The Chinese Church: The Next Superpower In World Mission?
by Kevin Xiyi Yao
The Chinese churches are at critical point in their mission outreach. Awakened and zealous, they are bound to supply global Christian mission with new blood and energy.
After more than three decades of tremendous growth, the churches in mainland China are trying to find new vision and create new ministries to project their energy for the sake of the gospel. Not surprisingly, cross-cultural missions began to fall under the radar screen of the churches in China, primarily house churches.
In these early decades of the twenty-first century, we hear a lot about the rising tides of cross-cultural missions launched by the Chinese Church and their potential impacts on world Christianity. It has been said that the twenty-first century will be the century of Chinese missions (Lee 2002, 13). But what is actually happening on the ground? What are some of the Chinese Church’s potentials in that regard? What would these cross-cultural missions launched by the Chinese Church look like? What could be their strengths and challenges? Below I seek to address these issues. Given all the complexity of Christianity in China today, I will focus on the Protestant Church in mainland China and its cross-cultural missions.
The emerging missionary endeavors on the part of the Chinese Church began to attract significant attention only recently. However, their vision for and participation in global mission can be traced back to the early twentieth century.
As the Chinese churches came of age in the early twentieth century, it did not take long for them to embrace the vision of cross-cultural mission. As early as 1918 a united ministry was launched to reach the ethnic minorities in the remote border areas of the country. In the late 1920s and 1930s, Chinese evangelists were sent to Southeast Asia.
After the end of World War II, a number of evangelical groups caught the vision of evangelizing the Muslim population in the northwestern parts of the country and Central Asia. As a result, two missions were launched: the Northwestern Spiritual Ministry (1946) and the Back to Jerusalem Evangelistic Band (1947). Before these mission initiatives bore any significant fruit, they were thwarted by the triumph of the communist revolution in China in 1949.
From the early 1950s to the early 1980s, the Church in mainland China struggled for its survival. Under mounting political pressure, the Christian communities were either integrated into the government-sanctioned Three-Self Patriotic Movement (TSPM) or forced to go underground. Organized cross-cultural missions became impossible.
As unprecedented Christian revival and growth unfolded in the 1980s and 1990s, the missionary vision of the previous generations of Chinese Christians was re-captured and re-kindled. In fact, there have been increasing signs pointing toward the awakening of interests and growing participation in world missions, especially among the house churches. Let me share four examples of this.
Example 1: The Great Commission has once again become one of the most talked about themes. Even the 10/40 Window has been popularized to some extent. And the point has been made widely and constantly that it is time for Chinese Christians to seize the baton from the Western missionaries and to shoulder the responsibility to spread the gospel to the ends of the earth.
As a result, mission mobilizations are being conducted in various ways, and an increasing number of individual churches and networks have begun to send missionaries to the ethnic minorities inside the country and to foreign countries. These mission initiatives are still largely individual churches’ undertakings, and not connected or coordinated. And no well-organized mission agencies are in operation yet. In recent years, some churches have begun to attempt establishing organizational structures for mission.
Example 2: Missionary training is on the rise within the Chinese Church. In one particular province a church recruits between twenty and thirty missionaries each year. After eight to twelve months of training, they are divided into small groups and settle in different countries for mission purposes. Another church requires its missionaries to learn a profession and related skills so that they can become self-supporting. Some churches prepare their missionaries by sending them to the ethnic minority regions inside the country or overseas in order to gain experience in cross-cultural missions and learn local cultures (Lam 2011).
Example 3: Some overseas mission agencies have begun to recruit and support the Chinese missionaries from mainland China. The Gospel Operation International for Chinese Christians is one of the most prominent Chinese mission agencies for cross-cultural missions. Having a hard time recruiting long-term missionaries among overseas Chinese Christian communities, they have turned their eyes to the Christian communities in mainland China (Lam 2012).
