ON THE SIDE OF A BUSY ROAD in Beijing sits a large nondescript office building, blending in with the apartments and mid-rise buildings around it. Walk up a few flights of stairs and suddenly you hear the sound of worship music mixed with pre-church chatter as congregants gather for a Sunday service at Zion Church, one of the largest unregistered churches in the country. Step inside and you might think you’ve entered a hip church in the Bible Belt: Chris Tomlin softly playing in the hallway, a bookstore/coffee shop churning out lattes, an auditorium with projection screens and plush seats, and even door handles in the shape of crosses.
The pastor of Zion Church is Ezra Jin, the co-founder of Mission China 2030, who has long called for the Chinese church to engage in missions. Jin is of Korean ancestry, one of the 2.3 million descendants of Korean immigrants with Chinese citizenship, and so his approach to missions follows the style of the South Korean church: passionate, fearless, and high-profile. He’s welcomed media coverage of his church, with even the government-backed Global Times interviewing a Zion Church pastor in a report on Chinese churches sending out missionaries to Muslim countries.
In 2015 I attended a Sunday service at Zion only to find Jin out of town and an elder preaching about his experience as a missionary in Pakistan. The audience sat in rapt attention as he described the struggles and the fruits of ministering in a foreign land, a concept familiar in the West but still novel in China.
DAVID RO, director of the J. Christy Wilson, Jr. Center for World Missions at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, said 1,000 Chinese missionaries currently serve overseas, with many still in the language-learning and relationship-building stages. He’s found that throughout missions history, missionary movements arise alongside the growth of the origin country’s economic and global influence. The Chinese church is doing the same as China’s status rises; “the difference with China is that the government is also cracking down on the church.”
This can be a plus for Chinese missionaries as they minister in Muslim countries where discretion is necessary and their testimony of growth amid persecution can be an encouragement to new converts. Ro, who is also the East Asia director for the Lausanne Movement, believes Chinese missionaries will influence churches in other regions, like India or the Middle East, to send out overseas missionaries of their own. “If they see that Chinese house churches can do missions under persecution, they’ll think, ‘Why can’t we do that?’” Ro said. “I think it’s going to change missions in the next 10 to 20 years.”
About 75 percent of Chinese missionaries are preparing to serve or already serving in the Middle East, Ro said, while others are looking at North Korea, Southeast Asia, and Africa. The idea to go west from China started in the 1920s with the Back to Jerusalem (BTJ) movement, whose adherents believed that since Pentecost, the gospel has moved west from Jerusalem to Antioch, then over to Europe, the United States, and now China. Now it’s time for Chinese Christians to bring the gospel west from China through the Middle East all the way back to Jerusalem, at which time the Great Commission would be fulfilled.
The vision gained momentum among Chinese Christians during World War II, yet before much work could be done, the Chinese Communist Party took control in China and kicked out foreign missionaries and imprisoned Chinese believers. Forty years later, officials finally released BTJ leader Simon Zhao from prison in the ’80s, and he spent the last years of his life sharing the BTJ vision with members of the Henan church network. The idea became popular among the Chinese in the ’90s, and the release of the book Heavenly Man by Brother Yun spread the BTJ vision to the larger Christian world.
Chinese church leaders aimed to send a whopping 100,000 Chinese missionaries out to the countries west of China, which happen to align with the 10/40 Window. Initial excitement over the vision led many overseas churches to donate to the BTJ movement, yet the Chinese church was unprepared to accomplish such a task, as it didn’t have adequate sending structures and training in place. Funds were abused, and churches sent out passionate missionaries without cross-cultural training or ongoing support from their church.
In some cases, churches handed missionaries one-way tickets and never contacted them again. John Hsieh, a worker at United Missions of Taiwan, recalls one mainland Chinese missionary who said that when he called home during Chinese New Year, the pastor asked, “And remind me, which country are you in right now?” Others struggle to make a living in the mission field and spend so much time working odd jobs that they have little energy left over to evangelize. (Because Hsieh’s work in China is sensitive, we have changed his and several other names in this story.)