Trends and Traditions

There’s some clear trends among modern missions efforts in China. Missionaries and their organizations are, in general, moving…

  • AWAY from urban centers, TOWARDS rural areas…
  • AWAY from church-planting, TOWARDS supporting roles…
  • AWAY from language-learning, TOWARDS English-based ministry…
  • AWAY from bold witnessing, TOWARDS secretive witnessing…

These trends are… discouraging. But over the past couple weeks, I have happily been exposed to the works of several independent Baptist missionaries across the country who are bucking these trends. They are bright exceptions to the dull landscape that is Chinese missions. While I’m sure that there are good men of other affiliations who are equally opposed to these trends, I have yet to encounter a group in China with higher percentages of people moving in the opposite direction of the trends listed above. Though there’s not many of them, our missionaries, by and large, are ministering in Chinese. They are located primarily in big cities. They’re generally not afraid to witness. And they’re working in unregistered churches – many of them planting.

Since I’m an independent Baptist myself, I’d be more hesitant to glory in this tendency, were it not for a few things…

1.  Second Corinthians is my flavor of the month, and as Paul says, ‘all things are of God.’ There is no place for boasting in the ministry of the new covenant, for, at our most faithful, we are but executors of the message of reconciliation entrusted to us. So anything that our men in China have gotten right, they can only glory in the God who both founded and prospered their work. God is the architect of every church planted. He alone gives the language. He grants boldness. He puts us in strategic places. To glory in these things rightly is to glory in Him!

2.  We’re still not doing as well as we would wish. Our churches aren’t as strong or as numerous as they should be. Our Chinese is not as good as it should be. We’re not as bold as we should be. So while I’m excited that we’ve got the right bearing, I think we all mourn the limited progress in that direction. It’s a good start, but not much more.

3.  This ministry strategy was not hit upon by creative problem-solving or innovative, out-of-the-box thinking. Rather, the opposite is the case: this strategy is the result of a lack of creativity! The biggest reason our missionaries in China are planting churches, learning the language, and living in cities is… well, they’re traditional. It’s just what we’ve always done! Our missionaries’ works in China are almost embarrassingly similar to what we do in the West, and to what we did as missionaries fifty years ago. It’s ironic that what many perceive to be our churches’ most critical weakness in the States would prove to be our most critical strength in China!

These men are so traditional, it’s refreshing! Because all the creative ministries are just about played out! No longer is ‘using English to reach people’ a novelty – it’s a cliché. Speaking in missionary code isn’t much of a secret anymore. Targeting minority peoples is now the majority position.

Of course, these anti-trends are all connected to each other. Most of these men have been motivated in their language learning by a desire to be integrally involved in church leadership (this isn’t the place to discuss it, but this is undoubtedly one of the biggest reasons why people can’t learn Chinese – they have no such motivation). They can plant a church because they have been more bold in inviting and evangelizing. They’re in urban places because that’s where the bulk of people are. See? It’s really like they just couldn’t think of anything trendier to do!

Creativity in missions is overrated. How much is there really about the Gospel ministry that we’re comfortable fiddling with? We have a tendency to talk about ‘all these traditions that we’ve heaped onto the Western church.’ Which traditions exactly? The church-planting tradition? Many missionaries in China are so creative, they don’t even go to church. Or maybe the tradition of boldly declaring the Gospel? Many missionaries in China are so creative, they can be a Gospel witness simply by being a positive example. China has had quite enough of these novelties!

The Gospel ministry isn’t kindergarden. We don’t get points for creativity. Our standard is faithfulness to the biblical model. Anyway, little bit of a rant there at the end, but I wanted to share with you some of the excitement I’ve been feeling this week as I’ve learned about some faithful men serving in this country! Before you get sucked into any of the trends I mentioned at the beginning, either as a missionary or as a sender, know there’s another way. It’s not very creative, but that might be the best thing it’s got going for it.

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7 Comments on “Trends and Traditions”

  1. Max Fernandez January 26, 2012 at 12:42 pm #

    Great article

  2. bginasia February 14, 2012 at 4:07 am #

    Another trend I have seen in China, is that fact that about 90% of the false teaching I have had to correct comes from America and the west. There is very little discernment used by churches before spending their thousands to send missionaries over who are not capable of teaching and commiting the doctrines of the Christian faith to others, because they don’t know them or don’t believe them. I work at a University around such people, and am about to pull my hair out in frustration over the complete lack of order and discipleship involved in their idea of “ministry.” Their organizational methods and rules are exactly why we are here independently working with our own hands to support our work. The best part is that we never have to go home to raise more money through validating our work by using “fake statistics” of people we call converts who never bore one bit of fruit and simply fell away after saying a magical prayer.

