by Mans Ramstad
China is an enchanting country, and a country ripe for the gospel, so foreign service organizations and mission groups continue to recruit people to go to China for ministry. But what kind?
As with many countries in need of the gospel, China does not issue missionary visas and severely limits the types of ministry foreign residents can engage in. We cannot engage in public evangelism, start churches or seminaries, formally train religious students as disciples, dispense evangelistic materials and videotapes, or hold worship services in homes if Chinese people are present.
However, China is an enchanting country, and a country ripe for the gospel, so foreign service organizations and mission groups continue to recruit people to go to China for ministry. But what kind? Many who come to China, lacking language and culture skills, eventually feel overwhelmed by the ministry limitations. They often resign themselves to doing good works and hope that by seeing their good works, as we learn in Matthew 5:16, local Chinese people will glorify their Father in heaven. However, over time, this does not satisfy. Many who felt truly called to meaningful ministry become disillusioned. Some just decide to stay on the run, changing locations every year or two to avoid surveillance. But over time, this becomes a significant impediment to ministry, to say nothing of being exhausting and disruptive, especially to those with families.
What is the answer to this dilemma? The key is to take a positive, active approach, focusing on what we are allowed to do, rather than on what we aren’t, and on what is effective and appropriate in this situation at this time, rather than on what I may have expected to be doing when I first came out, or what some people back home expect me to be doing. This requires good language skills and cultural awareness and the time to master them. After 10 years in China, I have developed the following five areas of ministry, which I find appropriate and effective. I try to remain faithful to them.
1. Fully identify with the Chinese body of Christ. Go to the Chinese church (if there is one in your area). Bring nonbelieving friends to the church. Be reluctant to dismiss a church as liberal, unbiblical, unspiritual or overly political until you know for sure that it is. (John 17:21, Eph. 4:16, Heb. 3:13, 10:23-25).
In a city where we lived, we determined to attend every church event the authorities would allow us to. That included Sunday morning worship, weekly prayer meetings, and weekly small group Bible studies. We didn’t lead these events ourselves, but simply participated like everyone else. It was amazing how much meaningful ministry we were able to be involved in. Also through attending the prayer meeting, we were able to learn early what the aspirations and concerns of the church were. Through the prayer meeting we were also able to determine who were the most spiritually minded and serious Christians in the church. Our faithful participation earned us the trust of the church leaders. Eventually I was able to lead a small group Bible study for young leaders. One of those leaders is now in seminary preparing for lifelong ministry in the Chinese church.
By participating faithfully in the Chinese church, you have a natural and legitimate place to which you can bring nonbelieving Chinese friends where they can hear and see the gospel in language and cultural terms they understand. Many foreigners begin their own fellowships and unwittingly create national believers who cannot understand the Christians in the Chinese church, and often look down on them. Often they are enculturating their converts into an American cultural ritual called “fellowship” more than they are discipling strong Christian leaders for the national church.
2. Nurture and disciple (at least) one believer. Sometimes I call this “microministry,” ministering to individuals on the personal level, as opposed to “macroministry,” building the structural elements of the church, such as libraries, seminaries, pastor’s associations, church buildings, publications, and the like (see No. 4 below). (1 Cor. 4:14-15, 2 Tim. 2:2, 1 Thess. 2:7-12, Heb. 3:13)
One of our staff meets regularly with one of the pastors from the local, officially recognized Three-Self church. She has no pretensions in meeting with her. She simply wants to encourage her, pray with her, bear her burdens, and provide a listening ear for a woman whose ministry is very difficult.
At any given time during most of the years I have lived in China, I have discipled one or more people. I believe God has brought these people to me in response to my prayer and to my deep intention to do this kind of discipleship. I have taught the book Firm Foundations: From Creation to Christ, the Navigators’ “Design for Discipleship” series, basic theology lessons in the back of the Chinese study Bible, church history, and other Bible lessons. In addition to formal training, I also work hard to take advantage of unplanned visits to engage in discipleship through life. During these visits I often suggest reading a chapter in the Bible and discussing it, or I bring up some topic relevant to the Christian life, such as work, family, how to share the gospel, health, conflict resolution, and so on, and then discuss it informally and bring up relevant Bible passages to ponder.
In this environment, where surveillance by authorities is constant, it can be difficult to maintain a regular and formal discipleship program without interference. So one needs to be patient and carry on through interruptions, changes of location, suspicions, and other issues. Because of these interruptions, it is easy to end up doing nothing more than “sharing” with your disciple. One must be intentional. The person who is being discipled needs to know he or she is being discipled and agree to the content and nature of the discipleship. Only materials that will take the discipleship process to the desired destination should be used. If you intend to teach someone to read and understand the Bible independently, don’t discuss the book Dare to Discipline, a book on child-rearing. Rather, study a Bible chapter.
