The Missions Revolution in China
by Dr. Bob Finley
Founder of Christian Aid
What’s happening in China these days has astounded missiologists in their academic cloisters from coast to coast. It has demonstrated the need for a complete reformation of our concepts and practices in foreign missionary operations.
I did not come to this conclusion overnight. It took almost ten years of wrestling with evangelical church traditions to turn me around.
In 1946 I shared a leadership role in a big missionary conference at the University of Toronto. I was on the staff of Inter-Varsity Christian Fellowship, which sponsored the conference. (Similar conferences have since been held at the University of Illinois in Urbana.) In my workshop I gave an impassioned plea for volunteers to give their all to Christ by going out to "the mission field."
I didn’t know any better then than to use the term “mission field” to mean anywhere outside the USA. Even England. Or Germany. Or Korea (where aggressively evangelistic churches were more active than in many parts of the USA).
I was more successful than most in recruiting volunteers because I was young (24) and had committed to go out to "the mission field" myself.
Less than two years later I arrived in China as a gung-ho colonial missionary, ready to "train the Chinese" for Christian service. It never occurred to me at that time that I was partially motivated by a deep seated prejudice absorbed at missionary meetings like the one in Toronto or picked up from books on "missions." Or which I had heard at Christian schools like Moody Bible Institute and Columbia Bible College.
What we really assumed was that we were superior and Chinese (or Indian, or Nigerian or Brazilian) Christians were inferior. Therefore we had to go out and “train the nationals” in an effort to bring them up to our standard. Of course they would never actually reach our level of competency. Fifty-four years later we still hear talk of sending out our superior missionaries to train those inferior Asians and Africans.
Needless to say, it came as a shock to me to discover, soon after my arrival in China, that many Chinese Christians were actually superior to the proud Americans who worked among them. They had a much more mature understanding of the local church being the body of Christ in that locality. Of charisma (grace) being a spiritual empowerment which God gives by measure to every believer (Ephesians 4:7, Romans 12:6) and which determines our role and function in a local body of believers.
I had been personally taught by some of the greatest evangelical leaders and teachers of my generation including Billy Graham, H. A. Ironside, Harold Ockenga, Charles E. Fuller, Lewis Sperry Chafer, W. B. Riley, Bob Jones, Robert McQuilken, Louis Talbot, Harry Rimmer, A. W. Tozer, and Wilbur hange, to name a few. But not one of them, as far as I was able to determine, had a clear understanding of the charisma which God gives by measure to every believer to equip him or her to minister within a local body of believers. All seemed to take for granted our cultural tradition of conducting church "services" in a theater-style auditorium or medieval-type "sanctuary."
I had to go to China to find Christians who shared corporate life within a body of believers with no "ordained minister" involved. Rather, each one contributed to the life and growth of the body according to the measure of charisma which God had given him (as explained in Ephesians 4, Romans 12 and I Corinthians 12-14.) Chinese Bible teachers understood these things immediately when reading the epistles of Paul because they did not have to unlearn a lot of church traditions inherited from the dark ages. And many Chinese Christians were more zealous in worship and service than the missionaries who had come to work among them.
How many American Christians gathered at daybreak for corporate prayer, or went door to door witnessing for Christ and winning souls, or regularly saw God heal the sick in miraculous ways in answer to prayer?
Numerous Chinese were more mature in faith, further advanced in Bible knowledge, and more zealous in the service of Christ than I was. They were much further along in spiritual growth than most of the foreigners who had come there with an attitude of superiority to set them straight. We ignored the fact that churches had been active in China for more than a hundred years. That many renowned apostles like Dr. John Sung had returned after graduate study abroad to conduct great evangelistic campaigns among their people. And that competent teachers like Watchman Nee were leading believers into a life of spiritual maturity beyond that found in the West.
Another major insult to Chinese intelligence were the branch operations of foreign denominations which we set up all over their country. I met Presbyterians—U.S. and Presbyterians USA. Also Bible Presbyterians, Australian Presbyterians, Canadian Presbyterians and United Presbyterians. There were Lutherans of the Missouri Synod and Lutherans of other synods. At least a dozen different kinds of Baptists had branches in China, plus several kinds of Methodists and a host of independent missions with branches named after their foreign parents.