Example 4: The recent rush to do business and work abroad has also brought an influx of Chinese Christians to other countries. Subsequently, new Chinese churches have been established there, and mission outreaches to the Chinese population in the diaspora and local non-Chinese populations have ensued.
The above four examples indicate that the Chinese churches’ engagements in cross-cultural missions are indeed significant. A few agencies have made attempts to come up with the figures for the number of Chinese missionaries. The World Christian Database put the total number of all Christian missionaries (including non-Protestants) from China at 5,100 for 2010 (Johnson 2013). Operation World lists the cross-cultural missionaries from China at 20,000 (Mandryk 2010, 216). Given the religious restrictions and clandestine nature of the house church movement, it is impossible to figure out the exact number, and these available numbers are best estimates.
For the past three decades, the best-known cross-cultural missionary movement from the Chinese Church has been the Back to Jerusalem Movement (BJM), which was started in the 1980s when some house church leaders recaptured the vision of the 1940s, and began to pray for a new adventure. In comparison to the 1940s, contemporary BJM seems to have broadened its vision: “Not only were we meant to go westward through the Muslim world, we were also called to take the gospel to the ethnic minorities in Southwest China and the nations of Southeast Asia. Our vision also includes the North Asian countries of Japan, North Korea and Mongolia” (Hattaway 2003, 96). At the beginning of the twenty-first century, the vision began to be translated into action. It was said that the first team of thirty-nine Chinese missionaries departed China in March 2000 for a neighboring country. In recent years, the image of the movement has been tarnished by financial scandals, questions about the personal integrity of some top leaders, and critique of its theology and operations. But the BJM is no doubt still the most visible and symbolic mission effort initiated by the house church movement in mainland China.
It is no doubt that the house churches have been carrying the main burden of the Chinese cross-cultural missions. What about the TSPM and China Christian Council? The fact is that their national leadership and official organs shy away from any serious discourse and engagement in mission; missionary rhetoric has become a sort of taboo. This has to do with (1) the limits of the larger social environment and (2) some of its leaders’ theological orientations, which are not keen on evangelism.
Having said that, we must acknowledge three things: (1) while the national leadership keeps silent on mission, some of the grassroots churches do not hesitate to promote missions and actively engage in cross-cultural missions; (2) even its national leadership appears to welcome the tremendous growth of churches, which is actually the fruit of missions; and (3) the TSPM does openly encourage Christians to witness their faith through charity and social services.
How should we evaluate the current state of the Chinese Church’s cross-cultural missions? It is fair to say that there have been many ferments, preparations, and isolated initiatives. However, major Chinese contributions to international missionary movement are still a far cry from a reality. In any case, the churches from mainland China have demonstrated great vision and energy for cross-cultural evangelization, and seem on the threshold of much more significant engagements in world mission. Ten years ago, Paul Hattaway described the BJM as “the small trickle signaling a great flood to come” (2003, xi). Ten years later, this still holds true when we consider the Chinese cross-cultural mission movement. And the days of a mission movement to China are being replaced by the days of a mission movement from China (Lam 2011).
Prospect of the Chinese Church’s Roles in World Missions
Most observers of the Chinese Church sound very optimistic concerning the future of the Chinese missionary movement. After surveying Christianity in each province of China, a Korean missologist concludes that cross-cultural missions from China would explode between 2020 and 2024 (Li 2011, 12).
According to a prominent leader of the overseas Chinese Church, Chinese missionaries will become the largest missionary force by 2025. Given a minimum of fifty million Protestants in China today, and if one out of every one thousand believers dedicates him or herself to world missions, then we can have at least fifty thousand missionaries (Lee 2002, 14). Another figure thrown out is 100,000 missionaries from China. The math is based on one out in ten full-time church workers (one million total) sent to the mission field (Hattaway 2003, 116).
