread the gospel to the ends of the earth.” The two thousand years of church history since are really two thousand years of missions history. Innumerable missionaries responded to God’s call and set out for different countries to spread the gospel, some even at the cost of their own lives. It was this sacrifice and dedication that brought the gospel into China. Now, how should China’s church respond to God’s call and fulfill the mandate he has given us?
Recently, the Chinese Pastors’ Fellowship met for a special missions topic, “Commemorating the 500th Anniversary of the Protestant Reformation.” Good Tidings caught up with several pastors and students who are highly experienced in missions and theological education, and discussed some practical questions the Chinese church faces in joining world missions.
Part One: Visit and Discussion—Reassessment and Tactics
Several pastors and students who are highly experienced in missions and theological education discussed some practical questions the Chinese church faces in joining world missions.
Question 1: What do you believe is the greatest problem China’s church faces in world missions?
Jackson: The biggest problem is that many missionaries do not understand how to adapt to a different culture. Many missionaries go to other places and simply establish Chinese-style churches, instead of churches that are integrated into the local culture. Another is that they cannot contextualize theology.
Xie: The biggest problem comes from the Chinese context. As far as the younger generation and world missions, the first question is whether or not they can break away from their personal restrictions and self-imposed boundaries. Many times we cannot face the needs of world missions because of our own restrictions. The second question is how we respond to multiculturalism coming from a monocultural context.
Smither: While doing missions in North Africa I saw many Chinese people, including many workers who were contracted to build hotels. Many Chinese people live scattered abroad, and this is clearly a favorable time for China to join world missions. The difficulty is that Chinese people abroad need to plant more deeply in local culture, instead of finding other travelers like themselves and clustering together.
Question 2: How should we equip ourselves in regards to intercultural missions? In what areas do missionaries need to be cultivated?
Smither: When we train theology students to be missionaries, we hope they will have received professional, systematic training in the Bible, theology, and culture. We also train them in technical skills. That way they can have a better livelihood in the local context and bear the missionary mandate.
Jackson: This is actually two interrelated questions. 1. The first is about Biblical interpretation. Interpretation of Scripture should be the foundation of missions training, because the Bible can engage all cultures. 2. The second is about contextualization. How do you adapt to local customs and culture in a new place? These are the questions that missionaries face.
Xie: We need to prepare to befriend all sorts of people and come into contact with different cultures, thereby transforming our views and horizons. We need to look at the physical and spiritual needs of those around us—the needs of society—from the Bible’s perspective, and experience the heart of God in their midst. The Lord is able to open all kinds of possibilities and new aspects of missions, and we need to walk in step with him.
Question 3: Currently, many urban Chinese churches are involved in church-planting movements, and in cities outside of where the main churches are located they are establishing branch churches. This should also be a point of emphasis for world missions. But in the church planting movements, some churches are successful and others are comparatively weak. What is your take on this?
Jackson: The church’s main limitations in participating in missions are making service central and training the congregation so that the church is not limited by the pastor. On the positive side of urban churches, church members have a more learned culture—they are more familiar with theology, and value schools of thought. But on the negative side, it is easy for believers to fight with each other, which limits their growth.
Xie: In the church planting movement it is easiest to attract people of a similar culture. The important thing is how to have the congregation truly commit themselves to the church and to their leaders and teachers.
Question 4: Many people believe that the Internet is a special blessing of God on this generation, which can be used to spread the gospel to the ends of the earth. Because of this, Internet evangelism has become an important realm of world missions. What do you think we need to pay special attention to regarding Internet missions? Are there any discrepancies between online missions and in-person missions? Are there any ways in which they are complementary?
Smither: Advancements in science and technology have made conditions easier for missions, including in church planting and discipleship. But the church is built on physical relationships between people, and it is very difficult for the Internet to replace this. The Internet has also provided a lot of convenience: in many places members of a physical church cannot easily acquire Bibles, but online they can view and even download many versions of the Bible. This has been a great help to the spreading of the gospel.
Jackson: As far as spreading the gospel is concerned, the Internet is very limited. You can only really introduce the gospel, and people will still need more explanation. But it is a good start. You can also circulate theological materials and even carry out theological training.
Xie: I am very optimistic about Internet missions. Online, we can interact in multiple ways and approximate reality. The Internet is not merely a means for transferring information—it is a platform for building relationships that breaks the limits of time and space, and blurs the distinction between virtual and reality. We must see this as an opportunity for missions. Without even going out the door, you can come into contact with groups of people in different times and places. I believe the Internet is land that missions must take.
Xu Zhiqiu: Building real relationships through virtual reality is a very novel insight.
Question 5: With the increasing specialization of labor in society, missions has also become more specialized: we have medical missions, missions through education, and more. Do you see any latent dangers in this more specialized, professional way of doing missions? Perhaps problems in the relationship between business and religion? How would you solve these problems?
Smither: God has given people different gifts in Christ, all of which can be used in missions. In medical missions, missions through education, and economic missions, missions and occupations actually strengthen and help each other, which I think is extremely good. But we must be aware that if we go to another culture and only work our job, just like unbelievers, then this is not missions. Any missions ministry must preach the basic gospel message, disciple believers, and plant churches, or else it is just a normal business.
Jackson: This is not a method, but an opportunity to engage people, love them better and understand their needs. Many people say, “what does the gospel have to do with me?” If we work alongside them and serve them, then they will see. We both contribute to society and influence them with the gospel.
Xie: They had this situation in ancient times as well. Abraham was a nomadic pastoralist, Paul made tents—they used their own professions to support missions. Different missionaries (and even missions organizations) cooperate together to accomplish the work of missions. At the same time, even if missionaries in the church have the physical stamina to be stable, you will still need the pastor to cultivate and support [missions].
