Missionaries were the fruit of revival, especially those revivals in the 1830s and 1860s. They had a strong sense of personal sacrifice for the sake of the gospel, and an independent spirit to go where Christ had not been named. They gave up much to go to China. Many Chinese Christians have inherited this spirit of independence. Since the 1910s many have gone to mission fields, far from family and friends, to preach the gospel.
The positive side of this spirit is: Evangelism and frontier missions remain high priorities for the Chinese evangelical church. Through this strong determination to share Christ, a passionate, personal relationship with God is passed on generation after generation. The negative side is: Chinese Christians have yet to learn to truly and sacrificially cooperate with each other in building up Christ’s kingdom on earth. We care far too much about our own turf, and not enough about other’s needs and ministries.
INDIVIDUALISM IN THE WEST:
A LOOK BACK AT HISTORY
Where did this independent, pioneering spirit come from?
Part of it, of course, comes from simple obedience to Christ and His Great Commission. The “deacon” Philip and the apostle Paul were “independent spirits,” if we can call them that, in taking the gospel to places where Christ was not known. Throughout the first 1500 years of church history, saints, hermits and monks took the Scriptures and carried it to far places such as northern and western Europe, and parts of Asia. Modern Protestant missionaries followed in the steps of these “independent spirits.”
Martin Luther’s Protestant Reformation was a call for the individual soul to be confronted with the grace of God, as offered through the blood of Jesus Christ shed on the cross. The individual soul’s burden of sin was lifted at the cross; he/she was justified by grace through faith. There is a strong drive to serve Christ and to glorify God, and often this takes the form of an individual commitment.
Since the Protestant Reformation, renewal movements had produced “independent spirits” who charted new courses for ministry. Puritanism was a call, mostly by ministers in England, for the church to thoroughly reform herself. Puritans wrote and preached about the need for continued, constant repentance: they challenged the individual soul to dig deep and examine himself/herself, and to grieve over sin. But Puritanism was not an individualistic movement in the 20th century sense of the word. Puritans sought to build communities: congregations of believers who covenanted with each other to form the Body of Christ; colonialists who migrated to America in order to build model communities of Christian corporate living, called “cities on a hill” (Matthew 5). The covenant idea brought both individual and community under the headship and lordship of King Jesus.
Pietism was a contemporary movement to English Puritanism, which grew on German soil in the 18th century. Pietists sought to renew the Lutheran church from lifeless orthodoxy, by stressing on a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. The early Pietists read works by English Puritans and Dutch Reformed church leaders. Although Pietists maintained highly organized, and effective, communities which modeled godly living, and which sent out some of the earliest modern Protestant missionaries, the legacy left by Pietism tended to be an individualistic search for deeper faith and devotion to Jesus Christ. Most British, European and North American missionaries who went to China in the 19th and 20th centuries were deeply influenced by German Pietism.
SECULAR SOURCES OF INDIVIDUALISM
The independent, pioneering spirit did not only have sources in church history. The United States was a nation built by immigrants (we may consider the Native Americans as an earlier wave of migrants from Asia!). After the Revolutionary War of 1776, citizens of this young nation moved from the East Coast westward into “virgin soil,” staking out new territory for settlement. Soon, churches and Christian colleges dotted the land from New England into the midwest and the deep south. Methodists and Baptists experienced particularly rapid growth from 1750 to 1850, largely because of the emphasis on revival and the individual’s relationship with God. Some historians of culture have noted an individualistic and a pragmatic spirit in the character of the American people; Asian people who move to the United States may soon notice the difference between Americans and East Asians. Andrew Jackson was an “ordinary person” who became the President of the United States in the 19th century; thus anyone can “make it” if he/she tried hard enough.
