Listening to Chinese Christians (RJS)

Listening to Chinese Christians (RJS) July 27, 2012
Erhai Lake, Yunnan. Image from Wikipedia.

Tim Stafford had an article Listening to Chinese Christians in the March/April issue of Books and Culture on a book by Liao Yiwu, God Is Red.

Liao Yiwu is a poet, street musician, and chronicler of modern China who has persisted in antagonizing the Chinese government. After the Tiananmen Square massacre he wrote a protest poem that helped get him imprisoned for four years. Later he traveled about China describing lives of people who don’t fit the Chinese ideal— “hustlers to drifters, outlaws, and street performers, the officially renegade and the physically handicapped, those who deal with human waste and with the wasting of humans, artists and shamans, crooks, even cannibals.” Harassed by the government and refused permission to travel abroad, he escaped from China through Vietnam in 2011.

But not before publishing God Is Red, a book based on interviews with diverse Chinese Christians. Liao makes clear that he is not a Christian himself, despite the attempts of some of these believers to convert him. He is fascinated by the vitality of the churches, however, and by the tenacity and courage of individuals he came to know.

I have begun reading Liao’s book – and it is fascinating. Stafford continues in his review of God is Red:

All the same, he undermines (perhaps inadvertently) what has become the Standard Narrative: that foreign missionaries never adapted to Chinese life or had much success in building the church; that only when persecution came did the church explode in amazing numbers. Liao’s Christians tell a different story: of missionaries who lived sacrificially and won tremendous loyalty and love from Chinese people; of a church that almost ceased to exist under communist terror, with its members abandoning their faith (or at least any visible observance of it) or disappearing during waves of brutal repression; of a church that exploded in numbers only after the worst persecution ended, in 1979, when pastors were let out of prison and rehabilitated and churches were allowed to function again.

I found this paragraph particularly interesting. It was a large part of the reason I picked up and am now reading the book. It has become common, even in relatively conservative Christian circles, to view the Christian missionary movement of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries as something of a colonialist, imperialist failure. Certainly the emphasis on missions has decreased dramatically, or so it seems. I wonder though, how much of this negative image is true.

What is your view of the foreign missionary movement?

What kind of mission work should the church engage in?

My grandfather was a missionary in China with the Christian and Missionary Alliance from 1921-1926. He was based somewhere around Wuchow (now written Wuzhou) in South China, between Hong Kong and Vietnam, with some involvement in what now seems to be Vietnam (it is not clear how to decipher all of the place names). It was a time of civil war and significant unrest in the region. We have copies of the Alliance Weekly with reports of the mission in South China including reports from my grandfather. This one from 11/25/22  gives some idea:

After our annual conference in September political conditions prevented our return to Lungchow via the West River. War was waging between Nanning and Lungchow, consequently all traffic was stopped above Nanning. Desirous of returning to our station before the victorious Kwong Tung army, Mr. Sension and I were granted permission by the Committee to proceed via French Indo-China. Mrs. Worsnip was to travel by launch to Nanning and await further instructions. Our experiences during this trip, how we were captured by Annamese and Chinese revolutionists and taken for French spies: how the Bolsheviki soldiers had determined to kill us; and how the officers protected and liberated us, the readers of ALLIANCE will have seen through Mr. Sension’s detailed article on this subject.

Lungchow is now spelled Longzhou. After a number of incidents – one of which involved a rapid retreat before an advancing army – my grandfather married my grandmother in Wuchow, South China (also a missionary with CMA, I have a copy of the marriage announcement found in an old Chinese bible). Within a year or so after their marriage they left China because of the civil war and unrest. He worked their way home on a ship by joining the Merchant Marine (so family legend tells me).

Diqing, Yunnan. Image from Wikipedia.

