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Eastern approaches

The growing pains of China’s church are reflected in the movement to send Chinese missionaries to Muslims

Eastern approaches

Ethnic Uighur men leave prayers marking Eid al-Fitr outside Id Kah Mosque in western China. (Kevin Frayer/Getty Images)

When ISIS kidnapped and murdered two young Chinese nationals in Quetta, Pakistan, last May, the Chinese government didn’t blame ISIS or Pakistan but the victims themselves. The reason: Li Xinheng, 24, and Meng Lisi, 26, had gone to the country as missionaries studying Urdu and teaching Mandarin at a local private school run by South Korean missionaries.

In the aftermath of their deaths, the Chinese government detained four of the leaders from the Wenzhou church that sent them, sent home 11 Chinese missionaries who had worked with the pair, and blamed South Korean Christians for recruiting and sending “naïve teenagers to conduct missionary activities in Muslim countries.” It also reassured Pakistan of their “iron brother” ties, as China has pledged to invest $50 billion in infrastructure projects as part of its One Belt One Road Initiative.

Despite the government’s misgivings, cross-cultural missions is not a foreign-led movement in China. House church networks are building indigenous sending organizations, church leaders are seeking ways to train aspiring missionaries, and believers are committing their lives to bringing the gospel to the unreached in China and around the world. Churches are excited about One Belt One Road’s outward focus that creates opportunities for the Chinese to enter into Muslim countries to work and evangelize.

And this is just the beginning, as multiple missions movements gain steam in China, including Mission China 2030, which aims to send out 20,000 Chinese missionaries by the year 2030. Each year the group puts on a conference—in July 1,200 Chinese university students gathered in Chiang Mai, Thailand, for an Urbana-like missions conference—with speakers from both the local and the international church. At the conference, 250 college students committed to going out as missionaries.

China still has a long way to go before it can become a major mission-sending country: Passionate missionaries, especially from rural areas, lack the training and language skills needed to be effective. Chinese churches don’t have an older generation of missionaries to learn from, yet international mission agencies are stepping in to impart knowledge and share their experiences. Beyond passion, the Chinese church also possesses a great evangelism tool: the church’s testimony of flourishing under persecution and suffering.


Left to right: Li Xinheng and Meng Lisi (Handout)

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.)

David Silverman/Getty Images

A Muslim couple from the Hui minority in Linxia, China (David Silverman/Getty Images)

CHURCHES BEGAN TO RECOGNIZE their need for training in cross-cultural missions after the 2008 Sichuan earthquake, which killed 69,000 people and disproportionately affected ethnic minorities. Churches from all over the country sent people over to help with aid relief. When media attention and government aid moved on, Christians stayed to start schools, plant churches, and help the long rebuilding process. This great wave of missions was unprecedented among house churches, and the leaders asked international mission groups to help them train members eager to do missions.

Jeremy Zhu (name changed), who works at a large international missions agency, helped Chinese churches develop structures for screening and training missionaries and for ongoing care and mentorship for missionaries in the field. Zhu acknowledged that while Chinese Christians can learn much from foreign groups, his organization doesn’t plan on opening a sending office in the country. “We can’t just force [our organization’s] model on them; we want them to contextualize and indigenize it,” Zhu said. “We want them to adjust it to a Chinese mindset.”

Unlike in Western countries, the creation of local sending agencies is politically sensitive in China: The government fears churches working together and, as the deaths of the missionaries in Pakistan show, evangelism that could endanger China’s relations with allies. So agencies need to be kept low-key and unregistered, which makes transparency difficult. Major church networks and larger churches have created their own mission agencies, yet they remain underdeveloped.

Because China has so few Christians with missionary experience, indigenous mission agencies need to bring in foreign missionaries to help train missionaries, Zhu said. Ro also encourages aspiring missionaries who have studied abroad and can speak English to join established international mission agencies to learn the ropes. But these organizations can be difficult to join for those who do not speak English.

JOYCE SHEN (name changed), a missionary from Taiwan, spent more than a dozen years in China, most recently working in the Muslim-majority western region. China is home to 23 million Muslims, most of them part of the Hui and Uighur ethnic minority groups. As more house churches wanted to reach this population, Shen started to train missionaries intent on serving Muslims.