What was church life like in the small town in the midwest and the deep south in the 19th century? We can only guess, but there was a strong bond of family and community. When I visited churches and families in places like Mississippi, Alabama and Louisiana in the 1980s, American Christians would talk to me about dozens of their relatives all over the state. They would also show me their family cemetery, built just for members of their clan! It is against a background of warm community life, that we should understand the missionary who went to China in the 19th century.
IN 19TH CENTURY CHINA
When missionaries went to China, they left the small town/village and church in England, Europe and America, and began to labor in a small town/village in China during the Qing dynasty (1636-1911). Though the Christian message certainly included Jesus’ command to love one another, missionaries had to exhibit this love to everyone around them: their cooks, translators, household servants, landlords, those who came to listen to the message of the gospel, those who needed physical help, and intellectuals who sneered at this foreign, anti-Chinese religion. The result: a handful of converts turned to faith in Christ, and many of them were expelled from their family.
Individualism and community blended together, therefore, in the earliest Protestant churches in China in the 19th century. It was difficult to be a Chinese Christian; believers were despised as “er mao zi”, or “second-banana to the hairy barbarian.” Testimonies by Pastor His and Christiana Tsai (Queen of the Dark Chamber) testify to the great sacrifice a Chinese must make 100 years ago, in order to join the Body of Christ.
The new community, made up of missionary and convert, was committed to evangelize China. By the 1910s, evangelistic bands were organized by Chinese Christians to go to the furthest corners of China to preach the gospel there. The famous Bethel Evangelistic Band traveled in the 1930s, as did John Sung and others. The sheer vastness of the mission field – China and overseas Chinese people in Southeast Asia – challenged Chinese Christians in the early decades of the 20th century to give up all for Christ and for fellow Chinese souls.
By the 1950s Chinese Christians and western missionaries had discovered the strategic method of reaching young people first, then their families (parents) through them. We have further reinforced the individualistic version of Christianity, with the discovery of a variety of methods to reach modern men and women. Broken homes and broken lives make the need urgent to reach and to heal individuals in the name of Christ.
INDIVIDUALISM IN THE 21ST CENTURY
Chinese missionaries today are reaching out throughout the world, especially in the 10/40 window. Women and men are laboring in the farthest corners of the world – in Russia, in Southeast Asia, Africa – with an increasingly balanced support system from their home churches. Where are we headed? What shape will Christian individualism take in the 21st century?
The passion to reach lost souls, and to disciple believers for Christ must be maintained. As a matter of fact, with the rise of Generation X and Generation Y, postmodern Christians need to learn afresh the meaning of sacrifice, persistence, and dogged determination to go where Christ has not been named. We all need to learn the principle that: we must start well, and finish well (like the Apostle Paul). The determination in the pioneering spirit is a precious heritage to be passed on in the 21st century.
Postmodern Christians, however, are also keenly aware of the pitfalls of this individual, pioneering spirit. What is often sorely lacking, is teamwork and community.
As mission leaders reach retirement age in the west, and as Chinese church leaders also retire, we are entering a tremendously challenging and risky period of leadership transition.
How can a generation of middle-age Christians (like my own age group) strengthen teamwork and community, and to model these truths for a younger generation who will be leaders in the 21st century?
We need to be more transparent, and admit our sins and weaknesses. We need to admit that, although we are totally dedicated to Christ, we are not perfect. God is still working in our lives. Generations X and Y do not want to see perfect role models – they know that these do not exist! They want to see us struggling, falling, and then getting up again by the grace of God, to learn again, grow again, give again, serve again.
And we need to get up and grow again, with the help of others. This is often easier said than done. And we need the help of all kinds of fellow Christians – Chinese, fellow Asians, westerners, other Third World brothers and sisters.
Over 10 years ago, Dr. Philemon Choi wrote an article in Na Han magazine (Hong Kong), entitled, “I need brothers.” Should we renew this call as the 21st century dawns?
Dr. Samuel Ling is president of China Horizon
(www.chinahorizon.org), and associate professor
of systematic theology at International Theological Seminary in Los Angeles.