Xu Zhiqiu: Business as missions is different from the traditional missions model, and is a great way of doing it. As far as how to balance it, Xie and Smither brought up that there needs to be the element of evangelism: this is the duty and mission of the missionary. I want to supplement that by saying that in the professional realm, we cannot use the fact that we are missionaries as an excuse to be mediocre in our work, making our business activity (or other work) unsustainable. This is not a proper theological attitude. At any and all times, we can manifest Christ through dedication to our work, and this itself is convincing among unbelievers.
Question 6: As elders in the world of missions, can you combine your knowledge and experience and talk about the joys and sorrows of missionary service, and how God has led you at each step?
Smither: There are two aspects of challenges. The first is that you must have an excellent command of the local culture and language—the language barrier consumes a lot of energy. The other is that we must make family important. God has called us to spread the gospel, but not to sacrifice our families. In my experience, it is easy for many missionaries to neglect their marriages and families. Families face many challenges in cross-cultural missions.
Jackson: Have proper expectations. We shape our joy by our expectations. In missions, we may not suffer persecution, but we will have many small wounds. They may be encountering minor difficulties, other people not understanding you, or not knowing how to go forward, and so on. We need to be mentally prepared for these very real problems and, relying on the Lord, adopt a positive attitude and adjust. When we go to healthy teams and enter deeply into the local culture, we do not just understand their perspectives on a superficial level, but we actually understand them more deeply.
Part Two: Live on Location—Opportunities and Challenges
In the special lectures on missions Pastor Wang Zhengzhong, a man who has been right in the center of promoting intercultural missions, and Columbia International University’s Dr. Edward Smither each shared different perspectives with the audience about China’s church and future missions.
In the lectures, Pastor Wang Zhengzhong took Exodus 4 as an example, talking about how “The LORD commanded Moses to drop his staff, and when the staff became a snake he commanded Moses to grab it by the tail.” Moses had lived 40 years in the wilderness, and he surely knew that to catch a snake you grab it by the head. But Moses didn’t debate with God. He obeyed and grabbed the snake by the tail. From this we can see that we must obey. It is only when we lay down our own thinking and obey God that we can complete Jesus’ great commission.
Pastor Wang also pointed out that many Chinese churches have stopped at “Jerusalem,” and have not gone out. Looking back on Korean and American church missions, there were many failures. He hopes that China will not imitate other countries but follow the Lord’s voice, laying down its own customary experiences and traditions, and grab the “snake” by the tail.
Difficulties faced by Chinese missionaries and the path to solving them.
From over ten years of observing and researching the Chinese church, Pastor Wang Zhengzhong discussed certain problems for the Chinese church in missions. These include the following:
- The difference between Chinese and foreign missionaries is the difference between a knapsack and an immigrant’s pack. When Korean missionaries are sent, they swear loyalty to that land, and prepare themselves to never come back, even to the point of writing their final wills and testaments. But the Chinese church generally only sends short-term missions, and they lack this willingness to give up their lives.
- Many Chinese Christians frequently go to missions conferences, where they are moved to tears and agony, even resolving in their hearts to go out into the missions field. But when they go home it is as if nothing happened. When the next year’s missions conference rolls around, they are moved once more and feel called once more, but when they go back they do nothing. . . . This cycle continues in the third year, and in the fourth year. In this way, missions conferences become mere forms without any fruit, with no connection to a next step.
- We lack good missionary-care both domestically and abroad. Training is like the process of pregnancy, and being commissioned and sent is like the process of birth. Caring for those missionaries, then, is like the process of child-rearing. Without it, many missionaries simply “die out.” Missionaries easily suffer from physical illness and depression, their children likewise face many difficulties such as not adapting to the culture, and divorce is not uncommon. These are all because we fail to care for the missionaries once they are in the field.
- Teachers who teach missions curriculum do not necessarily understand real missions, and so students lack real practical training.
- Most Chinese missionaries have neither a missionary consciousness nor a vision for transnational missions. When Jesus said to spread the gospel to Jerusalem, Samaria, Judah, and the ends of the earth, each of these spheres of missions was to happen simultaneously.
So then, how to solve the Chinese church’s aforementioned problem in missions? Pastor Wang believes the solution lies in transforming our training model and creating a culture of care. For training models, we can learn from the examples of other foreign sending churches; for a culture of care, we should find ways to attend to the actual needs of Chinese missionaries, such as having a year of furlough/rest.
Columbia International University’s Dr. Edward Smither shared from his own perspective about the essence and importance of missions.
He said that there are some missionaries like Jonah, who not only did not go when God told him to, but even ran away. But through this we see that God is a missionary (that is to say, God is a missionary God). We do missions for one simple reason: God sends us.
In seminary we often ask students a question: “Who was the first missionary?” “When did missions start in the Bible?”
Students have all kinds of answers: Paul? The Lord Jesus? Maybe it was Moses, or Abraham?
In Genesis 3:8, God said to Adam, “Where are you?” From that moment on, God started sending: after humanity sinned, God sent himself. Afterward, no less than 800 verses reference God sending his servants, his only Son, his Spirit, his church, his disciples. . .
We will also face many difficulties in the mission field, but where is our hope? It is in the fact that “this is from God.”
When the Holy Spirit comes upon you, you will receive power; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.
Acts of the Apostles 1:8
Original Article: 中国教会在宣教中的机遇和挑战, 今日佳音 (Good Tidings This Day)
Image credit: Zachary Long via Flickr.
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