THE FUTURE OF MISSIONS IN CHINA
by Phil Martin
THE CHALLENGES FACING FOREIGN MISSIONARIES IN CHINA
My purpose here is simply to brainstorm about the current situation and apply lessons from history and theology to our mission. To start, it must be acknowledged that outside involvement in the Chinese church may possibly be at its lowest point since 1989 if not earlier. The reasons are numerous and well known.
- The church in China has grown and matured. Many agencies have pulled staff out of China. Over the past 10 years they’ve stated some form of the conviction, “The future of the church in China is in the hands of the Chinese.” Essentially, “Mission Accomplished.”
- At the same time as that (in my humble opinion, naively triumphant) note was sounded, some organizations pivoted to the “UPGs” of China. Agencies targeted the Muslim minorities of the northwest and the tribal groups in the steamy jungles of the Southwest. Unfortunately, China increased restrictions on religious activities in these specific areas. The upshot is that, in one way or another, many missionaries left the country.
- China targeted a few large organizations that once had a significant presence across China. These include Korean church planters, university outreaches, and even humanitarian focused NGO missions. Through legal changes, visa denials, direct deportation, or intimidation, the government accomplished their goal. In our city, Korean church planters and university evangelists were ubiquitous in the late 2000s. Now they are all but gone.
- The increasing difficulty of working in China and obtaining work visas has made it harder for agencies to recruit. The standards for foreign English teachers have been steadily rising. At times, schools shuffle teachers around to make life uncomfortable and disrupt discipleship relationships. Age limits have been imposed, which has cut short the careers of some very faithful workers.
- In addition to these objective barriers, there has also been a subjective shift in the attitude towards foreigners. Ambivalence, skepticism, and even hostility have started to replace the friendly reception that was commonplace 15 years ago. This shift is parallel to changes across all sectors Chinese society. Many Chinese churches are now hesitant to have relationships with foreigners. For some missionaries, the cumulative effect of all this obstacles has translated in a closed door and a ticket home.
- Lastly, the Covid-19 pandemic accelerated these trends. Missions agencies pulled their people out in February or March, and they haven’t been able to return. Foreigners have been held in even greater suspicion. A few weeks ago, China cancelled every single visa. China is attempting to replace all foreign English teachers and disconnect the Chinese church from the outside world.
Where does that leave us? The short answer is 1) we don’t know and 2) nothing has changed. The history of missions in China and the theological foundations of missions show us that as uncertain as the near future is we have every reason for optimism in the task of world evangelization, including the Middle Kingdom.
A HISTORY OF BRIEFLY OPEN DOORS, MISREAD SIGNS, AND DRAMATIC REVERSALS
The history of Christianity in China is full of open doors that slam shut. In fact, that statement can be expanded to include all religions in China. Even for China’s dominant religion, Buddhism, there have been 4 periods of systematic restriction. So, open and closed doors is a long repeated pattern in Chinese politics. As useful as this generalization is, history is always more complicated than what a slogan can explain. Here are a few particularly illuminating excerpts.
BRIEFLY OPEN DOORS
First, let’s look at the historical pattern. Christianity, albeit in a borderline unorthodox form, first came to China with the Nestorians in the 6th Century AD. Their limited success for over 200 years came to an abrupt end sometime before 900 AD. Again, under the Khans and the related Yuan dynasty (1270-1368) Nestorians gained a foothold. As many as 30,000 baptisms were reported but fall of the Khans led to the expulsion of Christianity as well. As the same time the new dynasty also persecuted the first Roman Catholics, also numbering in the 10s of thousands, to extinction. Following Mateo Ricci in the 1500s, the Catholics again gained considerable converts, especially among the ruling elites. The Rites Controversy during the 17th and 18th centuries stunted their progress. From 1807 onward, protestants missionaries worked in China but often under the threat of expulsion. At the peak there were 10s of thousands of missionaries in China in the first quarter of the 20th century. From 1953 to the late 70s or early 80s, there were no foreign Christians working in China. The numbers have ebbed and flowed since then to today. I am unable to make an educated guess, but all the anecdotal evidence I have is that there are hardly any missionaries currently in China.
