David Joannes is Founder/President of Within Reach Global and author of The Space Between Memories. I recently talked with David about working with local Christians in China who serve among China’s ethnic minority peoples.
1. Having worked with local believers in serving among ethnic minority groups, what do you see as the biggest obstacle for Chinese Christians wanting to serve in this way?
If the history of missions has taught us anything, it is that the foreign worker’s main role is to work himself out of a job. Or more precisely, to raise up indigenous, cross-cultural workers who are able to reach their own people groups and surrounding ethnic tribes within the borders of their countries.
One of the biggest obstacles for local Christian workers who reach out to ethnic people groups is that they are often looked upon with disdain. Historically, these ethnic peoples have not been treated honorably by the majority Han Chinese. And though they have in recent years been largely Sinicized (have taken on many Chinese characteristics), they still hold in high regard their own cultural identity. Local Chinese cannot expect to enter their life without understanding their worldview, spiritual perspectives, and cultural identities. Gung-ho passion for the lost must be paired with an aptitude to servanthood, to learning the ins and outs of the target culture, and adapting their traditional missions methods to the needs of each particular people group.
2. What lessons have you learned from your co-workers in China?
That being said, by and large, the Chinese church has also gone through trying seasons and tumultuous events in the recent decades of China’s developmental stages. This has instilled courage and tenacity among China’s missional hearts. Come persecution or struggle, the house church will rise to the challenge of spreading the message of God’s grace and glory to those around them.
I have seen this first hand in the faithful Chinese pioneers I work alongside. Nearly every one of our local colleagues at Within Reach Global has been beaten, imprisoned, jailed, and interrogated for their faith. And their response has been remarkable. After Zhang Rong (not his real name) went missing for three days during a mission trip near Myanmar, I was extremely concerned for his life. On the third day, he called me, voice dejected, and told me he was on his way to my home. After a 24-hour bus ride from the Myanmar border, he arrived at my home with cigarette burns on his face and bruises all over his body. He told me the story of persecution he had undergone simply for sharing the name of Jesus among the ethnic Wa tribe, former head-hunters in China.
“Do you want to lay low for a while?” I asked him. “Return home, relax and refresh?”
His answer was straight from the Book of Acts: “No! I am thankful to be persecuted for Jesus’ sake!” Tears streamed down his face as he prayed a prayer of thanksgiving. The following week he returned to the same city where he had been beaten and continued giving witness of the love of God!
Over the last 20 years of cross-cultural ministry in China, one of the greatest lessons I have learned from local believers is faithfulness in the midst of difficulty.
3. Is there still a role for foreign workers in serving among Chinese ethnic peoples? If so, what is their role?
The role of the foreign worker in China is shifting. China is transforming right before our eyes, adding extra layers of complexity in understanding our role as foreign workers. But the gospel always enters from an outside space, especially in regions where the name of Jesus is not yet known. Is there still a role for foreign workers? Undoubtedly. It remains as the basic Christian calling: to go into all the world, preach the gospel, and make disciples.
More specifically, our role in China is to stand behind the house church as servant leaders, casting vision, encouraging, and propelling them to the farthest regions of their nation where unreached people groups still wait at the other end of our obedience. I do not merely speak of handling money or dictating the direction of missional goals. I believe the foreign workers’ roles have shifted to a place of vision casting, reminding the Chinese church that those who lay beyond the reach of the gospel must have a chance to hear.
To simplify: being the body of Christ regardless of our cultural heritage or national worldviews. Our worldview should be a Kingdom worldview. When that truly takes place, we will take great joy in witnessing the missional successes of our brothers and sisters who minister in places we could never go and do things that we could never attain.