China Needs a Stronger Messenger: An Appeal to the American Church

( [email protected] ) Jun 23, 2005 11:14 AM EDT

China today is undergoing an unprecedented total transformation. She is a contradiction in terms: a communist dictatorship overseeing a capitalist economy. A socialist society only 25 years ago, she is facing the rise of a new postmodern generation of young people. China also faces some fundamental options. What will be the core values of her worldview as she steps into the 21st century? Which ideas will guide her future? From a Christian perspective, there seems to be four alternatives for China to choose from:

1. An angry, anti-foreign nationalism;

2. A resurgence of folk and native religions;

3. The pursuit of money and pleasure; or

4. The Christian worldview.

There is ample evidence for the first three. As for the influence of the Christian worldview, this is dependent on the sovereign grace of our God, and a strong presence of Christians in China, both native mainland Chinese, and Christians from overseas, living out the power of the kingdom as salt and light. There is no short cut in influencing China; it takes painstaking, patient work, building relationships, influencing institutions such as the school and the family. It yields incredible rewards.

Today, the gospel of the kingdom of God is proclaimed in China by three parties. They often do not know each other, but they are nevertheless partners in the gospel. The first is the indigenous church in China. This includes the unregistered and the registered churches, as well as the many groups of students, professors and professionals studying the Bible in small groups.


The second “hidden partner,” often not known to Christians from the west, is the overseas Chinese church. Chinese Christians from Taiwan, Hong Kong, Southeast Asia, North America and elsewhere are deeply involved in serving and supplying the church in China, as well as commercial and non-profit enterprises in China. The third the is the church from west and other parts of the world.

Christians from the west often do not know about the tremendous influence which the overseas Chinese church has on the mainland Chinese church. Overseas Chinese Christians are the most important outside sources of Bibles and training materials for the mainland Chinese church! It is unfortunate that western Christians do not meet overseas Chinese Christian in China service. It is high time that they did.


There is a tremendous information gap that exists in the field of China service today. An incredible amount of information – news, Christian inspirational writing, and theological scholarship – is pouring out from the overseas Chinese church, from centers such as Hong Kong, Taipei, Singapore and North America. The western church does not read these materials, and as a result, often do not know about the major role played by the overseas Chinese church in China. The western church often has no access to these materials, because the overwhelming majority of these materials is published in Chinese. There is a bottleneck of strategic information badly needed by western Christians for an in-depth understanding of the Chinese world. The overseas Chinese do not have the manpower (nor the desire, sometimes) to make a systematic effort to translate every important book or document into English. Overseas Chinese may not even know that there is such a need. For the sake of more effective kingdom service in China, we need to break this bottleneck. How?

John Naisbitt wrote an outstanding book in 1996, Megatrends Asia. He points out that the network of overseas Chinese in Southeast Asia is the most important “network” in the Pacific Rim (and the Pacific Rim is the most strategic region in the world, bar none). In his concluding section, Naisbitt calls upon American young people to go to Asia, and to learn Mandarin, in order for America to remain competitive in the world. His headlines read: “Go East, Young Man,” and “Mandarin Takes Center Stage.”


How true this is for the outreach of the church in China service. The North American church needs to commission and groom a new generation of China hands for the 21st century. They do not grow on trees! We have to groom them. Ninety-five years ago, Timothy Richard, a brilliant Welsh Baptist missionary in China, called for “statesmen” to be stationed in China for the sake of Christian influence on China’s leaders:

Let the missionary societies provide eighteen missionary statesmen who shall have, after their university career, a post-graduate course in Comparative Religion, and in the Science of Religious Missions, Christian and non-Christian, who are to be placed one in each provincial capital of the Empire (average population of each province is twenty million), where they will keep the leading mandarins in their respective provinces well informed with regard to the leading factors in the progress of all nations, will co-operate with all the missionary societies in the province, and help to organize the best forces, so as to produce the highest good (Timothy Richard, The China Problem, From a Missionary Point of View, London, 1905, pp. 4-6).

These are prophetic words. China needs these “statesmen” of the Christian church more than ever, in the 21st century.