Most of the Chinese missionaries she taught were between 20 and 40 years old, a mix of singles, couples, and families. She’s found that many didn’t have much interaction with the world outside China, so it was challenging for them to understand other cultures. They struggle with becoming accustomed to new foods, and because many of the missionaries from rural areas have only a middle-school education or lower, it’s difficult for them to learn the local language and understand the importance of doing so. “It’s unrelated to how much passion they have for missions,” Shen said. “In training it’s difficult to teach them when they don’t have a grasp of general knowledge.” Shen mentioned that recently the number of college-educated missionaries has increased, which has helped with the problem.

One overseas group started a program that funds new graduates to train and then go into the mission field for two years. After that, if they believe they are called to become missionaries, they can continue to serve longer. Yet Zhu believes these types of programs are unsustainable in the long term, as most college students aren’t connected to local churches and therefore lack financial and prayer support. Also, he sees value in delegating “the support of missionaries to the local church because it allows the Chinese church to carry the responsibility for global missions.”

The leaders of Mission China 2030, which launched in 2013, are mainly urban churches with professional and highly educated congregants. It follows in the footsteps of the Korean church, which in the 1990s pledged to send out 10,000 missionaries within a decade. In 2000, they reached their goal and by 2010 had doubled that figure. Zhu said the movement’s Korean style rubs some Chinese churches the wrong way, especially those that wish to take a more low-key and conservative approach.

Movement leaders want to send out 20,000 missionaries in order to repay the “gospel debt” of 20,000 foreign missionaries who have brought the gospel to the Chinese people. To reach this goal, they have different phases starting with mobilizing churches, training, and sending out smaller batches of missionaries for both short- and long-term missions.

But can they really reach their goal of 20,000 missionaries by 2030? Hsieh thinks so: At the conferences he attends, he’s met many Chinese missionaries already in the field, and he sees many more Christians eager to head out. His concern isn’t about finding enough people to become missionaries but how they go about doing it and what the Chinese missionary movement will look like decades down the line. “Going out isn’t hard,” Hsieh said. “But are they able to continue to do ministry in a healthy way and can they come back healthy? This is what we care about.”

Other experts agreed that their concern wasn’t about the numbers but the type of missionaries China is sending out—although having a numerical goal in mind can compel the church to think about how to start preparing for the field now. Zhu fears that strong Chinese nationalism can hurt their witness especially as they enter areas in China that have long been oppressed by the majority Han people. Like missionaries of all ethnicities, Chinese missionaries need to go with a sense of humility, learning the culture and language and lovingly engaging with the local people, Zhu said.

IN GOING OUT TO OTHER COUNTRIES, some have argued that Chinese are more welcomed in Muslim countries than Westerners as the Chinese government cements its relationships with countries along the Silk Road through the One Belt One Road Initiative. Chinese people also don’t come with as much baggage, as China isn’t viewed as a “Christian nation.” Yet Zhu warns that while Chinese may be more tolerated now, shady business practices by Chinese businessmen and the unintended consequences of China’s policies could quickly change that impression. “Locals don’t see a difference between you and your government. Unless Chinese remain humble, they can lose that advantage.”

Ro believes that while China’s religious affairs bureau is concerned about the Chinese missionary movement, the upper tier of the government is taking a wait-and-see approach, as having Chinese citizens build connections and serve other countries is beneficial to them: “Chinese missionaries who are blessing other countries is in line with what the top tier wants.” This year, Chinese officials did not stop any mainland Christians from attending the Mission China 2030 youth conference in Chiang Mai.

Yet the church is also realistically preparing for the cost of spreading the gospel in hostile countries. After the death of Li and Meng in Pakistan, church leaders are discussing how to deal with future martyrdoms that are sure to come, Ro said. “The first two martyrs are Chinese Christians, and someday they will be written about in church history.”

June Cheng

June Cheng

June is the East Asia correspondent for WORLD Magazine. Follow June on Twitter @JuneCheng_World.


  • Alejandro M.
    Posted: Thu, 03/22/2018 02:57 am

    May Christ Jesus embrace and welcome Li Xinheng and Meng Lisi into His loving arms for their faithful service.  And may they be an example for believers in the U.S. to rise up and evangelize, unashamedly, within our country.