by Theodore T. Y. Hsieh
Two years ago I asked a group of twenty-seven Chinese graduate students to specify three obstacles that had prevented them from becoming Christians, and to identify three reasons that prevented their fathers from becoming Christians.
Two years ago I asked a group of twenty-seven Chinese graduate students some questions of special importance to me as a psychologist interested in missions. I asked them to specify three obstacles that had prevented them from becoming Christians, and to identify three reasons that prevented their fathers from becoming Christians. Their responses were surprisingly uniform. All of them listed the "difficulty of proving the existence of God," or some similar statements, as a reason for themselves. Citing the reasons for their fathers, however, all of them identified "their father’s low view of those who became Christians, as well as those who became Christian workers" in China.
In this article I want to share my thinking about their perception of their fathers’ stumbling block. It seems to have serious implications for the strategy of evangelizing the Chinese, as well as for the issue of professional versus non-professional Christian workers.
Since 1949 missiologists have persistently asked, "Who lost China?" Only our Lord can judge the results of 150 years of dedicated and diligent labor by Western missionaries and their Chinese co-workers in China. From our human perspective, we tend to look at, and be disappointed by, the relatively small return from this tremendous effort and investment, because by 1949 less than 0. 5 percent of the total Chinese population had become Christians. Now, I wonder if their "low view" of Christians and Christian workers did not prevent many Chinese from giving the gospel a fair hearing. Following are several strategic mistakes that might have contributed to the "low view" of Christians by the Chinese.
SOME PAST MISTAKES
Dr. Donald A. McGavran’s "people movement" concept of conversion emphasizes the importance of the first converts as the key to subsequent large scale group movements to Christ. Unfortunately, the first Chinese converts were not those who could elicit a following from their tribesmen, their kindred, or their people.
The first converts in China generally were the hired hands. The early missionaries did what the diplomatic and business people did: hired Chinese helpers for language, domestic and personal services. Many of them became Christians. A recent study indicates that by 1876 one in seven church members was on the mission payroll. Persecution may have driven some of them away from their people or jobs after their conversions or close association with the missionaries. Consequently, they become financially dependent on the missions. However, we can see now how easily the other Chinese could have drawn the conclusion that the motivation for becoming a Christian was to secure employment, and an employment with low social status at that. That this conclusion was unjust in most cases would make no difference.
Many of these hired hands were later made 14 evangelists, " still under direct and personal supervision of the missionaries. Their status remained low. Their relationship to the missionaries continued to be subservient; remuneration was meager and tended to create wrong impressions. One study shows that the average salary paid to Chinese evangelists was about $4 a month in 1890. The highest pay of $11 to $12 a month was equivalent to a cook’s salary in a Western businessman’s home in Shanghai. In addition, the kindly and benevolent gestures of many missionaries created the indelible impression that only the indigent, the orphaned, the homeless, naked or hungry would be welcomed as Christians. Again, that this impression was untrue would make no difference.
Even with hindsight it is difficult to determine the total impact of the mixing of politics and evangelism by some missionaries throughout the years. But we are certain of one thing: By riding on the commercial and diplomatic coattail provided by the various treaties between the defeated Chinese government and the foreign powers, and by aligning the gospel witness with special privileges for protection and reparations, the foreign missions alienated the sensitive, educated people of China. it was unpatriotic to become a Christian, because the churches and their personnel were so closely identified with the suppressive foreign powers at the time. Not able to make any inroads among the esteemed Chinese gentry, the churches were seen as aggregations of the undesirable, the unpatriotic and the unscrupulous.
These impressions were further reinforced by the fact that many Chinese had joined the churches to seek protection, especially during court cases. Some local officials joined the churches to seek support after losing out to more powerful parties. Some others joined to avoid paying dues to the local family temples and other charitable projects, common village obligations deemed idolatrous by the Christians. And many had entered the Christian ministry to seek perquisites similar to those enjoyed by the foreign missionaries. The fact that legislation was enacted to differentiate western and Chinese ministers indicates the prevalence of this expectation at the time. In retrospect, it is not surprising that the Chinese acquired a "low view" of the Christians based on these practices. And it is certainly reasonable to conclude that this "low view" of Christians prevented many Chinese from considering the true claims of the gospel.
SOME PRESENT DANGERS
The establishment of diplomatic relations between the United States and the People’s Republic of China in 1979 has created great anticipation among evangelicals. A full-blown missionary activity in mainland China may take place again. There may be political and commercial coattails to ride again. Dare we repeat the past mistakes? Whenever we are faced with a great opportunity for doing something good for the cause of Christ, we have to be aware of the dangers of misguided strategy. I would like to suggest three possible dangers within the context of this new opportunity.
