The Li Bo Perspective #3

Last bit about the Chinese Three-Self Church and whether or not it is wise for missionaries to work in coordination with them. The question that remains to be considered is: is there anything that a missionary is compelled to do that is prohibited by the Three-Self Church? Of course ‘compelled‘ is a tricky word. But let’s start with some things that aren’t likely to happen for a foreigner going to a Three-Self Church and then we’ll figure out how much we’d like to live without them…

1. It is unlikely a foreigner will maintain a public teaching ministry
Foreigners do not stand behind Three-Self pulpits. And speak in Chinese, anyway. If anyone knows of an exception, I would love to hear of it. But it will only prove the rule. One Three-Self Church in town here allows foreigners to teach in an English service – but everyone talks about this like it’s quite the anomaly. If you have a desire to teach and preach regularly to Chinese people in a language they understand, the Three-Self route is not for you.

2. It is unlikely a foreigner will attain a position of real leadership
You’re welcome to ride in the back seat. The Three-Self Church is happy to have you come sit in the pew or serve in a way that’s not a threat to their established order. But if you think anyone’s going to invite you into the inner circle of leadership, you’ll be disappointed.

3. It is unlikely a foreigner will train new pastoral leadership
The Three-Self Patriotic Movement has their own seminaries and programs for the development of new leadership. I have never heard of a situation where a foreigner had any ongoing relationship with a Three-Self seminary. In other words, for a foreign missionary to choose to work in coordination with Three-Self churches is to decide against having an influential part in training new pastors.

All this goes on in the name of a certain mission strategy. Which I resent, because I happen to subscribe to that strategy. And that mission strategy is ‘invest in national leadership.’ But this is misleading, because it quickly becomes apparent that we mean two different things. What they mean is by investing goes something like this:

‘Who are we to tell Chinese pastors what to teach or how to run their church? They are certainly more capable of adapting the Gospel to their unique cultural context. The best thing we can do is to get behind their efforts with whatever resources we have at our disposal and get out of their way!’

But this is not what we mean when we say ‘invest’. We mean nothing less than start-to-finish biblical and pastoral training. New Chinese preachers of the Gospel need to be instructed in interpreting and explaining the Word, in proclaiming the Gospel to unbelievers, and in planting and leading churches (there is a third, and in-between meaning of ‘training national leadership’, but it doesn’t concern us here…). By this measure, what the Three-Self Church allows foreigners to do is no more training leadership than buying a Big Mac is training a CEO of a fast food chain.

Li Bo and friends will doubtless sputter that we don’t get to teach Chinese pastors theology just because we’re Westerners. And right they are. But they do overlook that well-trained pastors (whatever their race) have the responsibility to teach poorly-trained pastors (whatever their race). You tell me which is the more egalitarian position. I have seen nothing to lead me to believe that the Three-Self Church does a good job of training Chinese pastors. So I’m not ready to hand over my biblical responsibility to them just yet! I can either tell young men here that there’s no training for them, or I can work towards that end myself.

There may be some career missionaries who are comfortable without these things. Whether churches are comfortable supporting a missionary who is comfortable without them is another issue. I only insist that for a missionary to accept these conditions is to depart from all resemblance to ministry as it appears anywhere in the New Testament. You may decide to embrace this kind of mission strategy, but you do so entirely without biblical precedent. Which isn’t to say that you can’t or shouldn’t do it. It’s only to say that it’s not Great Commission work. It may accomplish other arguably positive things, but it will not accomplish the one thing that we must accomplish!

This case demonstrates the growing semantic range of the word ‘missionary’ and, consequently, its increasing uselessness. Here we have two people doing radically different jobs but calling themselves the same thing! (similar to when someone tells you that they’re a ‘painter’ – you mean like Van Gogh or Sherwin Williams?) Missionary A wants to function in a non-preaching, non-leading, non-training capacity overseas. Missionary B isn’t ready to give up any of those things. Somebody better start calling themselves something else. B’s could call themselves church-planters, I guess. I don’t know what else to call A’s – anything that they’d probably like, anyway.

If you ask Missionary A what they’re doing if they’re not planting churches or training national leadership or teaching publicly or even attending a house church, the answer you will get is likely to be something like, ‘we’re using our lifestyle to be a little bit of light in a dark place,’ or ‘we’re helping the Chinese body of Christ become stronger.’ That’s all great. But understand that if there’s a hundred Missionary A’s in a city – there’s still a need for a Missionary B. And that’s the last little lesson to be learned from this whole Three-Self business. A hundred Painter A’s can’t paint the Sistine Chapel. It’s not that there’s not enough of them. It’s just a different job. It takes Painter B’s. So in your future missionary endeavors (both going and sending, both in China and elsewhere), it might be wise to make sure you differentiate your A’s and B’s.

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7 Comments on “The Li Bo Perspective #3”

  1. Septimus April 16, 2012 at 3:43 pm #

    I second that motion

  2. Rocky November 12, 2012 at 5:27 am #

    Missionary A shd rightly be called missionary while B shd be called missioner! I’m called to China as a medic missioner.

  3. A April 17, 2014 at 7:35 pm #

    Excellent!!!! I worked in China for only two years and want to go back long-term after seminary. I worked with people who had no Chinese friends and lived in a Western bubble. I can’t prove it but I’d bet a million bucks that they would go home to the US and refer to themselves as missionaries. Puke. I worked volunteering in an underground seminary on the side and would never have referred to myself back home as a missionary because that’s not what I did full time. Besides, I was only teaching them English at that time. =) Anyway, that’s NOT what I want to do when I get back. Anyway, I’ve read several of your posts now and enjoy them all. Just wondering how you manage to do it without worrying about security…

    • Jake May 13, 2014 at 7:33 am #

      Hi A,
      Thanks for your comment and for sharing your experience with everyone. The question about security is a good one, and it is something that my next post will go into some detail about, I think. A lot of people have asked us about that, even more so now that I have been deported. But hopefully my next post will help clarify a bit. Thanks for reading!

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. We are not all missionaries. | Pioneer Senders - April 14, 2012

    […] If you ask Missionary A what they’re doing if they’re not planting churches or training national leadership or teaching publicly or even attending a house church, the answer you will get is likely to be something like, ‘we’re using our lifestyle to be a little bit of light in a dark place,’ or ‘we’re helping the Chinese body of Christ become stronger.’ That’s all great. But understand that if there’s a hundred Missionary A’s in a city – there’s still a need for a Missionary B. And that’s the last little lesson to be learned from this whole Three-Self business. A hundred Painter A’s can’t paint the Sistine Chapel. It’s not that there’s not enough of them. It’s just a different job. It takes Painter B’s. So in your future missionary endeavors (both going and sending, both in China and elsewhere), it might be wise to make sure you differentiate your A’s and B’s. Full article at GospelinChina.wordpress.com […]

  2. Gospel in China | Rising Son Mission - April 27, 2012

    […] article about the situation with these churches. I ask that you would read the article,  www.thegospelinchina.com and keep them in your […]

  3. Weekly Mind Dump : China Ramblings! - September 21, 2012

    […] • I had a new teacher this past week and I was able to witness to her for about half of the class time. She said she met another guy who was a pastor like me, but he told her that it was a “secret” and not to tell others (ridiculous). She didn’t know why Jesus came. That “pastor” should be ashamed. I asked about another guy that goes to my school that is a missionary here, she said she didn’t know he was a Christian, but surprised when I said he was a Christian because he asked her about going to the bars. That is why this post says all missionaries aren’t the same. […]

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