The region Liao visited, where he conducted the interviews in the book was a bit further west, in Yunnan Province, up in the mountains. The picture Liao paints in the book is of missionaries, Catholic and Protestant, who established schools and hospitals, cared for orphans, preached the gospel, and won the hearts of many people – many of whom stood firm in the faith through almost three decades of persecution from the early 50’s until 1980 or so. It was a far cry from the official version Liao had been taught “when Western missionaries were portrayed as “evil agents of the imperialists” who enslaved the Chinese mind, killed Chinese babies, and ruined indigenous cultures.” (p. xviii)

The church in China is not thriving because of western imperialism – and it did not vanish during the communist persecution. Some of the letters home printed in the Alliance Weekly and other newsletters from the early 20th century certainly contain comments that would raise eyebrows today. But they also exhibit a real concern for the people, as people, not merely as souls to be won. The reports are full of references to the local churches and the local pastors leading these churches. The missionary work appeared to concentrate on schools and education at various levels. Seeds were planted by Christians following the great commission to make disciples and to love God and love others.

There is much we can learn by listening to Chinese Christians. I will post on some of the interviews, places described by Liao Yiwu in  God Is Red in upcoming weeks.

Because of the family history I always payed special attention to missions and missionary efforts when it came up in church and in other contexts. Visits by missionaries on furlough, presentations concerning the building of hospitals in Africa, schools in India, and Churches in Asia were a staple of Sunday school, Evening services, and special meetings. But they’ve all but disappeared from the evangelical church. Perhaps this is merely the changing tide of time – a new context and a new emphasis. The world is smaller, and missionary work less important. But I wonder if this is the major impetus. It is a topic worth some discussion.

Should we have more emphasis on missionary work today?

Where and how? or Why not?  What has changed?

If you wish to contact me directly you may do so at rjs4mail[at]

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  • phil_style

    It has become common, even in relatively conservative Christian circles, to view the Christian missionary movement of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries as something of a colonialist, imperialist failure.

    An interesting observation. This is certainly the accepted narrative, locating Christian missionary action within the context of both imperialism and colonialism. But, is it accurate?

  • How quickly we forget and misunderstand the past. The missionaries of Victorian times and those more recent ones you have written about in this post really worked hard, made great sacrifices, suffered danger and disease and rejection, sometimes death. Why? I think the only answers can be that they had compassionate hearts and they wanted to rescue people and please the Almighty.

    They did the best they knew how. Do we? Digging out truth from history is not easy because our opinions are coloured by our experiences of a different world and a different age.

    But zeal and passion and a desire to help the lost and helpless – are those not eternal values even if they play out in a variety of ways?

  • MatthewS

    wow, you have some amazing stories in your family history, RJS!

    Are you familiar with Lingenfelter? I have taken some intercultural classes from a prof who has worked with him. My prof had some experience with missions in Africa. I have the impression that there is a community of people who are thinking carefully about intercultural issues and missiology. I wonder if the standard narrative about earlier mission attempts is an over-simplification. I wouldn’t be surprised if there were some more egregious examples that came to cast an negative light over the whole thing and as a result unfairly eclipsed many good works that were done.

  • RJS

    Matthew S,

    I would like to see the “detailed letter” referred to in the quote I have above. I think it is an article with a misspelled name, so it isn’t in the group of issues I have. But CMA has now removed all the old AW issues from public archive and they are not accessible so I can’t go look for it.

  • The Presbyterian Church USA stopped sending “missionaries” decades ago. Instead, we send “mission partners.” Beginning in 2006 we’ve been experimenting with “mission partnership communities.”

    It used to be that churches sent missionaries from the US to other countries to evangelize and do good works. As you noted, many good things were done because of missionaries but there was an element (too often a strong element) of cultural imperialism and paternalism. We now have relationships with partner denominations in other countries. Our mission co-workers are sent to work with those partner denominations to help these Christians achieve an agenda that is set by them, not us. This is a different model than the traditional missionary model.

    The more recent move to mission partnership communities is even more interesting. It used to be that people in pews sent money up through the denominational hierarchy so national offices could do missionary work on behalf of people in the pews. In a flattening world, people want a more hands on relationship with mission work. We are presently sending 200 mission co-workers from our national office but we estimate that there are possibly 1,000 more Presbyterians who are doing international mission work who are supported by their congregation, supported by a group of donors, or are being sent by organizations independent of the denomination. Added to this is the explosion of people doing short-term mission trips.