The ministry of Hudson Taylor marked the first sustained evangelistic endeavor by a protestant in inland China. It was not easy going and open doors were by no means guaranteed. The two most dramatic moments in his ministry were “rebellions” at the very beginning and end of his career. They both illustrate the difficulty of predicting how political and social changes will impact the church.
The Taiping Rebellion was at roughly the same time as the American Civil War but was much more disastrous. As many as 30 million people died. A man named Hong XiuQuan failed his fourth try at the civil service examination and in his subsequent depression picked up a Christian tract. From that tract he was inspired to start a pseudo-Christian utopian movement that nearly toppled the Qing Empire. (China’s population was more than 400 million people at the time. For comparison, Europe had only 206 million residents in 1850.) They proclaimed the “Heavenly Kingdom,” which was the supposed to be the beginning of the 1000 year reign of Christ. For over a decade they printed bibles like crazy, recited the 10 commandments every morning, and enforced some Christian ethics. But they also ruthlessly murdered anyone in their path and mixed in traditional Chinese animism.
Back in Europe, the missions agencies heard bibles were being handed out. To the strategizers directing missions work around the world, this looked like THE open door they’d been praying for. So, young Hudson Taylor, unmarried and under funded, cut his training short and shipped off to Shanghai to preach the gospel. It was a disaster for the first few years. Except for the distribution of some bibles, the long term effects of the rebellion on the evangelization of China were overwhelmingly negative. The association of Christianity with violent cults continues down to this day. In time, Hudson Taylor would become a great organizer and mobilizer, but despite his rough start, not because of it. The Western church misread the nature of the field in China. It wouldn’t be the last time.
The boxer rebellion, more well known in the west despite being smaller, was a tragedy unparalleled in modern missions. Anti-foreigner sentiment was growing for a long time. Eventually it boiled over as the Empress herself wrote and edict commanding the extermination of all foreigners. In a few violent weeks in the summer of 1900 over 200 missionaries were killed along with tens of thousands of Chinese Christians. The rebellion ended when 8 foreign countries entered China and forced the Chinese government to sign a treaty. The whole story is quite complicated, but our purpose is to look at the effect on missions. What had been years of Anti-foreigner anger suddenly turned into the largest open door in missions history in China. Within the following twenty years, thousands of missionaries poured into China. The church was doubling in size every decade. Yes, there were many problems in that period, but overall it was fruitful. In some cases there was a direct link between the missionary martyrs and later church growth.
THE SLOWLY CLOSING DOOR
Over the following twenty years, the advance of the gospel in China was hobbled by liberal theology. In late 1920s as the possibility of war in China rose, foreign evangelization in China took a nose dive. Japan was eager for more resources and China was a political mess, leaving them unable to defend themselves. War continued till 1949, when Japan had been defeated and the Communists pushed out the remaining Nationalist forces. In this period, missionaries were steadily leaving for a quarter of a century. But there was also some significant progress. It was in this period that missionaries began seriously training indigenous leaders. Many saw the writing on the wall and prepared to go underground. In some places churches split up the NT among members and each committed a book to memory. When the church buildings were closed, congregations split in to smaller house churches.
Imagine 25 years of closing doors, Christians fleeing persecution, preparing for worse days ahead. Would you be optimistic? But it was only in the early fifties that the last foreigner left. The missionaries that left 25 years earlier at the first threat of danger missed out on the most fruitful and crucial season.
By the time the cultural revolution started in 1966 (Ten years of the worst violence against Christians), Christian pastors had been facing arrest and imprisonment or even death for over a decade. On top of that, the thirty years of 1949-1979 were tumultuous and deadly for the whole country. As many as 80 million people died unnaturally. If there has ever been a bad time to do ministry, that would be it. And what happened? The church at least doubled in size. I am hesitant to make connections to say exactly why that growth happened. However, I can confidently say that everyone in the west was surprised when they learned what happened. No one expected growth.