I propose a 8-12 year plan to nurture such ambassadors. It usually begins with the stirrings of the Spirit of God in the heart of a young person. Result: he/she spends a summer, maybe just a week or two, in China. Result? He/she leaves his/heart in China! More prayer, reading, sharing of vision follow. After a year or two, he/she applies for a one-year or two-year stay in China, teaching English or studying Chinese. He/she returns to North America, ready to enroll in Bible college or seminary. (This needs to take place in a school which truly believes in the absolute trustworthiness and inerrancy of the Scriptures.) Two to four more years pass. Another two- or three-year term in China follows. By now this person is convinced that God wants him/her to be make China service a career. He/she needs, at this point, to settle down to a master’s or doctoral program, which includes at least 2 years of study in Mandarin. The language study, of course, can take place in China during any one of the terms of service in China. The point is: the study of the language and history of China, combined with solid theological training (grounded in an unswerving belief in the inspired, inerrant Scriptures), are both foundational to the development of “China experts” for the western church.

The church in China needs Christ’s representatives from the west who have a strong, unqualified confidence in the Bible, the inerrant Word of God, and who bring China a high view of God, Scripture and the cross. What China needs in the 21st century more than anything else, is a clear message of the sound, complete gospel, not a watered-down version.


America’s evangelical churches and seminaries are now slipping; many professors of Bible can no longer say, without qualification, that the Bible is inerrant.

This is in part due to the trend among American evangelicals to seek higher, doctoral degrees in Britain, Europe, or in North America’s secular graduate schools. I may venture to say that the majority of evangelicals who started off in graduate studies in these schools as an unswerving evangelical (with absolute confidence in the Bible) end up, by the time they receive their doctorates, with a weaker, not a stronger, faith in the Bible. This is easily detected by reading journal articles and books by evangelicals. The vigilance against erosion of faith in the church is sorely missing (with rare, notable exceptions, of course). This is true in the American church as well as in the overseas Chinese church!

This is very serious. The cost to China is very high.


I use the example of the colorful career of Timothy Richard to illustrate how the best of intentions in missions is no guarantee for doctrinal orthodoxy. Richard had a very enlightened view of missions: as a student in Haverfordshire in England, he wanted his seminary to offer Asian languages and history as preparation for missionary work. He saw through direct involvement in disaster relief, that education was China’s greatest need. He dialogued with Confucian and Buddhist scholars, and befriended them sincerely. He introduced science, history and other branches of western learning to China. He hired Liang Qichao in 1895 to be his secretary; Liang was a leader in the 1890s, belonging to the younger generation of radical scholars who called upon the Emperor to institute a constitutional monarchy. Richard translated dozens of books and booklets into Chinese, including a 19th century history of Europe. He assumed the leadership of the Society for the Diffusion of Knowledge (SDK). Richard had a very broad concept of the mission of this translation work:

Christian literature is all that literature which best enables us to do the Will of the Father in all the relations of life. It is co-extensive with the works of God and commensurate with the needs of man (Timothy Richard, “Christian Literature,” Chinese Recorder, 21;12, December 1900, 597-603).

What a wonderful vision of God’s providence and our call to provide for our fellow-men!

His contemporary, the American Presbyterian missionary Calvin Mateer, had a similarly broad vision of reaching the Chinese mind through reaching China’s intelellectual leaders through Christian schools:

There is a grand comprehensiveness in the command to disciple all nations. He who thinks it simply calls Christians without plan or organization, to seek the conversion of the largest number in the shortest time, has a very inadequate idea of its scope. It means not only to make disciples, but to make the nations Christian nations, to destroy heathenism and to cause Christian faith and morals to interpenetrate the whole structure of society. … In a word it means to give to the whole world all the blessings which Christianity has to bestow (Calvin Mateer, “The Relations of Protestant Missions to Education,” Records of the General Conference of Protestant Missionaries in China, 1877, pp. 173-176).


