This paper was originally published as Chapter 5, in China’s Harvest Fields, edited by Tabor Laughlin (Resource Publications, 2020) and is made available to ChinaSource readers with kind permission from Resource Publications, an imprint of Wipf and Stock Publishers.
From the introduction:
While social service has long been part of missionary work in Mainland China, today a host of different factors are driving Chinese Christians to explore for themselves the place of humanitarian concerns within gospel ministry. For a growing number of local Christians, loving one’s neighbor through acts of service is rapidly becoming an indispensable aspect of Christian witness. This essay will first explore the role of social service in the history of mission in China before analyzing its place in the ministry of the contemporary Chinese church. Given current conditions in China, some details must be left out of the discussion of the contemporary situation.
In the winter of 2016 I participated in a conference in Hong Kong hosted by several different China ministry agencies designed to help Mainland Chinese church leaders get a better understanding of what was happening on a macro level within the Chinese church across the country. Presentations on topics such as Christian home schools, Chinese seminaries, Chinese cross-cultural mission, and the future role of expatriates in China ministry were given by various thought-leaders—most of them Chinese Christians from the mainland. Over the course of the multi-day symposium, attendees were divided into various working groups designed to focus attention and ideally coalesce opinions on a select number of hot issues.
One of the working groups was tasked with summarizing the state of social concern (shehui guanhuai 社会关怀) ministries within the Mainland Chinese Christian community. A large number of mainland attendees had elected to join this group, and when it came time to present their work at the end of the conference, their representative stood up and delivered an impassioned defense of the need for the church in China to engage more deeply in activities that demonstrated social concern for their local communities. Many voices rose in assent, and heads nodded around the room in eager agreement. During the question and answer time, however, it quickly emerged that the members of this group—while all agreeing that churches across the country needed to demonstrate social concern—were nevertheless deeply divided on the relative importance of these kinds of activities. For a small number of attendees social concern was a vital aspect of spreading the gospel (chuan fuyin 传福音) while for many of those present it was a sideline task—strategic, perhaps, but quite different from actual gospel ministry. The group’s presentation to the conference thus ended in confusion, with different attendees speaking at and across one another in debate over the relationship between social service (shehui fuwu 社会服务) and evangelism (chuan fuyin 传福音).