    • Vengador February 20, 2012 at 6:56 pm #

      Well, I certainly share your disappointment in the results of most organizations’ attempts at discipleship, so I love to hear about families like yours deciding to go an independent route. There is certainly something of a double standard when it comes to sending missionaries to China – I’m not 100% sure, but I think people (subconsciously maybe) think, ‘how qualified do you have to be to teach English?’ Since no one is expecting missionaries to plant churches, the bar is kinda lowered. Maybe. I would suggest, though, that the problem with the situation you’re describing is not grounded in the fact that these missionaries are receiving support. The problem is an organizational one – or, in other words, what they’re doing with their support. I’m sure that even if you raised support from churches in the States, you still wouldn’t use fake statistics to validate your work. My wife and I are supported by the faithfulness of churches in the States, and I hope it makes us more conscientious, more accountable, harder-working laborers, and not less. Thanks for your comment! Hope you’ll continue to share your experiences on here for others to benefit from!

  3. A April 17, 2014 at 7:25 pm #

    Wow, this is an excellent article. I agree that many of the trends are at best, done for the sake of change and yet prove worthless, or at worst, dangerous (like IM/C5). I would REALLY appreciate it if you could contact me. I am writing a paper on contextualizing the gospel presentation in a Chinese honor/shame context and could really use your insight. I hate to say that I’m in a hurry but I am. I’m a seminary student. This isn’t just for the paper–it’s an honest question I really want to learn about. For example, I tend to want to use a “Way of the Master” approach to evangelism and think very dichotomistically. I realize that this approach can be improved upon for genuine Chinese understanding. I am primarily wondering about analogies that can be used to describe sin and justification. Thank you!!!!!

    • Jake May 13, 2014 at 8:07 am #

      Hi A,
      Just sent you an email and I’ll do my best to answer your questions. It’s funny – I was just watching a short video a couple days ago about this very subject – what a presentation of the gospel for so-called ‘honor-shame’ cultures looks like. Frankly, I find the insights provided by the shame vs. guilt distinction to be underwhelming. Chinese Christians are most evidently thankful for the fact that Christ has removed their guilt – it is no more common to find talk about the shame of sin in Chinese churches than American. Furthermore (and perhaps more important given your particular interests), I have yet to meet a Chinese person who was unable to appreciate the message of the gospel because the category of guilt was not meaningful to them. And, ironically, I only seem to ever hear the ‘shame’ paradigm being trumpeted by westerners. In other words, I see it as part of the West’s endless romanticizing of the East. We really love to imagine that there’s an exotic group of people out there whose minds work much differently than our own. In regards to contextualization in general, I of course believe that we should always strive to present the gospel in an understandable way. But I’m afraid that much of the current talk about contextualization is not about making the gospel more understandable, but about making it more believable. There is a tendency to think that if someone rejects the gospel, it’s usually due to a fault in the presentation. Thus, missionaries should regroup and consider how to better package the gospel. This, it seems, is primarily a misunderstanding of the doctrine of conversion. The fact that 95 out of 100, say, Thai people reject the gospel is not necessarily evidence that the missionaries are failing to contextualize. We’ve all cringed, I think, when a well-intentioned evangelist in the States promises that his evangelism workshop will increase responses to the gospel by 50%. Honestly, if we throw out such considerations for the dangerous nonsense that they are, I’m afraid that we’re not left with much to work with in the science of contextualization abroad, either. Anyway, as always, more opinion than you were probably hoping for! Just some things I’ve been thinking about of late. Thanks for the comment!

  4. praymillennials November 10, 2015 at 7:32 pm #

    Reblogged this on Praying for the millennials.


  1. Ministry in the City | Sino Project - February 2, 2012

    […] In a recent  article on the Gospel in China blog, the missionary wrote that there are some discouraging trends in missions in China. One of which is the moving away from urban areas into rural areas.  He is working in China and hears and sees much that is going on there. I may not see those trends about China but it seems there are rumblings of this same idea of getting away from cities and into villages. […]

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