    We are now forming mission partnership communities. This includes the traditional mission co-worker and mission partner denomination relationship. But added to this is a network of congregations and individuals that are passionate about work in a particular area or about a particular cause. These networks are resourced by national staff but the network is not a program or agency of the denomination. The aim is to connect and equip people for mission, not do it for them. We are still experimenting with how to make this work.

    Added to this is our Young Adult Volunteer program where a YAV raises money that is matched by the denomination enabling them to be sent for an extended time to work with one of our mission partner denominations. International mission is as hot as it has ever been in the PCUSA but it has taken on some very unique forms.

  • Ben Thorp

    Whilst I’m sure there are numerous incidents of the “colonialist, imperialist failure”, I suspect there are more cases of the opposite than we suspect. Hudson-Taylor, founder of the China Inland Mission, was (I believe) one of the earliest missionaries to recommend wearing native clothing. (To quote wikipedia: “When other missionaries sought to preserve their British ways, Taylor was convinced that the Gospel would only take root on Chinese soil if missionaries were willing to affirm the culture of the people they were seeking to reach”)

    Even amongst those that some might now regard as imperialist, there are some amazing stories of faith. I was greatly challenged by the biography of C T Studd, founder of what became WEC.

  • Thanks, Scot. I had the privilege of interviewing Liao a few months ago at TGC. (

  • MD

    had the opportunity to learn of a missionary couple who moved into the region of a remote people group in mexico. the couple learned the language, developed the first written form of the language, translated the entire bible into that language, and in the process saw worshiping gatherings established throughout the region. when i visited, i saw no evidence of westernization among the people.
    subsequent to that, we adopted a little girl from that people group – one who had been abandoned by her family. today she is a missionary in west africa with a mennonite group which also follows the pattern of staying in the background and watching the indigenous people take the lead.
    so……my personal experience is contrary to the negative characterizations.
    to add – a few interesting links:
    both groups have, in my opinion, a very healthy approach to world mission

  • #6 Ben

    Reflection on this topic tells me of the need for humility. There are likely elements of nobility and error in every generation. I think of people in the States sending missionaries to other lands while practicing slavery and Jim Crow at home. Does this behavior negate the noble and sacrificial work of so many? I don’t think so. But I think it cautions me against both idealization and demonization. Luther wrote, “Be a sinner and sin boldly, but believe and rejoice in Christ even more boldly… Pray boldly – for you too are a mighty sinner.” Sin is entangled in all we do but we can’t let that paralyze us. We hopefully learn and keep on trying.

  • Robert

    I think the missionary movement was more complex than people sometimes assume. I’ve heard horror stories about missionaries forcing ladies to wear hats and gloves to church on the equator, and banning drums because they were ‘the devil’s instrument’. It sounds as though some of them may have left Britain physically, but they never left mentally, and tried to re-create their home churches. I’ve heard of others who married local women, adopted the local culture, and flourished. There may have been something of an evolution from one to the other as colonies became better established, but I haven’t looked into it enough to be sure.

  • Steph

    Are we leaving missions in Western Europe and now Eastern Europe out of the equation, or are they relevant? That was my context growing up. Our context was living as immigrants, in a country where Americans were fodder for jokes, in a very multicultural church in a huge, multicultural city…. The first pastor I remember was a national, the second as well, the third was from a neighboring country that shared the same language, and the fourth was American. I was skeptical but he had a good and great impact and was well loved. But missionaries were present as members and leaders in the church (deacons, elders), depending on what their primary purpose was. Were they building up the local church or were they primarily seeking to reach “unreached people groups” in our big port-of-entry city?

    The only other context I have observed missions in firsthand was only for two months in an East African country in a remote setting. The nurse attended births with women who had been circumcised and were at a high risk of AIDS. The deliveries were difficult and the rik of exposure of course real. The agriculturalist was joining in efforts to build wells and try alternative crops in an arid region. I have stayed in touch with the missionary family (the nurse was from a different couple working in same village) and many of their greatest *friendships* now that they are State-side are still with the people they lived amongst in numerous villages.