As Richard was busy translating books into Chinese and encouraging the radical reformers of China in the 1890s, Abraham Kuyper, Holland’s prime minister and founder of the Free University of Amsterdam, addressed Princeton University in the 1890s. The famous Stone Lectures have since been published under the title, Lectures in Calvinism. Kuyper, a theologian in his own right, reminded the church in America never to forget that the primary battle in history will always be an antithesis between truth and error, God-centered culture and man-centered culture. Kuyper’s theological descendants include Cornelius Van Til (Westminster Seminary) and Herman Douyeweerd (whose students staff the Institute of Christian Studies, Toronto).

This call to soberness and battle needed to be heard again today in the church in America, and among America’s cross-cultural servants in China.

Richard and his fellow reformer-missionaries, some of the most brilliant minds whom the church in England and America sent to China, became Universalists by the 1910s. They no longer believed in the exclusive claims of the gospel of Jesus Christ. John Fryer, English missionary, saw the emergence of a union of all the world’s religions. Listen to Richard’s grand vision:

I don’t believe the Mohammedans are unchristian in their worship of one true God instead of idols. I don’t believe that the high moral teaching of any religion is devilish and unchristian. Christianity has the power of assimilating all that is good in other religions. We come here to counteract their false teachings and to fill up what is wanting just as Christ came not to destroy but to fulfill (Timothy Richard to Baynes, Shansi, May 18, 1894; quoted in Rita Therese Johnson (Sister M. Virginia Therese, M.M.), Timothy Richard’s Theory of Christian Missions to the Non-Christian World, Ph.D. dissertation, St. John’s University, Jamaica, New York, 1966, pp. 70-71).


Why? Richard and Fryer did not sail from Britain as liberals or Universalists. They were zealous evangelicals, burning with the fire of revival. What happened? What led to this downward spiral of doctrinal belief and vigilance? Was it the fact that he was enamored with Buddhism? No, I think not. He changed because he was enamored with the sleeping but awakening giant: China, represented by her most brilliant minds, the scholars/intellectuals, and he was not alert enough to realize his own need to keep his doctrinal vigilance. Listen to Calvin Mateer’s optimistic hope for China:

The days of China’s seclusion from the rest of the world are numbered. Whether she will or not the tide of western civilization and progress is rolling in upon her, and its resistless might will certainly overflow the land. Not only so, but many of her own people are inquiring after and eager to learn the science which has made the west so great, and whose fame has already filled China to its remotest corner. There are two sufficient reasons why Christian missionaries should strive to prepare men to lead in the great transformation which is bound to be wrought in China. First, it is a good thing in itself. It will bring to China unnumbered blessings, physical, social, and political. Moreover true science and the arts which proceed from it, will effectually uproot heathen superstition, and if rightly controlled and directed, prepare a highway for the general triumph of Christianity. This leads to the second reason, which is, that if conscientious and Christian men are not forthcoming to control and direct this movement, it will be controlled by heathen and infidel men. Science and art and material improvement, will fall into the hands of the enemies of Christianity, and will be used by them as a mighty engine to hinder the progress of truth and righteousness. Science is either the ally of religion, or her most dangerous enemy. It is a grand opportunity which the Christian church has, to train u the men who shall take the lead in, and leaven with Christian truth the great mental and physical transformation, which western science and civilization is soon to make in China (Mateer, Records of the General Conference, 1877, 173-176).

Mateer was sober to realize that, if Christians do not bring science (and with it, Christianity at the core of it) to China, someone else will!

Mateer and Richard were truly prophetic. Their words sound so contemporary when we read them in the year 2000! Their vision of China opening up reminds us of the thousands of English teachers and students who learn from western English teachers in China’s universities. They remind us of the “Cultural Christians” and other “Scholars in Mainland China Studying Christianity,” eager for an in-depth understanding of what the Christian faith can do for China.

Yet … the slide toward universalism is a real possibility – then, and now.



Lesson for us to learn: keep theological education, sound, biblical, evangelical training, as a life-long part of the diet of our English teachers, expatriate business and corporate executives, and other Christian professionals serving in China. Keep them faithful to the Word of God!