Is it any wonder that God allowed Mao Zedong and his fellow communists to come along with a big broom and sweep all the colonial denominations out of China?
Now I don’t want to imply that foreign missionaries did not win souls, plant churches and disseminate the gospel in China. Many fulfilled an important role in sowing the good seed of God’s Word in the fertile soil of Chinese hearts and minds. But just as surely as there was a time when foreign missionaries served a useful purpose, there also came a time when it was better for us all to leave.
After 150 years of foreign missionary activity, we guestimated that perhaps a million Chinese were professing Christians when I left there in 1949. Less than half of those would have been born again evangelicals. And after they had gone through fiery trials of great tribulation, possibly only 250,000 survived to pass on the torch of faith.
But the torch was passed. A new generation grew up without any knowledge of the foreign denominations that had been a stigma on the cause of Christ in China. The Chinese believers had only the Word of God as it gradually became available in many forms: hand copied, Xeroxed, imported by mules from India, shipped in by businessmen from Hong Kong, carried in the luggage of tourists (especially foreign students from Africa) and, eventually, downloaded from the internet.
Soon after the communists took over. They rounded up all "ordained ministers" of foreign denominations and sent them to labor camps. Church buildings were converted to warehouses, stores and communist propaganda centers. Without ministers or buildings the Lutherans, Baptists, and Presbyterians weren’t able to have church "services" any more. But the New Testament type house churches went right on meeting together and planting new assemblies. And even though they had been despised and rejected by colonial missionaries, the house churches welcomed true believers from the now defunct foreign denominations into their fellowship. In the late 1950’s I received word out of China that the number of house churches had doubled within five years after the communists took over.
That growth has continued to this day, in spite of dungeon, fire and sword. A great multitude which no man can number has come out of great tribulation, having washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.
It would never have happened if colonial missionaries had remained in China. The Christian faith was known as "the foreigners’ religion." Few Chinese would work for it. Few would die for it. Theater-style churches were propped up everywhere by foreign support and supervision.
But now a new day has dawned. It has been 50 years since colonial church operations were closed down in China. A billion Chinese have grown up during these years having no recollection of the colonial foreigners. Christian faith no longer carries the stigma of being a western religion imported by “foreign devils.” And the flow of new believers into the churches, estimated to be 20,000 souls a day, is without parallel in church history.
But, sadly, most churches in America have been left out of this marvelous work of God. Instead of getting behind our fellow believers in China and helping them financially, our churches are still living in the past, trying to hang on to obsolete 19th century traditions that should have been phased out 50 years go.
I visited a Presbyterian church recently that was celebrating "missions emphasis week." Their total concern was still to send out "their missionaries" to foreign countries. Their "China focus" was especially sad: No one expressed a word about possibly helping our fellow believers financially as they work around the clock setting up Bible institutes and missionary training centers in China. Instead these denominational Christians expressed interest only in two women from their church who had managed to "get in" to China as teachers of English. And another who had managed to "get in" as an exchange professor. Never mind that they had signed an agreement saying they wouldn’t "propagate their religion" in China. Or that their every activity would be tracked and followed by the Chinese FBI. Or that their presence would be an embarrassment to Chinese believers and bring interrogation by police if they tried to visit with local Christians.
Why can’t we turn loose our 19th Century traditions? Why don’t we give up our colonial mentality? There is no precedent in the New Testament for the "send out your missionaries" approach. Rather, God’s Word says that all true believers are one body in Christ and every one members one of another. If some members of His body suffer needs, those who have more should share in meeting those needs. As God leads us to further the cause of Christ in China we should send financial help to our fellow believers who are there. Trying to go ourselves is likely to make things more difficult for them, and hinder more than help in furtherance of the faith.
It’s time for an entirely new approach to foreign missions. I urge pastors and churches everywhere to discontinue our insistence on sending our representatives to invade foreign countries and cultures. Instead, let’s get behind our fellow believers who are already there, and help them financially to carry out their God given ministries among their own people.