It can certainly be questioned how realistic these figures are, and whether this grand vision can eventually be translated into reality. But the prediction is not just the outcome of a numbers game. In 2011, another Korean missiologist reported the finding of his mission survey among the Chinese churches:
• 90% of ministers in both urban and rural areas care about mission
• 41.18% believers in urban churches are preparing for participation in mission
• 21.57% of ministers from small to mid-size cities are involved in overseas missions
• 17.65% of urban believers from professional background are involved in overseas missions. (Li 2011, 12)
No doubt there is widespread support for world missions among the Chinese churches.
Furthermore, the tremendous demographic and geo-political shifting of recent decades has created an environment conducive to the Chinese Church’s mission. The rise of China as an economic and political superpower is largely viewed as a bonus to the Chinese Church’s participation in world mission, just as the superpower status of Great Britain and the United States helped turn the nations into major mission-sending powers. Recent waves of Chinese emigration have led to a Chinese diaspora of eighty million people and nine thousand churches around the world (Li 2011, 13) which could serve as a valuable network of bases for Chinese missionaries. Additionally, a strong international interest in the Chinese language and culture and increasing volume of trade with China are creating opportunities and channels for Chinese missionaries to travel and settle in the fields.
Sharing a common history of being victimized by Western colonialism, China maintains good relationships with many countries in the Global South. Therefore, Chinese missionaries do not arrive with inherent image problems and are often welcomed by local peoples. Additionally, Chinese Christians have ample experience of persecution and suffering, and thus are more ready to endure harsh conditions.
Will world missions of the Chinese Church have some uniquely Chinese characteristics? As some Chinese Church observers explain, we may take some cues from the unique church growth model in China. Given the prominent roles of the laity in house churches, could lay leadership and evangelists as tentmakers (rather than full-time and professional missionaries) feature more prominently in Chinese mission outreach? Given their learning-by-practicing model of church leadership training, could the Chinese churches train their missionaries differently? If the Chinese churches develop a rather unconventional approach to world missions, that should not come as a surprise (Lam 2008).
Challenges Facing the Chinese Mission Outreach
In most assessments of the future roles of the Chinese Church in world missions, optimism is overwhelming. There is even an overtone of national pride in some of the rhetoric from the Chinese churches. In fact, there are already minority voices that both caution the churches against unhealthy nationalist sentiment or ethnocentrism and question the Chinese churches’ readiness for a major role in world evangelization (En 2010). We need to take these minority voices very seriously, simply because current and future mission endeavors initiated by the Chinese churches do face huge challenges. Below are four major challenges.
Challenge 1: The Chinese churches need to provide missionaries with better education concerning the Bible, missiology, languages, cultures, cross-cultural communications, and even necessary career skills for tent-making. Most Chinese theological schools and programs inside and outside the country do not have significant mission study components in their curriculums. Although some Chinese churches and theological schools have begun to change this, systematic missionary training will still be in great demand.
Challenge 2: A significant number of Chinese missionaries were sent out with one-way plane tickets but without adequate training, supervision, financial support, and spiritual care. Not surprisingly, many ended up frustrated and returned to their homeland after only a short stay on the field. Chinese church leaders are beginning to see the necessity and urgency for the mission-minded churches to network, and to develop a better mechanism or organizational structure for better recruitment, planning, training, evaluation, fundraising, logistics, and missionary care.
In order to achieve this, they must get more connected with established international mission agencies so that they can learn from their experience in supporting and running missionary teams.
Challenge 3: Mission-minded Chinese churches need more solid theologizing. Within and beyond their countries, mission fields are increasingly socially, culturally, and religiously complex. By reflecting on their own missionary heritage and other global churches’ experiences, Chinese missionaries can be adequately equipped with a theology of mission and religions.
Unfortunately, an anti-intellectualist overtone seems lingering in contemporary Chinese discourse on mission. Mission is often comprehended and presented as all about doing instead of thinking, action instead of contemplation. Training the first generation of Chinese mission theologians, anthropologists, and historians is not yet on the agenda of the mission-minded churches in China.