Today we are sending English teachers, doctors, and businesspeople in the name of Christ to China. (Some are going to China without being sent by the church; the church is too slow to respond, so off they went!) We, too, are enamored by the awakening giant: except this time, the giant has awakened. Half of the world’s operating building cranes are in Shanghai: 20,000 of them. China is open to religious studies programs at universities; doctoral programs in religious (Christian) studies have already been launched in at least five universities, and more are opening up. English teachers for China’s universities and schools are welcome; many other forms of Christian involvement are likewise possible! We need to reach out to China in a spirit of friendship, servanthood, and dignity, offering to be a blessing and friend to China, without jeopardizing the safety of the church of Jesus Christ in that land. Why should we, the Christians from the west, be perceived as China’s enemy?

All of this is wonderful; the American church can do much of this, which the overseas Chinese church cannot. The overseas Chinese church, of course, can do certain things which the American church cannot do, in China.


We cannot afford to offer China a watered down version of the Word of God:

1. We must proclaim a God who is “infinite, eternal and unchangeable in his being, wisdom, power, holiness, justice, goodness and truth,” not a God who is so open and vulnerable to our fragile existence, that our surprises are God’s surprises too (Clark Pinnock’s chapter in The Openness of God, Inter Varsity Press, 1995, p. 114). Broken hearts and lives need a strong Savior, not just a sympathetic friend who will walk with them.

2. We must make the claim that Scripture is the divine address of a king, not just a document which witnesses to and record the eternal-existential encounter which is the Word of God (Karl Barth, Epistle to the Romans – currently very popular among American and Chinese evangelical theologians, like never before).

3. We must proclaim the cross of the Lord Jesus Christ as propitiation for the sins of men and women, not just as therapy for broken lives. The gospel has therapeutic powers and fruits; but therapy is not the gospel!

4. We must not forget that God has revealed himself through (a) the things which were created, and (b) his work in human hearts. This is general revelation. Man’s culture, art, philosophy and religion is NOT general revelation; they are man’s response to God’s revelation, subject to error and idol-building! We, in our benevolence, often say that God has revealed himself to the Chinese people through Chinese-language characters, and ideas in Confucius and Lao Tzu. Nothing can be more dangerous than this: the implications are enormous, for accommodation, syncretism, and paganization of the church in China.

5. We must affirm that the church’s mission in China is threefold: (a) evangelization, for the conversion of men, women and children; (b) the maturing of the church (which is a much better term, in my view, than indigenization or contextualization; contextualization is infected with Marxian epistemology at its base). The work of English teachers and other professionals in China contribute in a very valuable way to all three aspects of the goal! But we must not do one at the expense of another.

Major donors to the church’s seminaries, agencies and foreign ministries must inquire if our seminaries and our missionaries still believe in the inerrant Word of God, the Bible. Students and local churches must do likewise.


The 21st century faces a global challenge from a deconstructive philosophy, “deconstructionism.” This philosophy claims that:

1. Words have no meaning (they are arbitrary signs).

2. Signs are often merely tools of political oppression.

3. History has no facts (only interpretation).

4. The universe has no truth, only narratives.

This assault on language is not only taught in America’s literature, art, sociology, film and architecture classrooms; it is studied in China with tremendous interest! (Cf. “Wake Up Call: Facing the Crises of Our Time,” at “Publications,”

We need church leaders to write and to speak out, to reaffirm our belief that language is adequate as a tool for God’s revelation. And we need to reaffirm verbal, prepositional revelation. Few theologians are doing so these days.


I call upon the church in America to wake up from her pragmatic slumbers, and to re-affirm Scripture as verbal revelation, the very words of God. We must reaffirm the absolute lostness of man and his need for salvation, which is available only on the basis of the blood of Jesus shed on the Cross at Calvary.

China, after going through the horrors of the Cultural Revolution (1966-76), wants healing for hearts. But she cannot afford to be comforted by the false hopes of humanism, only to have those hopes dashed. She needs a strong Savior, one whom men and women can know only by the regeneration of the Holy Spirit, using the infallible, inerrant and all-powerful Word of God, the Scriptures of the Old and New Testament.

If you are not prepared to firmly believe in, boldly defend and proclaim this inerrant Word of God and all the doctrines taught therein, please think twice before going to China. China needs a stronger messenger.

[Editor's Note: This article first appeared on May 11, 2000.]