My greatest desire is to play a part to mobilize the Chinese believers for fruitful service across the globe. Is this happening right now? As far as the state of the church in China, though some statistics say the percentage of Christians in China is around 5-10% of the population, I really have a hard time believing that. Realistically speaking, covering all parts of China, I’d conservatively estimate the Christian population to be about 0.5% of the population, which is about seven million Christians total in China. These are estimated genuine “born again” believers, not just those who are cultural Christians but have no real belief or fruit.
If another conservative number of 0.1% of those genuine Christians were sent out as missionaries, it would total up to be about 7,000 Chinese missionaries throughout the unreached parts of the world. The numbers I gave are very conservative, but it is clear that there is unbelievable potential within the Chinese church for reaching the nations, because of China’s huge population and the rapid growth of the church. As a comparison, one of the largest missions agencies in the world, the International Mission Board of the Southern Baptist Convention, has about 4,800 missionaries around the world. The Chinese missionaries could potentially be more than that. As the Chinese economy is developing and the government is opening many doors in much cooperation with Muslim governments, now is the time for the Chinese church to see a great increase in missionaries sent out.
But in reality, the Chinese church only in the last twenty or thirty years has begun more consistently sending out missionaries. The Chinese missions effort has been described recently as “fledgling birds learning to fly… still in the process of learning, and sometimes stumbling.”[i] The goal is not just to send out missionaries, but to see them be fruitful among the locals and flourish in that place. The problem is that many of the missionaries, though filled with great passion when they leave their country, often will return home after a couple years of unfruitful service. So what is the problem? Why are the Chinese missionaries not being fruitful in the work? Are there any adjustments that could be made for the sake of Christ’s name being spread among the nations through the Chinese missionaries? This is what this article will be focusing on.
History of Chinese Missions
For centuries, China has been a receiving country, receiving thousands of missionaries from the west, who have come bringing the Chinese the gospel of Jesus Christ. But things are starting to change. The last half-century the Chinese church has grown at an incredible rate. Also, the church in China is slowly increasing its wealth as the economy grows. Previously most of the believers in China were from very poor parts of the country, and had almost no education. But now Christianity is growing in large cities and among the educated. Previously the Chinese churches did not have the financial means to support missionaries. But now, with the development of the Chinese economy, many Chinese churches are starting to think about sending out missionaries, and being able to support them financially. Especially in the last ten years or so, more and more Chinese churches or organizations are starting to send out missionaries, mostly to Southeast Asia or Central Asia.
So now China is slowly becoming a sending nation, rather than just a receiving nation, which means China is starting to send its own missionaries. According to Ken Eldred, it is similar to the situation of the church in South Korea about sixty years ago. At that time the Korean church was small and the country was poor, and there were no Korean missionaries around the globe. But now, sixty years later, Christianity has exploded in South Korea, the economy is one of the most developed in the world, and there are now more Korean missionaries around the globe than from any other country, except the U.S.[ii]
It seems that the Chinese church is also moving slowly in the same direction as the Korean church. I pray with tears that in thirty years there will be Chinese missionaries all over the globe, even in the most remote corners of the world. This has even greater potential than what has happened with the Korean church, on the basis that China has nearly thirty times the population of South Korea. But the goal is not simply to send Chinese missionaries around the globe. Rather the hope is that the Chinese missionaries would not only go to unreached places but would be effective in the work.
Past Chinese Missionaries in 10/40 Window Mostly Ineffective
A critical question is how to effectively send Chinese missionaries into the Muslim countries. The idea of ‘effectiveness’ is to see them not only live and work in that country but most importantly, to learn the language, engage in the local culture, share the gospel of Christ, and see fruit of eternal value among the locals. The gospel first arrived in China through the ancient Silk Road route via the Nestorians. Many Chinese believers are now uniting to take the gospel back the same way that it came to China, through the ancient Silk Road path through Central Asia, the Middle East, and North Africa. This is often referred to as the ‘Back to Jerusalem’ movement. However, as Chinese missionaries have been starting to be sent out to other countries over the past few decades, there still has not been a great amount of effectiveness in their work.
There are a few main reasons why this has been the case. Most of the Chinese believers who have had a strong vision for the Back to Jerusalem [B2J] Movement are usually from very poor areas and have no education. Thus, not only do they not have the financial means to go serve in a foreign country, but their lack of education makes it impossible to find a decent job once they arrive in that country. They have no high school degree, much less a college degree, so they cannot find a job except for working in a factory sixty hours a week. Not only that, but because they are trying to support their family by working in a factory sixty hours a week, they have no time to learn the local language or reach out to the locals. Even if they had the time, they have no background in language learning nor do they have the study skills necessary to learn the language. Certainly it would be incredibly difficult to learn the local language if the missionary has not even finished high school.
