Giving Up Pork and Other Cross-Cultural Challenges

The church in China is in a period of incredible growth. Concurrent with this exponential numerical growth, Chinese Christians have developed a passionate interest in taking the gospel to parts of Asia, Africa, and Europe where relatively few Christians live scattered among two billion non-Christian people. Islam, Hinduism, and Buddhism, three of the world’s largest religions, all retain strongholds in these areas. Chinese missionaries already reside in many countries within these target areas, though not in the numbers earlier anticipated by some segments of the Chinese church. Though reliable information is difficult to obtain because of security constraints, recent estimates put the number of Chinese missionaries in the range of 250-500.

High field attrition remains a major obstacle to increasing the number of Chinese missionaries. Some international field workers estimate that 85 to 90% of Chinese missionaries abandon their mission dream a few months after arriving in the target country and that only a few remain by the end of two years. Inadequate cultural and language training has been cited as a cause of attrition.

I recently interviewed eleven Chinese long-term missionaries exploring challenges experienced in the context of service. In these interviews, I found evidence of a growing ability of Chinese missionaries to culturally contextualize, and a growing maturity of the Chinese mission sending movement. These missionaries endeavored to walk among and become like the people they served, eating and working with them, learning their terminology, and becoming insiders in local language and culture in order to more effectively win a hearing for the gospel message. They understood the nuances of local culture (e.g., worship styles, direction to face when praying), and implemented mature strategies to cross cultural boundaries (e.g., abstaining from pork) in order to build relationships.

There is also evidence of a growing emphasis on missionary training related to culture. One interviewed missionary stated, “When we eat, we do not want to just eat one course at a time. There must be a balance. We don’t just want to focus on the Bible and prayer only. We need to study the language and the culture.” Two missionaries studied at a special school tailored to the needs of Chinese minority peoples. Formal teaching covered a wide variety of areas including how to preach to Muslims, how to dress Malaysian style, and how to eat unfamiliar food. Passages from the Koran were read. Literature on culture shock was examined. One missionary training program placed missionary candidates among Tibetan people for six weeks, later strategically relocating them in a predominantly Muslim area.

These changes bode well for the Chinese mission sending movement and hold out the potential of a possible more robust contribution by the Chinese church to the cause of global gospel advance. You can read more about this encouraging trend in my extended article, “Recent Trends among Chinese Missionaries toward Contextualization: The Maturing of a Mission Sending Movement.” 

Image credit: Plain rice by Quinn Dombrowski via Flickr.