Then the doors really opened up. The 80s were a time of growth for the Chinese economy and the Chinese church. In 1989 the door slammed shut again. The result for the church? Twenty plus years of explosive growth! The protestant church in China is now possibly 50 million strong and has indigenous leaders, resources, and in some cases institutions. Again, the West didn’t understand what was happening in China or, more accurately, what God was up to.
Christian writers and thinkers eventually flipped to optimism. They started to imagine China as the next great Christian nation. But what has happened? The last decade has seen a reversal of earlier trends. Some doors are still open, but many have closed. Control of the churches has increased. Persecution at an individual level has also returned.
What’s the point? At almost every moment in the last 150 years of missions in China, what people imagined would happen to the church in the next generation was wrong. Often the darkest moments were precursors to seasons of incredible fruit. Some moments that were viewed as open doors by the West turned out to be underwhelming at best. Christians have misread the signs, and at times were unprepared for the dramatic reversals.
I think this is also the case here in the states. Our church culture can be optimistic about the wrong things and overly pessimistic when it looks like a few doors are closing. History is always more complex than we acknowledge. God is doing more than we can see or imagine. The future is not a carbon copy of the past. We don’t know what will happen next. We shouldn’t cancel plans based on what we fear. Instead, those concerned about the evangelization of China should be humbly prepared to step through any open door we are given, fully aware that we may step right back out of it. Being realistic about opposition doesn’t require pessimism about proclamation.
THE CURRENT UNKNOWNS
There are many things we do not, and can not know. Here are a few of the issues that remain unsolved at the moment. We don’t know how these things will develop over the next 5, 10, or 25 years. Each has a large influence on the possibility of preaching in China.
- Entry Options: China cancelled the VISAs of all foreigners currently out of the country. Everyone needs to reapply. It seems that they may use the pandemic as an excuse to be more picky about who can enter. In 2014 the Visa process opened up for Americans to be the easiest it has been for at least 70 years. By 2017, they started restricting it again. We don’t know what direction they will go now. China needs foreign investment and foreign expertise in some industries. They rely on foreign teachers in many cities. Tourism is a growing industry. But distrust of foreigners and nationalistic fervor are also growing. What will happen next? We don’t know?
- Global Cities: The massive metropolises of China are intricately connected with other large cities around the world. The culture, employment opportunities, approach to education, and lifestyle in general is similar to the cities of Europe, Japan, Korea, and the coastal cities in the USA. This has opened a lot of doors for missions activities in the past. It is had to imagine that these interconnected global cities will completely decouple. But we are at an unpredictable crossroads. Those cultural and economic ties may be a thing of the past or they may be the tether that keeps doors open through tough times.
- Economic Questions: I heard an economist say that THE question of the 21st century is whether China can continue to manage its economy. Their economy is not fully driven by market forces nor is it a completely planned economy like the Soviet Union was. IF they are able to continue managing their pseudo-planned economy, China will become the sole superpower in the world. Economically, no one will be able to compete with them. But if they can’t… there may be a massive collapse and an ensuing political crisis. Both of these outcomes are possible, and they have huge implications for the church and foreign missionaries.
- Political Crises: Xi Jinping is the most powerful Chinese leader since Mao. He believes HE alone is in charge. If things go wrong, everything is his fault. He put himself in charge, if it goes poorly, there is no one else to blame. This could prompt Xi to further tighten his control of society, OR a collapse of the Party as we know it. Whatever happens, it won’t leave China and its church unchanged.
- Closed Hearts: Nationalism is on the rise in China and once again Christianity is being portrayed as anti-Chinese, foreign, and even dangerous. The young generation especially, is very easily angered about anything perceived as unpatriotic. But unlike other eras of intense Sino-centrism, 2-5% of the country is now Christian and in many places they are faithful witnesses for Christ. Will the next generation in China trust the party or search for answers in scripture? We simply don’t know how things will play out.
