Lausanne Global Analysis

May 2015 · Volume 4 / Issue 3

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The Rising Missions Movement in China (the World’s New Number 1 Economy) and How to Support It

Several prominent Chinese leaders from the unregistered churches have been convening in Seoul with global and Korean evangelical leaders to discuss China’s future direction in world missions.1 A Mission China 2030 vision was launched at the Asian Church Leaders’ Forum in 2013.2

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Last year, China’s leading pastors met in Seoul again to strategize on plans to accomplish the vision to raise up a younger generation to:

  • plant thousands of churches in the cities;
  • reach China’s 500 unreached minority people groups; and
  • send out 20,000 overseas missionaries by 2030.

Lessons learned

The church in China has been maturing in its theological and biblical understanding of the role of the church in world missions. Due to the limitations on the official Three-Self churches, unregistered house churches have taken the lead with hundreds of missionaries sent to Central Asia, the Middle East, Southeast Asia, and even northern Africa.

A Back to Jerusalem (B2J) movement, originally begun in the 1920s, was rebirthed in the early 2000s by the ‘Heavenly Man’ Brother Yun and Peter Xu calling for a vision to send 100,000 missionaries to the Middle East.3 Many peasants from rural China responded to the mission call. However, due to the challenges of overseas cross-cultural missions, there was a high drop-out rate among this first wave of missionaries.

Chinese leaders are taking into account lessons from these difficult experiences.

Healthy sending bases and sending structures

Previous attempts relied too heavily on overseas funds, causing dependency issues. Strong healthy churches and sending structures are essential to support and sustain missionaries. The recent Emerging Urban Churches, made up of intellectuals and professionals with global awareness and access to global partnerships, are becoming a strong support base and example for long-term mission sending. Appropriate indigenous mission sending structures and policies are in development to ensure adequate mission training, ministry oversight, financial accountability, and member care.

Unity leads to a healthier church

In the past, local churches kept their distance from each other due to security concerns. However, this unifying global missions vision has trumped previous fears. The Chinese church is healthier due to mutual sharpening. A unifying Mission China 2030 brings together rural and urban, young and older generations, and even different theological perspectives across different regions and cities.

Less triumph, more humility

The hard lessons from the previous B2J have brought about a humbler posture as Chinese church leaders caution against the dangers of triumphant Chinese nationalism. Refraining from using images of China as the last torch-bearer in the Great Commission, they prefer to see China as one among many: mission is from every nation to every nation. Engagement with the global church will be essential for China’s future mission endeavours. While China has something to offer, it comes as a humble newcomer into an existing global mission arena. 

Economic milestone

History can attest to national mission movements occurring in periods of geo-political and economic growth, as seen in the rise of the United Kingdom and Europe in the 19th century, the United States in the 20th century, and South Korea in the late 20th century.

On December 4th, 2014, the Chinese economy overtook the US economy to become the largest in the world, and almost nobody noticed.4 China’s rise indirectly influences the global impact of Chinese Christianity.

We should celebrate China’s new status as the largest economy because China’s rise is God’s overall plan for China to bless the world through his church. A peaceful rise will be welcomed by the world as many Chinese believe in the Christian gospel message of hope, love, and peace.

Key characteristics

China’s ‘way of the cross’

The gospel from China comes from a church that has gone through suffering. This message of sacrificial living refined by fire reflects the cost of discipleship seen in the early church. Chinese church leaders sense an overall tightening of religious policy on the horizon.5 Yet Christianity in China grew fastest during some of the harshest times of persecution. Whether the political environment tightens or not, the Chinese church will continue with its call.

China’s radical discipleship to ‘go’

Long-term Western missionary sending seems to be in decline as mission sending increases in the majority world. China has much to teach the West. North American popular speakers David Platt and Francis Chan have both been inspired by the radical discipleship of China’s house church. China’s global missions movement joins Africa and Latin America to remind the global church that the message of radical discipleship must be accompanied with the action to ‘go’ to the ends of the earth.