    Being a missionary is having a foot in both worlds, the one you came from and the one you are in, but in my experience with career missionaries the foot in the world you are in is much more firmly rooted. Retiring, or repatriation, is a tearing apart, a source of great pain, a loss of community.

    My journey has been the opposite, accepting that some of the horrible accounts that have emerged about the missions world are indeed a part of it, this world of missions that I know in such a different light. This is us, but yes, this is us too.

    I am a missionaries’ kid.

    I have more to say, but I am guessing it makes for easier reading if I break it up.

  • Steph

    About missions historically, yes, the cost was and is great. Missions, for one thing, has involved a familiarity with the death of one’s children. Ruth Van Reken, who is a missionaries’ kid and missionary, wrote a memoir that was the first to break silence on the hurts of missinaries’ kids. She wrote her memoir at a time when speaking of pain without spiritualizing it, or sometimes even talking about the pain at all, was frowned upon. She writes of the missionaries’ kids (MKs) she babysat who died of disease. And through her I learned that separations between parents and children of several years’ duration was common. It was in answer to that, children being left for years in the care of relatives, that the first boarding schools were opened (1904 or 1905, I believe, Rift Valley Academy). Now a discussion of boarding schools will quickly lead us off the main questions RJS wanted to address, but yes, pain, sacrifices, not the kind you undertake to westernize people.

  • LexCro


    Thanks so much for posting this! It is very true that the (blindly) accepted narrative of insensitive and colonially-minded missionaries is a gross and inaccurate presentation of the Western missionary endeavor. Five years ago, while in South Africa visiting friends, I was blessed with the opportunity to edit the dissertation of an indigenous African scholar (I forget which tribe he was from). His dissertation had to do with the Western missionary effort and its legacy in a particular part of South Africa. One thing that floored me was his positive assessment of the Western (read: White) missionaries and their faithfulness to the Gospel along with their care for indigenous people and their culture(s). Without question, there were instances in which he critiqued the missionaries, but it seems from his assessment that they did far more good than harm. The fact that this was from a South African scholar who had grown up with Apartheid impressed me. From my own readings on Western missionary history, the Church’s missionary endeavor is comprised of good, bad, and ugly moments. However, I find far more good than bad and ugly. I think we need to start challenging the received narrative more and more with respect to our missiological history.

  • Steph

    Finally, my parents were part of a non-denominational mission organization. There was more of an ecumenical spirit on the field, in terms of Baptist and Presbyterian and Assemblies of God cooperating. Rarely did that seem to cause problems. (Of course they weren’t planting churches together. Areas of ministry that involved building up a local church would have been done separately, but in their main thrust with an unreached people group, they worked together.) I notice in looking at my mission’s roster that they have many national “employees.” I have criticisms to make of them (the mission) but they do support indigenous missions. They are small but work worldwide, so they have few pet projects. They facilitate the valid ministry efforts of their employees, expecting regular updates and communication, without telling them what to do and where to go. There is room in missions for a different approach, for specific strategizing and sending out teams, but it is not the only model and that’s just something that is worth knowing. Potential pitfalls exist with all approaches, though.

    Anyone with complaints against my parents would have had several organizations to approach for redress. The mission board in America would have been the hardest to reach, but the local church was one avenue, as well as the national denomination that ran the church, as well as the other mission that my parents were on loan to, with a strong presence and national branch, as well as the specific organization in whose building my dad spent a lot of his time…. Accountability is there.