THE OPPORTUNITY: MINISTRY UNDER A SOVEREIGN GOD IN A NEEDY WORLD
How should we approach ministry in a chaotic world of unknowns and in a society uninterested in the gospel message. Nothing has changed. Business as usual. Obviously that isn’t true in some senses. But, fundamentally, we can still go and preach the gospel, trusting that all authority in heaven and on earth is Christ’s and His alone. Our conviction to go comes from our understanding of who God is and what He has accomplished in the person of Jesus Christ. Our underlying mission is not dependent on the circumstances. The environment we find ourselves only shapes the superficial outworking of that mission. The foundation remains the same. Here are a few specific applications.
- Our rank is frontline soldier, not strategizing general: It is not our job to decide the probability of winning the next battle. Our job is to climb out of our trenches and fight. We don’t have the view of the battlefield that King Jesus has. We don’t know his battle plans beyond, “Go into all the world and preach.” We aren’t commanded to predict the future before we go and preach. It’s above our pay grade. Read through Acts and try to discern a strategy for where the Apostle Paul went. It is much harder than many preachers imagine. The only observable strategy was going to the next large city in his path. The larger the city, the longer he stayed. As far as we can tell, he wasn’t all that concerned with planning out the best battle strategy. Read the instructions to the disciples in Matthew 10 or in the Great Commission. Go, Proclaim, Baptize, Teach. Again, there isn’t a command to analyze the cultural moment, strategize for maximum effectiveness. That doesn’t mean it isn’t ever useful. However, the honor we carry is one of serving our Lord Jesus. It is a great privilege to be part of God’s creation of a redeemed people. To see people pass from death to life is an unbelievable joy. Missionaries shouldn’t imagine a promotion to master mission planner is necessary or conveys greater honor.
- God wins the Victory: God has a track record of pulling victory from the jaws of apparent defeat to show that HE is the one at work. Moses didn’t have a lot of confidence about God’s plague strategy. Especially when they were trapped by the Red sea. God still planned it that way. When the ark of the covenant was taken by Israel’s enemies, it seemed to be the end for God’s people. God single handedly toppled the false gods of the Philistines, infected their people with an outbreak of boils, and led the Ark to be returned to Israel. Do you think Hezekiah felt optimistic about the future of Jerusalem as what must have seemed like an innumerable army stood outside the walls? Probably not. Again, God won the victory by himself, for his own glory. (Through a pandemic no less!) We recall the moments of great faith with Joshua leading the people around Jericho, David defeating Goliath, Daniel in the lions den, Gideon and his small band of soldiers full of faith. But why are these events so memorable. Because they were facing insurmountable obstacles. And yet God deliberately won the victory in that way for His name’s sake.
The point is that although we should be realistic about the challenges of the world we live in, we should also be realistic about the God we serve. It is not naive optimism to preach to society that hates Jesus. It isn’t crazy to think that a sovereign God could turn the hearts of kings in ways that open more doors to the gospel. It isn’t foolish to trust God to do what He said he will do. His word will not return void. Which leads me to the third thought.
- The gospel message is always effective: It either validates God’s pronouncement of judgement on the last day or it converts the hearer. Either way God is glorified. As long as there continues to be opportunities for proclaiming the gospel as we seek to embody it through love, God can be glorified in missions. Our job is to be faithful (Not just reliable, but full of faith), regardless of the circumstances. Surely we want to see many people turn to Christ in response to the gospel. Still, it is time that we stop conditioning our preaching on our ability to be optimistic about the response. In God’s economy, the preaching itself is gain.
- The world is incredibly needy: There is no shortage of people who have not heard the gospel. There is no shortage of people in physical need. Needy people can often be antagonistic to gospel messengers. That doesn’t mean they shouldn’t receive our love, mercy, patience, and evangelism. Regardless of what happens socially, politically, economically, there will always be people in need of truth and grace. This is true of China just as much as it is a dozen other Chinese speaking places around the world. A pandemic hasn’t changed this reality, and it won’t change when the pandemic dwindles. If our eyes are open and our hearts willing, there will always be opportunities for ministry. Missionaries risk precious little by intending to return to China. If the door closes for a season, Christ’s mission will continue on both sides of the border.