First, there is a danger that missions may force their way in through diplomatic means, as was done before. Much sensitivity should be exercised in voicing approval for the political normalization, no matter how hard we have been praying for an open-door to Christian witness on the mainland. The hurt and disappointment of old, loyal friends in Nationalist China (Taiwan) should be recognized.
Shortly after the announcement of normalization there was a bitter demonstration by Nationalist supporters, mostly Chinese graduate students and professionals, in Chicago. I saw a sign depicting President Carter as an opportunistic, self-righteous Christian. That this unfortunate connection cannot be justified is not the point. That some Chinese intellectuals would want to dramatize it should concern U.S. Christians and mission agencies.
We should pray for wisdom to discover how to accept this opendoor development in China, without alienating other Chinese in the Free World.
Second, there is danger that new resentment will be created by missionary organizations that accept reparations for the properties and assets lost through the Communist takeover in 1949. The offer of reparations, as I see it, contains such an air of malignity that I can almost feel the hand of Satan working in it. We will do well to read a well-documented text that examines the unfortunate effects of indemnity and concessions exacted from the Chinese government through early treaty edicts. The English synopsis of the award-winning historical analysis, The Origin and Cause of the Anti- Christian Movement among Chinese Officials and Gentry 1860-1874 (Taipei, 1972), should be "must" reading for all missions executives. One has to evaluate the potential cost to the cause of Christ in China for receiving these millions of dollars in compensation at this critical time.
Third, there is the danger of emphasizing the so-called "nonprofessional" Christian workers, or missionaries, among the Chinese evangelicals. Chinese "Bible study groups" are a growing phenomenon in North America. There are over 300 known groups in the United States and Canada. Each group is led by one or more very dedicated and able professionals (university professors, research scientists, doctors), and ‘attended mostly by graduate students and those graduates who have begun their careers. They are on fire for the Lord. In many cases, they are the only ones attempting to reach the mostly non-Christian, Chinese- speaking students on campus. They represent tremendous potential for the cause of Christ because of their talents and financial resources.
Unfortunately, they also tend to have a "low view" of the fulltime Christian workers and pastors. (They could be reacting to, or even adopting, their non-Christian colleagues’ perceptions described above.) Their model is the great "tent-making" Apostle Paul, so they want to serve the Lord with resources and support from their secular employment. So much so that in a recent publication one group even suggested that the traditional Chinese term for pastor ("shepherding sage or teacher") be changed to one with lesser status ("shepherding person").
Truly dedicated in their own way, these Chinese believers in the U.S. nevertheless unwittingly create a negative attitude in the minds of many young people who are called into full-time ministry. Some have developed doubts about full-time pastoral ministry; about its more restrictive life style and limited remuneration; and about their own effectiveness in having to deal with different publics within a local church. In short, they think there is a glamorous and an unglamorous way of serving the Lord. The result is that many Chinese Christian students resist the call for full-time ministry, feeling that it is perhaps more effective (read: glamorous) for them to serve the Lord while "making their tents. "
This attitude also creates a negative effect upon many Chinese seminarians, making them reluctant to accept invitations from local churches for pastoral ministry. The more capable ones, with more options open to them, choose para-ministries (teaching, consulting, etc.), or fall back on their earlier university training (mostly in the scientific and engineering fields) as "tent-making" to support their "true ministry. " The less capable ones, with less options open to them, follow through with their original calling to enter the pastorate. That the pastoral ministry is seen as an option for the less capable ones supports the "low view" perception that begins the phenomenon in the first place.
Chinese Bible study groups in North America are not alone responsible for the trend toward " non- professional" evangelists and missionaries. One can detect this trend also among the more established overseas Chinese churches in such places as Hong Kong and Western Europe. For example, big-name "non -professionals" have been accorded unusually high honors as pulpit and conference speakers because they are able to pay their own traveling and other expenses. This practice makes acceptance and respect very difficult to achieve for some full-time workers. This "special speakers" symptom could stagnate the long-term maturing process of the churches. I am not advocating the disappearance of the non -professional Christian workers. What I want to suggest is that we acquire a balanced perspective. We need to give the church as a visible body its proper place. We need to give those called into full-time ministries their proper respect and acceptance. A "low view" of Christ’s servants, whether it comes from inside or outside of the body, will impede the missionary cause.
SOME CONCLUDING REMARKS
I have attempted to identify several past practices in Chinese missions that have contributed to the creation of the impression that Christians are undesirable, unpatriotic and unscrupulous. Because social influence is a potent force operating in Chinese society, these "low views" of Christians have prevented many Chinese from giving the Christian gospel a fair hearing. With the likelihood that a new opportunity for missionary evangelism in China will soon be possible, several tendencies that could lead to similar mistakes are also identified. Those who formulate and direct Christian missions need wisdom to locate the correctives, in order to take full advantage of whatever opportunities emerge.
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