China’s ‘gospel debt’ repaid

Former Beijing Pastor Daniel Jin estimates that 20,000 foreign missionaries have been sent to China in the last 200 years. The Mission China 2030 challenge is to see at least 20,000 Chinese missionaries overseas by the year 2030: ‘We owe a “gospel debt” to the world. Only when our missions sending surpasses what we have received can China be considered truly a mission-sending country.’6

Next steps

Urban church planting

Mission sending requires strong and healthy churches to sustain and support. The next ten years have been called the Golden Era of urban church planting. One pastor has a vision to plant a church near every subway stop, estimating the establishment of at least 5,000 new churches.

Minority groups adoption

Missions to unreached people groups within China will be important in preparing for future cross-cultural overseas experience. Another pastor has a vision to mobilize every church in China to adopt one of the 500 in-country people groups by sending short-term teams each year.

Mission mobilization and training

China’s leaders are sharing the Mission China 2030 vision and mobilizing a younger generation to sacrifice. Mission training schools and seminaries are developing mission courses. Missiological books and resources are being translated into Chinese.

Outlook

More hype than reality?

With the current tightening of religious freedoms, some doubt the plausibility of this grand vision. Trumpeting large numbers could trigger fear from the authorities, causing a further tightening.

Interestingly, China’s official news mouthpiece the Global Times recently expressed concern in an article called ‘Dangerous Mission’. However, the cautious acknowledgement in it of the unregistered churches is seen as a breakthrough by China experts, since the article openly shares the advantages of Chinese missionaries over Western counterparts:

Before, many Chinese churches struggled to survive due to a shortage of money, staff, and resources. A surging Chinese economy has changed all that. An increasing number of house churches in China now have the means to send overseas missionaries. Gao believes that Chinese Christians have ‘natural advantages’ when evangelizing in many parts of the world. ‘Most of the countries in Central and South Asia are friendly to China, which makes it easier for Chinese Christians to preach the gospel in those nations, compared with Western missionaries.’7

Can China send 20,000 missionaries in 15 years?

The current number of overseas missionaries sent from China is around 500. While the goal of 20,000 in 15 years seems to be ambitious, one could point to Korea for inspiration. In the 1990s, the Korean church declared a bold vision to send 10,000 missionaries by the year 2000. They miraculously reached their goal in a decade and then doubled to 20,000 missionaries by 2010. Chinese leaders believe their goals to be very attainable with one distinct advantage: China has seven times the Christian population of South Korea.8

Potential church growth

Based on current church growth trajectories, Dr Fenggang Yang of Purdue University predicts China’s Christian population to grow to 247 million (including Catholics) by 2030, making it the largest Christian nation in the world.9 China’s church leaders can sense that God is doing something in China today, describing this phenomenon as ‘oil gushing out from the ground after long periods of pressure’.

Implications and responses

Higher-level training abroad

Ministries in China should shift from fast-pace growth tactics to long-term strategies of high-level leadership training. Most would agree that the majority of pastoral leadership training should be done in China or preferably in Asia.

However, Chinese with graduate level degrees in missiology and theological education are in demand for hundreds of Chinese seminaries and Bible and mission training schools. Parachuting foreign teachers into China is only a temporary solution further delaying the development of China’s own teaching ability.

Large numbers of Chinese professors, theologians, academics, and missiologists are needed for the future indigenous leadership training of local pastors and missionaries. The Korean church in the 1970s and 1980s sent seminarians abroad, preparing for today’s 2,000 Korean PhDs in missiology and theological studies.

Hundreds of mainland Chinese are currently studying at seminaries and Bible schools in both Asian and Western countries. Scholarships for these seminarians would be highly strategic. The first Chinese Seminarian Conference in North America brought together mainland Chinese from 13 seminaries last summer. After the conference, almost all the graduates this year have returned to China, reversing the trend of Chinese seminarians staying in the West upon graduation.