Education Important in Western Missionary Movement
Comparing this to the western missionary movement from the past three hundred years, most western missionaries historically and currently have been better-educated people.[iii] The Lord gifts some people according to their training and background to be used in one way, while he uses other people with different trainings and backgrounds to be used in another way. We can see this in the New Testament. In Galatians 2:7-10, Paul talks about how God gave Peter, James and John the grace to preach the gospel to the Jews. On the other hand, God gave Paul and Barnabas the grace to preach the gospel to the Gentiles. Paul has an excellent education and is culturally savvy both in a Greek culture and Jewish culture. This background makes him more equipped to preach the gospel to those of other backgrounds in a culturally relevant manner [see Acts 17:16-34].
Peter, James and John do not have as much formal education as Paul, or culturally diverse background, so their calling is to reach the Jews. There is nothing in the text, however, that indicates that one task is more or less important than the other. Rather, we are to serve with joy according to the grace that God gives us, according to how he has prepared us. I can relate to this because once I became a believer in college I immediately had some interest in missions, partly because I had pretty extensive world travelling experience as a nonbeliever. This was a grace that God gave me to prepare me for the mission field. This is related to the Chinese missionaries, but not necessarily that they need to have high degrees and much world travelling experience. But they should have a college degree and some interest in cross-cultural communication, maybe simply that they have learned English competently and had friends from other countries.
Chinese Missionaries’ Initial Zeal Very Temporary
Many Chinese missionaries, regardless of their initial passion to reach lost peoples, after a few years, either dejectedly return to China or stay in that country but reach other Chinese there, instead of the local Muslims. Such missionaries as these are not positively representing the Chinese church. Many such people see statistics for the lost and have a great passion to take all means necessary to go to that place to proclaim the gospel. But once they arrive there and realize how hard the work is and all the opposition involved in doing the work, the initial passion wears off pretty quickly. They are left wondering how they got there and thinking about how inadequately prepared they are for the task. This is not the best way for the Chinese church to be mobilized to reach the nations.
Need for Reform in Chinese Missions
It seems that the better educated Chinese Christians in wealthier cities generally put less emphasis on taking part in sending the gospel to the nations. The wealthier Chinese churches are generally more concerned about what is going on in their own neighborhood, rather than across the globe. Generally speaking, it is the poorer Christians in poorer areas who have no education who have a burning fire for missions. They learn these things in their house churches through studying the Chinese edition of Perspectives and other missions-related materials. They have great zeal for missions. The problem, though, is that though their zeal will help get them on to the missions’ field, it usually is not related to seeing any fruit once they get there.
Chinese churches need to be more stringent in who they send overseas. If a Chinese believer has no education and has no cross-cultural experience, it is usually not a good idea to send that person into the 10/40 Window as missionaries, regardless of how passionate they are about missions. This area of the world is the spiritually darkest area of the world. Satan lurks in these areas, waiting to go to all means to devour anyone who poses a threat to him. Not only should they have a college degree, but the Chinese missionaries who go should also have proven themselves faithful and fruitful in ministry in their local church in China. Also if they have learned English well, probably they can learn well the language where they are going.
The person ideally would also have some kind of previous working experience in some field that they could use as a platform in the 10/40 Window. Especially in closed Muslim countries, it is necessary to have a legitimate job to provide a Visa in that place. Hudson Taylor, founder of the China Inland Mission, before and after he went to China, was a doctor. William Carey, missionary to India in the late 18th century and founder of the modern missions movement, was a cobbler and factory manager. The Chinese churches also need to think about these things. The above must be considered as requirements for potential Chinese missionaries who have a passion for taking the gospel to the ends of the earth.
Western Missionaries Helping Chinese Missionaries
Also, we missionaries who are from western countries have the advantages of having a few hundred years of missions’ history from our countries. We take it for granted to be sending out missionaries from our churches. It seems very normal to us. The missionaries from our countries can learn from the mistakes of those who went before us. But for the Chinese missionaries now being sent to other countries, they have very few examples to follow from their own country. They are a kind of trailblazers.
Though some may say the Chinese missionaries just need more training, I believe that sending fruitful missionaries is not just a matter of getting some good training before they go. I think even more important than training before they go on the field is experienced and solid people who will lead and guide them once they arrive on the field. So, is this possible for the Chinese missionaries? Maybe this is not possible if there are no other Chinese missionaries who have already been in that area long-term and bearing fruit with the locals.
