One of ChinaSource’s core values is to be a learning organization. Centuries of Christian involvement in the Middle Kingdom provide a wealth of lessons on what has – and has not – served to advance the gospel in China. To paraphrase an old adage about history, those serving in China today can ignore those lessons and proceed to repeat the same mistakes of previous generations, or they can take these lessons to heart and then go on to make “new mistakes” (providing new lessons for subsequent generations).
At a recent roundtable for agency leaders, ChinaSource asked participants, most of whom had decades of China experience, to reflect on “missed opportunities” during the past 35 years. Their reflections provide valuable food for thought, not only about what could have been, but also about how to anticipate opportunities going forward.
One category of missed opportunities relates to the pace of change in China. As China’s economic development has accelerated during the past decades, the trajectory from remote possibilities to crying needs has become much shorter. The Internet’s profound impact on China’s youth, for example, has progressed in a relatively brief period from being merely an interesting phenomenon to becoming an acute social and spiritual concern. The rapid rise of Christian entrepreneurs and the indigenous church’s growing vision to train and send cross-cultural workers are other examples of opportunities that have seemingly burst upon the scene. While these opportunities have attracted much attention, they have also highlighted the unpreparedness of many established organizations to respond.
A second category of missed opportunity speaks to a lack of capacity building within organizations, particularly in how they relate to the local church. Nearly every need addressed in China over the past three decades has been “urgent,” yet the rush to address these needs has often overshadowed the longer-term task of building organizational infrastructure and nurturing teams that can go the distance. Looking back, organizational leaders noted that they could have spent more time and effort building cross-organizational links, sharing resource networks, and forming partnerships, which would have served to enhance collaboration in today’s relatively more open climate. They noted that more could have been done in the past (and must be done today) to intentionally nurture indigenous leadership. Investing in research, both by the organizations themselves and by Christians with whom they partner in China, was also mentioned as an overlooked area that would have yielded valuable fruit if it had been made more of a priority.
Finally, these organization leaders noted that an emphasis on quantitative measures has precluded the development of other more qualitative indicators to assess whether life transformation is taking place across the organization and through its programs. Whether in theological training or in working with families or business leaders, providing more information or more learning opportunities has not necessarily translated into changed lives. Christian leaders in today’s China may be more knowledgeable than those of a previous generation, yet core issues of character and authenticity continue to surface. This gap, particularly among Christians in the marketplace or other nontraditional ministry settings, is related to the sacred/secular divide that continues to plague both faith-based organizations as well as the church inside China.
None of these missed opportunities was viewed as having been beyond the ability of those serving in China to address. In other words, the opportunities were not missed due to external factors, but rather to internal constraints. These constraints could include a lack of foresight, a short-term or survival mentality driven by a sense of urgency, competing priorities, inadequate awareness of what others (including local Christians in China) were doing, and insufficient time devoted to reflection.
Going forward, these leaders suggested that it would be helpful to have a more systematic means of hearing objectively from Christians in China regarding the actual impact their organizations. An advisory body set up for this purpose could be helpful. They also acknowledged the need to give more consistent attention to personal transformation, beginning with those within their organizations and extending out to those in China whom they serve. In working with local believers, explaining the “why” behind organizational plans and requirements, rather than simply giving instructions, can encourage the development of indigenous leadership.
Perhaps one of the key lessons coming out of this discussion is that it is never too late to reflect. Some opportunities will inevitably be missed, but the act of stepping back and asking why and how this has happened creates valuable space for change, enabling leaders to refocus attention and resources on those things that are most important.
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- Pray for efforts (including ChinaSource’s own Chinese Church Voices) to better understand the vision and priorities of Christians in China. May these help to inform the work of outside organizations seeking to partner effectively with the church in China.
- Pray for organization leaders as they seek to apply insights gained at the recent roundtable discussion hosted by ChinaSource.
- Members of the ChinaSource team are speaking this month at several retreats in Asia for expatriate Christian workers who are coming out of China for the Chinese New Year holiday. Pray for traveling mercies and for sensitivity to the Lord’s leading as they share.
- Pray that church leaders in China would also take time, amidst the myriad pressures of ministry, to reflect on what they are learning.
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