Healthy mission sending structures

The early stages of Korean mission movements saw many problems of financial mismanagement, strife among missionaries, controls from the sending churches, and top-down leadership on the mission field. This was due to mission policies based on local churches and individual control of the missionaries without healthy mission sending structures, strategies, and polices in place. The training of mission experts outside China for the next decade will be important to develop a healthier missionary sending structure for the church.

The church in China is searching for international partnerships. Expertise in organizational management and culture, governing structures, church and agency systems and policies, financial accountability, ministry competency and oversight, mission statements, vision, and values are much needed to prepare it for mission in a globalized world.

Deep grassroots partnerships

The most effective partnerships are with Chinese leaders at the grassroots level who truly desire deep long-term engagement. Impressive photo ops with officials and speaking at large churches and seminaries rarely result in true partnership on the ground. Some of the best partnerships are low key. Ministries that go deep in the area of expertise with just a few local partners are most valued and respected in the long-term.

Inspiration

China’s example should inspire church leaders anywhere to come together in unity to accomplish a global mission vision for their country.

They also need to be prepared for a Chinese church on mission with a global reach. Beijing Zion Church represents a new kind of church emerging from urban China. Launched in 2007, it has a seminary, café, bookstore, social media ministry, and missionaries sent to the Middle East. Senior Pastor Ezra himself is a Peking University graduate with a doctorate in ministry from Fuller Seminary.

While visiting Boston last year, Pastor Ezra shared a vision to reach Harvard and MIT in about seven years. What may win hearts in Boston, the intellectual capital of the world? The gospel message with spiritual vitality of perseverance, hope, courage, and joy in the midst of sacrifice and suffering. Through trials and suffering, God has faithfully blessed the church in China so that it may be a blessing to the world.

Endnotes

1 Global and Korean leaders included Chris Wright (Langham), Doug Birdsall (former Lausanne Chair), Michael Oh (Lausanne Executive Director/CEO), Luis Bush (Transformation), Gordon Showell-Rogers (WEA), Ka Lun Leung (HK Alliance Seminary), Younghoon Lee (Yoido), Jaehoon Lee (Onnuri), and David Sangbok Kim (Torch Trinity).

2 See ‘A Landmark Encounter: The significance of ACLF for the church in China’ by Ezra Jin in the November 2013 issue of Lausanne Global Analysis.

3 ‘A Captivating Vision: Why Chinese house churches may just end up fulfilling the Great Commission’, an interview with Paul Hattaway, Christianity Today, 1 April 2004, http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2004/april/5.84.html.

4 Hugo Duncan, David Martosko, ‘America usurped: China becomes world’s largest economy – putting USA in second place for the first time in 142 years’, Mail Online, 9 October 2014, http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2785905/China-overtakes-U-S-world-s-largest-economy-IMF-says-economy-worth-17-6trillion-America-falls-second-place-time-1872.html.

5 See ‘China’s Churches: Growing influence and official wariness present twin challenges’ by Thomas Harvey, Paul Huoshui, and David Ro in the July 2014 issue of Lausanne Global Analysis.

6 Pastor Daniel Jin at the Asian Church Leaders Forum in Seoul 2013.

7 Liang Chen, ‘Dangerous Mission’, Global Times, 9 February 2015, http://www.globaltimes.cn/content/906820.shtml.

8 China’s Protestants are estimated to be 59 million according to a more conservative number from the Pew-Templeton Global Religious Futures Project. http://www.globalreligiousfutures.org/.

9 Tom Philips, ‘China on course to become world’s “most Christian nation” within 15 years’, The Telegraph, 19 April 2014, http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/asia/china/10776023/China-on-course-to-become-worlds-most-Christian-nation-within-15-years.html.

* Editor’s Note: Featured image is modified from ‘Shanghai_2013_0233-HDR-Cityscape‘ by John Chandler (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0).

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David Ro serves as Director of the J Christy Wilson Center for World Missions at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary and as International Deputy Director for the Lausanne Movement in East Asia. He holds masters degrees from Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary and Peking University and is a PhD candidate at the Oxford Centre for Mission Studies.

14 May 2015

Lausanne Global Analysis