The past three decades have seen tens of thousands of Christians from outside China engaged in myriad activities aimed at serving the Chinese church and society. Today their role is changing. New skills – one in particular – are needed to work out what this role and what their relationship to China's church should look like in days to come.
China's Christians and those who have sought to serve them find themselves walking together on an unfamiliar path. Having passed through a time of intense persecution, China's church has gradually become stronger, more visible, and less dependent upon foreign resources. A new generation of Chinese Christians has emerged and is taking the church into a new era of fruitful ministry under indigenous leadership.
The image that comes to mind is of a gentle slope leading out of a lush valley. On the initial assent both Chinese leaders and foreign workers are able to look back and relish the view below. They are thankful for the fruit of years of dedicated labor, grateful for new leaders trained, new churches planted, and the gospel moving into areas where it previously had not been proclaimed.
Climbing higher, however, the path becomes steeper. Greater effort is required to take fewer steps. As the well-worn path gives way to sheer rock their footing is less sure. Both realize that the comfortable shoes with which they had so confidently trod the valley floor are ill-fitted for the climb ahead. The air becomes thinner. They press on, knowing that after they crest the summit that looms somewhere in the fog above them they will descend into yet another valley. There the lessons they have learned during this difficult climb will instruct them in how to walk side by side in a new environment.
This journey knows no shortcut. Foreign workers who have spent the better part of their lives in China will be humbled, perhaps offended, as their once-valued contributions are no longer received with the same enthusiasm. China's newly emerged Christian leaders may struggle as they alternate between feelings of empowerment and feelings of inadequacy. Their climb will not be elegant. There will be missteps and misunderstandings.
As they move out of their respective roles of leader and follower, or of teacher and student, they become fellow travelers on a journey for which neither has an adequate map.
As a colleague remarked recently, it is in this transition time that the foreign worker, accustomed to being the one with the answers, must be willing to take on the unfamiliar role of student. Rather than relying on familiar metrics to gauge success, he or she must be willing to value the learning on this journey as a success in and of itself. It is this ability to gain a fresh understanding of oneself, one's partners, and the unfamiliar terrain ahead that will enable both climbers to successfully navigate the era to come.
Photo Credit: Huangshan Panorama, by Katya Knayazeva, via Flickr