Interview: Rev. Allen Swanson, Veteran Taiwan Missionary

Rev. Allen Swanson has served in Taiwan for 27 years. A well-respected church planter and observer on church growth, Swanson has seen the evolution of Taiwan’s churches from its humble beginnings in t
( [email protected] ) Mar 22, 2006 04:02 AM EST

Rev. Allen Swanson has served in Taiwan for 27 years. A well-respected church planter and observer on church growth, Swanson has seen the evolution of Taiwan’s churches from its humble beginnings in the early 1960s to its maturity by the 1990s.

In 1975, Swanson was invited by request of James Hudson Taylor II – grandson of missions pioneer Hudson Taylor – to be the first mission professor at the then-fledgling China Evangelical Seminary in Taiwan. During his time in Taiwan, Swanson has authored several books about the situation of local churches.

Swanson also served as pastor of St. Andrew International Church in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, and Pastor of Evangelism and Mission at a mega-church in St. Paul, MN, before retiring with his wife in Gainesville, GA.

What was your first impression of Taiwan when you first arrived in 1962?

When arrived in 1962, it had been 12 years since Communism swept over China – 12 years since the refugees arrive in Taiwan. I used to publish books on church growth in Taiwan – four or five books. This woman who spoke at my wife’s church told us to come to Taiwan, and that the door was wide open. But, when we got there in 1962, the door was not so wide open.

In [1990s] Russia, for example, when the door opened everyone went there and there were thousands of conversions. When the door opens – [as] it happened in Japan after WWII and in Taiwan after 1949 – it usually comes when the foundation of a nation has been shaken. People have lost their confidence in their traditions. People are looking for answers. Then there comes the settling down period. Then that hunger becomes to subside and they go back to their old ways. This is what Jesus meant when He said that when sowing the seeds, you look at the good ground that has been prepared. Often times, that good ground has been prepared by tragedy, hunger, sorrow, destruction of traditions, and the things that you hold most valuable.

When we arrive in Taiwan, we thought things were starting to settle. There were still many problems. In my research in Taiwan, I found that in the Mandarin churches 75 percent of the pastors were "tui xiu jun ren" (retired soldiers). Most of them came in the church in the 1940s and 1950s. They had been fighting the landlords, then the Japanese and then the Communists. All they knew was fighting. When they came to Taiwan in 1949, they had nothing. They are open to the gospel, they accepted Jesus. Many missionaries came, [the pastors] said we needed more "chuan dao ren" (missionaries). So, we [Americans] sent many "chuan dao ren."

So, they became pastors, but many of them were still soldiers. Only instead of fighting the Japanese and the Communists, they were fighting for the Lord – or often each other. I wrote about this in my books in the olden days – my first book was in 1970. So, there was a lot of conflict, a lot of instability. As the harvest decreased, they began to turn in.

When you lose the vision for the harvest field; that is when you begin to turn in. A healthy church is the church that keeps looking out. An unhealthy church is a church that looks in; then we have conflicts. So, we did have conflict. After five years, when we came home, we said, "We weren’t going back." My wife almost had a nervous breakdown. It was very hard.

There were conflicts and fighting, between Chinese and missionaries, and Chinese and Chinese. Not all of them, but mainly between churches that had people from the Mainland. The Taiwanese churches were different. The "zhang lao jiao hui" (Presbyterians) and "fen di jiao hui" (regional churches); they were all different.

So afterwards, God led us to Pasadena, CA, where I went to Fuller Theological Seminary to get a degree. I said, "Lord, if I cannot understand what happened, I will not go back!" My wife and I went to Fuller in the early days, and God opened our eyes and gave us a new understanding.

So, what was the new understanding you received?

I did a study. I published a book. I did a study on the Assemblies of God, the Southern Baptists, the Presbyterians, and the Lutherans. Then I compared them with the so-called "di fang jiao hui" (Local Church), "ju hui suo" (Assembly Hall), "zhen ye su jiao hui" (True Jesus Church). I began to notice that these big churches had many people, but no missionaries. All the churches that had missionaries were small churches.

So, I asked, "What were the missionaries supposed to do?" I began befriending the "ju hui suo" and the "zhen ye su jiao hui", and studied them. I also studied the "wu yong" Church, a local church. I began asking questions. What was the secret of their growth? What is the role of the missionaries? These were the questions that I had. I began to discover answers. Because that book [on my findings] was published, that shook up a lot of people.

In 1975, James Taylor, who had read the book, said, "Would you come up to this seminary, and start our department of cross-cultural missions." That was our experience. I began to realize the importance of missionaries, but more importantly how much we make mistakes. We make a lot of mistakes. [I found out] how easily it was for us to not move in as servants, but as teachers and masters.

I had missionaries whom have said to me, "If I cannot be in control of these committees, I will go back home." But, [I felt], "You didn’t come here to be a boss. You came here to be a servant." I really believe we must humble ourselves and go as servants and not [as] masters. Now, we can go as teachers.

When I go to Moscow now, [for example], I find that Campus Crusade bring all these people and pastors who "jiang de li hai" (speak mightily). I asked, "Do you ever go to a Russian church? Are you spending any time learning Russian history? Do you take the students out for lunch and talk with them?" How will they understand? I would take the students one by one, [asking them], "Tell me how you became Christian? What is God doing in Russia?" And they say, "You are different. You asked questions about us. You are interested in us. The others just come to impart information."

I learned this from a language teacher in Taipei, in the very beginning. And she said, "You are different from the other students. You ask a lot of questions." Many of the missionaries come to give us answers. I never forgot that.