However, a Chinese mission without solid theological foundation will be shallow, will easily get disoriented and go astray, and will beneffective and even counterproductive in its reaching out to other faith communities and social groups.
Challenge 4: There are signs of theological disorientation and consequent questionable mission approaches and rhetoric. For example, ignoring their own spiritual heritage and taking cues from certain evangelical circles in the United States, some Chinese house church leaders, especially in urban areas, have begun to naively embrace Christendom mentality and rhetoric.
In forging a Chinese vision for world mission, they sometimes sound dangerously triumphalist. Rather than witnessing, they talk about conquering or Christianizing. Transforming the nations into the so-called “Christian ones” becomes the ultimate goal for mission. Rather than distancing themselves from the earthly power and principality, they seem to indiscriminately tie the success of mission with the political and economic might of the particular nation.
This could also lead to an ethnocentric and paternalistic attitude on the part of the missionaries from mainland China, the rising world power. The obvious fact here is that a mission from weakness and margin is forgotten in favor of all kinds of “grand vision,” and the Chinese Christians’ past experience of suffering and humility is also unfortunately lost. The questions we can ask today include:
• Are these mentalities and rhetoric biblically based?
• Can they turn the coming army of the Chinese missionaries into a constructive force in world missions?
• May being a “faithful minority with a loving witness and prophetic voice in a pluralistic world” be a better vision for the mission-minded Christian communities in China?
The Chinese churches are at critical point in their mission outreach. Awakened and zealous, they are bound to supply global Christian mission with new blood and energy. Let us pray for them, engage them, and assist them. Together, we can make a significant difference around the world.
En, Lin. 2010. “Dui Jia Ting Jiao Hui Li Shi he Xian Zhuang de Ji Dian Ren Shi (A Few Comments on the History and Current State of the House Church).” Christian Life Quarterly 14(2). Accessed June 1, 2013, from www.cclife.org/View/Article/1158.
Hattaway, Paul. 2003. Back to Jerusalem, Called to Complete the Great Commission. Carlisle, U.K.: Piquant.
Johnson, Todd M., ed. “World Christianity Database.” Boston, Mass.: Gordon Conwell Theological Seminary. Accessed June 1, 2013, from www.worldchristiandatabase.org/wcd.
Lam, Cyrus. 2008. “’Zhong Guo Mo Shi’ de Jue Qi: Zi Hao yu Yin Yiu (The Rise of ‘China Model’: Pride and Weakness).” Hua Chuan (The Chinese Mission) 76(March/April). Accessed June 1, 2013, from www.gointl.org/publication/magazine/article/761.
_____. 2011. “Fu Yin Chu Zhong Guo Cong He Kai Shi (Where Should the Mission Movement from, China Start?)” Hua Chuan (The Chinese Mission) 8 (March/April). Accessed June 1, 2013, from www.gointl.org/publication/magazine/article/1287.
_____. 2012. “Zong Zhu Ren De Hua (The Words from the Director General).” Hua Chuan (The Chinese Mission) 18(November/December). Accessed June 1, 2013, from www.gointl.org/publication/magazine.
Lee, Morley and Sophie Lee. 2002. “Zhong Guo Re, Ni Zai Na Li (Chinese, Where Are You?)” Great Commission Bi-monthly 39(August):13-14.
Li, Sheng-feng. 2011. “Zhong Guo Jiao Hui Yu Pu Shi Xuan Jiao (The Chinese Church and World Missions).” Great Commission Bi-monthly 95(12).
Mandryk, Jason. 2010. Operation World. 7th ed. Colorado Springs, Colo.: WEC International.
Kevin Xiyi Yao taught at the China Graduate School of Theology in Hong Kong from 2003-2011. He is associate professor of World Christianity and Asian Study at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary.
EMQ, Vol. 50, No. 4, pp. 296-302. Copyright © 2014 Billy Graham Center. All rights reserved. Not to be reproduced or copied in any form without written permission from EMQ editors.