3. Befriend and nurture one nonbeliever. Take him or her into your life and heart. Pray for this person’s salvation. Share the gospel in word and deed. Share it over and over until it is understood. (1 Thess. 2:7-8)
Our very first friend when we moved to this area 10 years ago became like a sister to my wife and me. We shared almost everything. We traveled together, celebrated birthdays together, and along with her parents, became almost like one family. She wasn’t a Christian, but she came to understand and respect our faith, even seeking our prayer and counsel on deep and personal issues. When our newborn daughter died after only two days, she cared for us like family. And then when her father suddenly died of kidney failure at the age of 42, we returned the mercy. Later, now living far away from us, through the witness of another person, she finally made a decision to accept Christ. In her Christmas card she thanked us for first bringing her the gospel and living it out for her.
All foreigners are required to be engaged in meaningful secular work. I consider this a blessing from God, as it puts us in intimate daily contact with dozens and hundreds of people who might never otherwise hear the gospel. I’m sorry to say that we probably wouldn’t choose to associate with them, if left to our own devices. We need to take advantage of the many, many friends we are allowed to have by pouring our lives into them. This kind of evangelism is legitimate in a relational country like China, and we don’t need to worry about trouble from authorities when we are sharing the gospel with people who are our real friends. We must not neglect this crucial style of evangelism, sharing our hearts, possessions, and lives with a few people over the long term, speaking and living the gospel before them until its reality is undeniable.
As mentioned in No. 1 above, the key to contextualizing the gospel for this person is found in being faithful in the Chinese church and having strong Chinese Christian contacts. That way you have a place of true Chinese worship to bring the person to, and from the beginning he or she is able to wrestle with the cost of being a Christian within a truly Chinese context.
4. Assist in the broad development of the Chinese church. This is what I referred to above as “macroministry.” (Gal. 6:2-6, Heb. 6:10)
We have a library of good theological books in our home, which we share with anybody who would like to borrow them. Some of our staff have helped start a children’s Sunday school program in the local church and provided ongoing training for the teachers. We have raised money to pay for a retreat for some of the local pastors in our area. Wanting them to begin working better together, we did not attend. Our doctors have participated in a free clinic at the church. We have helped translate and publish an excellent Christian book. And we have brought in consultants from overseas Bible colleges to help the local leaders think through the process of establishing a Bible college, which they are now doing.
5. Have a constant Christian presence in all you do. Make it impossible for people not to see Christ in you. In this way you legitimize the gospel before many people unfamiliar with and even hostile to the gospel. (Matt. 5:43-48; 2 Cor. 2:14-17; 2 Tim. 2:15,4:1-2; 1 Thess. 4:10b-11; 2 Thess. 3:10-13; 1 Pet. 2:12-15,3:15-16).
Some foreigners in China do not publicly identify themselves as Christians for fear of being harassed or having their ministry opportunities curtailed. In contrast to this approach, we prefer that the people we are working with know we are Christians. We see two advantages. First, they understand the motivation for what we do and the spirit in which we do it. Many Chinese assume foreigners only come to China to make money or to engage in bad activities. We find many of our local cooperators to be put at ease once they know that the motivation for our service is our Christian faith. Then they can stop imagining what it is that drives us. The second advantage to publicly declaring our Christian identity is that everything we do becomes a witness for Christ. (It also holds us accountable if our attitude, ethics, and behavior are unbecoming of Christ.)
One of our Chinese colleagues, not a Christian, has heard me recite certain Bible passages explaining the rationale for our work so many times that at times he does it for me. He doesn’t do it in a condescending manner, but as though it really means something. He is still not a believer, but he is much closer than before we met.
The local police, who have jailed local Christians, and who constantly warn me not to engage in “religious activities,” have come to respect the Christian faith, as they have seen it serve as the foundation of my life, and the motivation for my work (to say nothing of making me a relatively law-abiding guest in their city). From the beginning, even when they were hostile, I have calmly and confidently explained to the police that as a Christian I intend to enjoy a “normal Christian life” here. From that starting point, I have explained many times what a normal Christian life is, to the point that now they know enough about it that their fears have been lessened. (Like all of us, police in China are afraid of what they don’t understand. Isn’t it reasonable that we explain what Christianity is and help allay their fears?) So far, none of the officials I work with have embraced the gospel themselves, but they have come far in their understanding of and tolerance for Christianity. Is it possible that this tolerance also extends to the Chinese Christians they know? I believe so.
Although there are many limitations placed upon ministers who work in countries that do not welcome foreign missionaries, there are also unlimited opportunities. Rather than bemoan what we can’t do, I suggest we do what we can. Although we may not be doing what we first expected, we will be amazed at the many opportunities the Lord gives us to expand and build his church in a significant and lasting way. We will usually discover that the limitations placed upon us, while instituted by the ruling authorities in the country, are in fact superintended by the Lord himself. Furthermore, we will eventually develop the type of ministry that will keep us here, effective and happy, for the long haul.
Mans Ramstad (pseudonym) is a veteran tentmaker in China. He works with an organization providing professional services to various agencies in China.
EMQ, Vol. 36, No. 2, pp. 170-176. Copyright © 2000 Evangelism and Missions Information Service (EMIS). All rights reserved. Not to be reproduced or copied in any form without written permission from EMIS.