    Because we were not sent out by a denominational mission board (and denominational mission boards may require of their missionaries that they visit the supporting churches, but I only know for sure of one that does, and sitting in the pews I am not seeing missionaries come through in either Southern Baptist churches or United Methodist), we did a lot of visiting churches back in the States to report and raise support. We had no one big supporter. Widows on fixed income and small churches kept us on the field, and they deserve a shout out and gratitude. They were in general very conservative and caught up in debates I had no point of connection with (KJV only, strict dress codes, zero alcohol, etc.). In any case, those churches provided accountability that was often misplaced because they had zero understanding of context. And of course there were the religious debates of the day back in the States that you had to be grilled in. Then the popularity games, are you in the 10/40 window, are you in the former Eastern bloc? Are you planting churches, starting up a brand new church? Finally, there was the supposed *home* church that still had our family picture up that was taken when I was a baby, and I was sixteen…. I think that picture stayed up for a few more years still, and not by my parents’ fault. It was the church’s “bragging” wall. Oh, yeah, they are really keeping up with us….

    I really like this topic and these questions but as I am typing out my thoughts, I realize there really is not much the people at home can do to understand the context we are in thousands of miles away with different cultural and church realities…. But they could have used a much bigger dose of introspection in determining what their role in missions was.

    And yes, there is a lot of analysis and best practices thinking behind done in the missions world. There are organizations and journals…. I used to have that info readily available, but someone else will likely stop by and supply them now.

  • Sally D

    I can recommend “Burying the Bones: Pearl Buck in China”, by Hilary Spurling.

    The author does not set out to praise the missionaries in China, nor to bury them. Pearl Buck herself had a life which came to a somewhat strange end, lost between worlds. Her father’s life might have been seen as a failure. The missionaries certainly felt the pressure from home to make converts and build churches; and their failure to do this often bore heavily upon them. And yet…their courage and sheer determination, their grace under pressure, their genuine love for the Chinese and the respect they were willing to extend…none of these had been part of their training but they found their way to a Christ-like sacrificial love for people who could (to them) very often seem frighteningly alien and merciless.

    it’s ironic that the later Chinese propaganda accused the missionaries of killing babies: the Bones of the title, are the bones of small babies that Pearl as a child would find lying around in the fields, and would attempt to bury. Many of those missionaries left their own bones in China, as they always knew they would. And it’s impossible to read a story like this without thinking, with some awe, of the contemporary Chinese Church – and hoping that if there’s anything like a Paradise, the missionaries and their early converts are there, celebrating every changed heart.

  • Steph (12) mentions the cost of missionary work, including the impact on their children. This reminds me of William P Young, author of ‘The Shack’, whose parents were missionaries in the highlands of Papua New Guinea. You can hear him speak about it in a Drew Marshall radio interview from April 26th 2008.

  • I’ll have to pass on the name of this book to a friend. She loves China. I’ll be interested to read the interviews. My husband and I are thinking about taking a trip over to China. I’d be curious to compare the China in this book to today’s China.

  • RJS

    Matthew S (#3),

    Robert (#10) gives the kind of egregious example used to denigrate the mission movement. Perhaps this kind of thing happened, but it was not the norm. One of the things I remember most from the multitude of missionary visits over the years was the serious effort they made to give us an appreciation for a wide variety of foreign cultures. “Westernization” if you care to call it that, was confined to such things as education (for boys, girls, and not just the elite), hospitals, and of course preaching the gospel of Jesus Christ.

    The “standard narratives” are almost always oversimplifications. There is no doubt that missions were complicated by personalities, sin, and abuse – as our churches here are – but the gospel was spread and preached, and often in the context of truly humanitarian interactions caring for people, especially people on the margins of society. I am going to come back to this book in another post or two because I think there are some interesting questions to explore on the “stickiness” of faith.

  • MatthewS

    One of the things that my prof had experienced was watching missionaries get burned out trying to make and complete 5 year objectives and such plans that made good business sense in offices back home but no sense on the field. Still today, it seems that some agencies do a much better job than others preparing their people for cross-cultural issues.

    On the balance, I heard a second-hand story of one missionary who had all his teeth pulled out on a visit home to the States because he didn’t want tooth trouble forcing him to leave his post. That’s dedication! Maybe a better example would be the widows of the five martyrs in Ecuador who demonstrated to the world what love looks like.

    Speaking of, I have not read Steve Saint’s (Nate Saint’s son) book but I have talked to some people who were very impressed with what he is doing.