Western Missionaries Filling in the Gap
Are there any other options to help set an example for the Chinese missionaries once they arrive on the field? Is it reasonable for western missionaries who have been serving in China long-term to help lead the Chinese missionaries to move to a Muslim nation in teams to serve together? The western missionary could move with the Chinese missionaries to the Muslim nation to help them learn about the importance of learning the local language, investing in locals, and sharing the gospel with locals while also getting adjusted to their culture and getting settled in a legitimate job or platform. The western missionary has experience in this if he has already gone through all of this process successfully in China. He could be a model for the Chinese missionaries once they are sent to the Muslim nations, if they move there together. After at least a few years of seeing the model of the western missionary in that Muslim nation, then hopefully the Chinese missionaries would be self-sufficient in that nation and ready to have a long and fruitful ministry among the locals.
Is it worth the sacrifice for the western missionaries to leave their ministry in China to spend at least a few years in a Muslim nation to help give the Chinese missionaries guidance there? Yes it does seem to be worth it. Paul talks about how he desires to “supply what is lacking” [1 Thess. 3:10] in the Thessalonian church’s faith. This is an opportunity for the Western missionaries to help supply what is lacking in the Chinese church. Coming from a western church, we are used to the great benefits of sending missionaries from our church. Not only is it a huge blessing for those who go as missionaries just to see God working across the world, but sending out missionaries is also a great blessing for the local western church.
The people in the local western church are encouraged by missionaries, because they can hear how God is working around the globe and play a part through their prayers and also how the Lord answers those prayers from miles away. Sending out fruitful missionaries is such a sweet encouragement, not just for the missionaries themselves, but also for the local church that sent them. This is something we really take for granted in many western churches, which send out many missionaries. It is not something we really even value.
But this awesome blessing is something that most Chinese churches are not able to share in, because they are not currently sending out missionaries. And if they happen to have sent out missionaries, a good number of those missionaries are floundering and not seeing any fruit. This of course is not properly representing Christ in that foreign land. So this is a way that their faith is lacking. Any way that we can help the Chinese church be more fruitful in sending out missionaries is a way that we are “supplying what is lacking” in the Chinese churches’ faith.
Chinese Missionaries Potentially Very Effective in Muslim Countries
There are several reasons why Muslim nations would be a terrific place for Chinese missionaries to serve. First, the Chinese do not have white faces, which is a negative trait for most westerners who seek to serve among the Muslims. Many Muslims find it harder to trust anyone with a white face. It would be much easier for Chinese to blend in with the locals—as missionaries from South Korea have found out—than for westerners to blend in with the locals. Second, most Muslims assume that Christianity is a religion for westerners. So when Chinese missionaries are working in Muslim contexts and daily sharing their faith in Christ to locals, the Muslims will see that Christianity is not only a religion for westerners, but is actually a religion for all nations.
This will add much legitimacy and weight to the gospel itself. The Muslim will think, “All westerners are supposedly Christians, but this non-westerner is claiming to be a Christian. There must be something more to this Christianity thing.” Third, most Muslim nations have good relationships with China. For example, because of the oil market, the Saudi Arabian government has a great relationship with the Chinese government.[iv]
The Chinese chairman Xi Jinping the last two years has promoted the “One Belt, One Road” policy, which essentially is a way for the Chinese government to promote trade with the [mostly Muslim] countries along the ancient Silk Road, covering Central Asia, the Middle East, and into Eastern Europe. Generally the Muslim governments are not suspicious of the Chinese. They do not suspect that the Chinese government is seeking to usurp authority of Muslim governments, like many Muslim governments suspect western governments of doing. This trust would make it much easier for Chinese missionaries to gain the trust of the locals to be able to share the gospel with them.
At this point in time, the growing Chinese church remains a mostly untapped resource of potential for world missions. This potential, based on China’s recent economic growth and the growth of the church, is not being used effectively now for the global Kingdom. Any ideas out there for how to better guide this unbelievably precious work? I pray for the Chinese church to play a significant part in reaching the 10/40 Window, particularly the Muslim nations. I pray also for the sanctification and purity of the Chinese church, that they may be presented as an “offering acceptable to God, sanctified by the Holy Spirit” (Rom. 15:16). This is fulfilled through the Chinese church sending fruitful laborers to the ends of the earth.
To contact me to talk more about this or about serving in NW China: firstname.lastname@example.org
[i] “BAM Global Think Tank China Regional Group Report”. April 2014. Michael Lam & others, Editors.
[ii] Eldred, Kenneth. God Is at Work: Transforming People and Nations Through Business. Manna Ventures Publishers. 2009.
[iii] Wrobbel, Karen A. “Are National Schools a Viable Option?” EMQ Archives. January 2008.
[iv] Smith, Jessica. “Offers They Can’t Refuse: China’s Relations with the Muslim World”. Uyghur Human Rights Project, 2009