The Changing Role of Foreign Workers in China

The Fall, 2009 issue of ChinaSource continued this journal’s tradition of excellence. In this review, I shall only touch on the highlights, with the strong recommendation that you subscribe to ChinaSource so that you can obtain not only this issue but all past and future ones as well.

The cover article, “The Changing Role of Foreign Workers in China,” addresses head-on the question, Can non-Chinese Christians have any effective role to play in China? Paul Lee admits that the situation is complicated and controversial, but he begins with a firm “Yes” and then goes on to qualify what he means.

Historically, foreigners, including white people, have made significant contributions to the growth of the church in China, and many of them continue to do so. That much is clear.

On the other hand, only those who embrace a set of core values will be useful to God. Lee directs our attention to key Scriptures (Mark 11:22-24, 12:30-31; John 4:23-24; 2 Corinthians 4:5-11; James 1:26-27, 4:6-10; Matthew 28:18-20) which apply to all who would minister anywhere, including Chinese and non-Chinese.

After noting that every culture imbues Christians with its particular emphases, Lee points out that American Christians “are trained to emphasize personal comfort, strong independence from the body of Christ, spiritual pride and an intellectual (rather than relational) approach to God.” Ouch! He wisely comments that “we must be aggressive to keep the gods of the Western and OBC (overseas-born Chinese) church cultures from becoming the gods of the Chinese church, which has enough ‘anti-Christian tendencies’” already!

As China and the Chinese church change, so must our methods, but our mission should always be “to reveal Jesus in all his glory to the Chinese people by the power of the Spirit, from the temple of Jesus’ body. Our goals and activities (which too many of us are focused on as the foundation) must flow out of our relationship with Christ and be focused on equipping” Chinese believers for ministry.

In his editorial, ChinaSource President Brent Fulton asks, “What If We’re Out Tomorrow?” He’s not trying to instill fear, but to face the reality that any particular foreign worker may not be in China forever, and to ask, “What is our role?” Put another way, “How to leave behind the sweet aroma of Christ and not the odor of a mess that others will have to clean up in our absence?”

Revisiting insights presented in previous issues of ChinaSource, he says that foreigners in China should (1) invest in people, not projects; (2) build local capacity; and (3) be catalytic. That is, foreigners should make their goal not to stay in China forever but to “define an exit strategy that will result in lasting fruit.”

In “Looking Backwards and Forwards,” “KCH,” a veteran foreign worker in China, is interviewed by Kay Danielson. KCH believes that “there is a growing need for those who can interact with the leadership [of the Chinese church] in theological training, mentoring, church mission and role in society. This requires someone with considerably more life experience than a 22 year old just out of college.” Today’s foreign workers in China need to “be… much more proficient in basic serving skills” than before. In addition, the current situation calls for “planners and strategists who look at the next 1- to 20 years and beyond.” KCH adds, “In other words, we need those who have that commitment and staying power” to learn Chinese language and culture and wrestle with how to make the Gospel relevant to all aspects of life.

When asked what roles in particular foreigners could now play, KCH indicated four in particular: 1. Preparation for Chinese going overseas for cross-cultural outreach. 2. Systems (that is, building a long-lasting work). 3. Mentors: “Older seasoned people.” 4. Helping to figure out the returnee issue.

John Tomas ponders “Biblical Mandates, God’s Calling and Overseas Workers in China” and finds that, while the biblical mandates remain unchanged, the role of foreigners in China will change depending on who they are and where they are. He outlines some major changes taking place in China, and then urges all foreigners to nurture “situational awareness” at all times. “For this, excellent language and cultural skills are essential.” Depending on the situation, a foreigner might need to focus on proclamation, mentoring, partnership; or maybe just move on to another place! Wherever foreigners go, however, they need to “maintain and deepen a learner-servant heart.”

“Huo Shui” writes that “What Churches in China Need Today” is “the living water.” The writer calls for more attention by foreign workers on mid-sized cities; systematic theological training; standardized structure and policies for church administration; advancing the “competence of witnessing among Chinese churches”; and social services – “A Light on a Lamp Stand before All People.” Though I highly recommend this article, I do question the author’s recommendation that church leaders should be sent abroad for advanced theological education. You may contact me for more on that question if you wish.

The final article, by Dwight Nordstrom and Andy Yi, both of Pacific Resource International, show how the once-limited opportunities for non-nationals in China have expanded greatly in the past two decades. English teachers are in higher demand than ever before, with China on a course to become “the world’s largest English-speaking country.” Foreigners who want to do business in China will find many open doors, especially if they are committed to staying a long time, which China’s new modern conditions make much more possible than before. If Christians come with “a humble and respectful attitude,” “salt and light can truly permeate each area of Chinese society.”

The journal includes a review of China: Ancient Culture, Modern Society, a brief introduction to both traditional and modern China. The back cover features an advertisement for “Bridge to China: Guide to China, the Mind & Heart of the Chinese,” a CD program produced by PacificBridge Organization. I have seen much of this and highly recommend it.

In short, the insights contained in this one issue of ChinaSource are worth the modest price of a year’s subscription.

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