The Chinese Church: The Next Superpower in World Mission
We have all heard of the Back to Jerusalem Movement, and some may remember the optimistic projection that before too long, 100,000 Chinese missionaries will have been deployed around the world. Surely, with its large and growing number of Christians, the Chinese church seems poised to make a major contribution to the fulfillment of the Great Commission.In this important article, Kevin Xiyi Yao, Associate Professor of Global Christianity and Asian Study at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, addresses both the prospects for Chinese cross-cultural missions and the challenges facing this nascent movement. Yao is well equipped to do so: He taught at China Graduate School of Theology in Hong Kong from 2003-2011 and maintains close contact with Christians in Greater China. He also makes use of Chinese-language sources, which few foreign writers can do.Yao first traces the historical background to today’s emphasis upon cross-cultural missions among the house churches. As early as 1918, efforts were made to reach minority groups in border areas; evangelists were sent to Southeast Asia in the 1920s and 1930s; and after World War II, several groups had a vision of taking the gospel to Muslims in northwestern China and Central Asia. The establishment of a communist government in 1949 halted these moves, however. After the tremendous growth of unregistered churches in the 1980s and 1990s, these earlier dreams were revived and a renewed commitment to cross-cultural witness arose.
Yao cites evidence for this new commitment to cross-cultural evangelism within the unregistered churches: 1. “The Great commission has once again become one of the most talked about themes.” 2. “Missionary training is on the rise within the Chinese Church.” 3. “Some overseas mission agencies have begun to recruit and support . . . Chinese missionaries from mainland China.” 4. “The recent rush to do business and work abroad has also brought an influx of Chinese Christians to other countries,” many of them eager to share their faith with local people.Some have tried to speculate about how many cross-cultural Chinese missionaries there are, with estimates ranging from 5,000 to 20,000, but no one can be sure. The most well-known effort is, of course, the Back to Jerusalem Movement (BJM). Though it has been slowed by questions about its leadership, finances, and theology, it is “still the most visible and symbolic mission effort initiated by the house church movement in mainland China.”
In sum, “though major Chinese contributions to international missionary movement are still a far cry from reality, . . . 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.” The rise of China as an economic and political power has created many new openings; “waves of Chinese emigration have led to a Chinese diaspora of eighty million people and nine thousand churches around the world”; worldwide interest in learning Mandarin has grown; Chinese missionaries do not carry the heavy baggage of Western colonialism and perceived American imperialism; and Chinese Christians have experience in suffering and persecution that Westerners do not.Furthermore, the “unique church growth model in China,” including the prominent role of the laity in forming house churches and on-the-job training of church leaders, offers promise of a mission movement with Chinese characteristics.
On the other hand, Yao sees potential problems, some of them stemming from unbounded optimism, “even an overtone of national pride,” and an unhealthy ethnocentrism that creates doubts about the readiness of Chinese Christians for effective overseas evangelism.He cites four major challenges which must be overcome: 1. The churches must provide better training for potential missionaries. 2. They must also develop structures for all phases and facets of sending and supporting missionaries. 3. They need better theology to work well in today’s complex cross-cultural environment. To gain this, they will have to overcome the present anti-intellectual orientation and a climate which stresses “doing instead of thinking, action instead of contemplation.” Otherwise, their mission work will be shallow and even “counterproductive.”Finally, Yao notices “signs of theological disorientation and consequent questionable mission approaches and rhetoric.” Heavily influenced by North American evangelicals, some urban house church leaders have embraced a triumphalist attitude that speaks of “Conquering or Christianizing” rather than witnessing. “Transforming the nations into the so-called ‘Christian ones’ becomes the ultimate goal.” They seem to believe that effective mission will flow from a position of China’s new national power rather than the weakness of suffering and persecution which actually led to today’s church in China.(Yao had sounded a similar warning about the ‘political’ orientation of some urban church leaders in his chapter “Chinese Evangelicals and Social Concern,” in After Imperialism, a volume in the Wipf and Stock Studies in Chinese Christianity series.) Among other questions, he asks, “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?”He concludes on a positive note, and calls the world church to “pray for [the Chinese Christians], engage them, and assist them.”G. Wright Doyle