If I just come [saying], "Yes, Jesus is the answer," I would just give them answers and not listen to them. One time, there was a famous professor from Stanford University, and he had written books on Taiwan folk-religion. There was this great opportunity to learn about Taiwan folk-religion. This is what they believe. If you want to share the gospel, you have to know what they think. Nobody went. Why? [They say], "They say we don’t need to learn from them, we are here to preach the gospel." That is not being the servant. That is not the servant. The servant is willing to walk among them like Jesus. A lot of missionaries come [saying], "I will teach you."

They should come thinking, "Yes, I have a message. Yes, I come here to prepare and teach you. But, I must be willing to walk with you, to learn from you, to ask questions from you, and to listen to your heart." I had a lot of students whom I asked, "How I can pray for you?" They become my teachers. I feel that is so important. I feel it is important to listen to what they are saying. Listen to their heart – win their confidence. When you win their confidence, then you have the authority to share the message. But if they don’t trust you, why should they believe you? And for Chinese, trust is important. Relationships are very important. If you don’t take time to cultivate a relationship, you have no message.

I realize what was being passed as effective missionary work was not all that effective. Often times, we [Americans] go out with the power of an American passport, the power of an American budget, power of American education, and we overwhelm them. And, we would go to Taiwan, and build a church. Then, we would go back to America, and show churches this is what your money built. And, I realized there was something wrong – during the first time when I began to interview churches. Many of them were mainland [people] churches.

The missionaries say, "Because you are poor, we will come here to build churches for you." But, there was no ownership. They would say this is missionary so-and-so’s church, and that is missionary so-and-so’s church. And then, I came to understand why Lee Dong Shen, Watchman Nee, True Jesus Church, and some of the others don’t want to be part of that. [They say], "We want to trust the Lord, not the missionaries."

That is true. We have to be careful. If we have too much power and too much money, they trust us. And, they don’t learn how to trust the Lord. That is why churches like "di fang jiao hui" want to be alone.

It took me many years to convince my missions director in New York that the Chinese can pay for their own seminary, "hua shen" (China Evangelical Seminary). He said, "Oh, they don’t have that kind of ability." I said, "Yes, they do. Come and see what God is doing with committed Chinese whom have the vision to build a seminary without American money." And they did it, with their own money to build their own seminary.

Often times, when a missionary comes, they say, "I will do it for you." That’s not what we are supposed to do. We are supposed to help it become their [ownership]. Missionaries who are not trained cross-culturally often time misinterpret this. And I saw this repeated at the New Life Bible School during my time in Moscow, as well. So many of these Americans say, "Well, I am successful, so I will tell you the secret of my success." They didn’t understand their students or the culture of the land.

How was the environment of Taiwan back in 1962, when you first arrived to do missions?

There was a lot of fear at the time. There was fear that the Communists would cross over into Taiwan. There was a lot of propaganda that [the GMD] would return to China soon. And, there was an openness to the gospel, but not like the 1950s.

So, there comes time for a big harvest and the big [spiritual] harvest was in 1950s. Then, comes the discipleship training the development of the solid churches – the educating and maturing of churches. The next generation is not as receptive.

Now, it is easy when everyone is receptive and you throw some seeds [of the gospel] out and receive a big harvest. But, it is not always that easy. There are no fast results. The spiritual situation in 1960s was gradually getting stable.

As the situation became more stable, they began to have more self-confidence. And, with new self-confidence, comes less needs. We have to face this challenge. Always, effective evangelism is two things. This is not my idea, Paul Younghe Chou in Korea said, "You need to find a need, and meet it. You have to find the hurt, and heal it." If they have no defined needs and hurt, then they have no need for the gospel.

That is why Jesus said, "Those who are well have no need for a physician. I came to call the sick not the healthy." We are all sick, but many of us don’t know it. So, the gospel has to show where are your hurts, fear and insecurity, and the gospel can speak for that.

The hurts and fear in Taiwan became a different kind of fear. It became a disillusionment, often times with the government. Even with human relationships. There was disillusionment that even money couldn’t solve their problems. There was disillusionment as marriages began going through strain and fall apart – great feelings of pain with mother-in-laws and daughter-in-laws.

My wife would always get an audience when she talked about problems with mother-in-laws, and she began to speak with those needs. Slowly, the fear of the Communists gave way to [feelings of] security and less openness to the gospel, but new family and social problems. And those [needs] became the entry point for the gospel.

How has the church in Taiwan progressed in the length of your time from the 1960s to the 1990s?

You know, when missions comes to a new environment, and you establish an infant church, and in the early stage like [raising] a child, you have to be the parent. But after awhile, the child grows up. All Chinese parents struggle with this – give the child freedom. Allow the child to become an adult. Do not try to control the child.

Often times, the missionary tries to control the church. But church has to grow up. It is the same thing with Chinese parents. I won’t let my child grow up. I have to make the decisions for them. But, the child wants to be free.

What we saw in the 1950s was that churches were being planted, most of the time by missionaries, for mainland Chinese. Taiwanese churches were different. They had at least one hundred years of history.

By the 1960s, the churches [that] were planted were beginning to grow and needed to develop leadership and training. The [local] leaders that were being trained were still in junior high school and senior high school. Education was going up. Missionaries who did not let go were stuck.

In 1970, "di fang jiao hui" (Local Church) said we don’t believe in theological education. But it is the 1970s, times have changed. People are becoming educated. More and more [people] were going to college. Our pastors did not go to college, but we need to improve theological training. That is when they started "hua shen" (China Evangelical Seminary). Twenty different churches came together including Campus Crusade and Morley Lee (Li Xiu Quan). [They said] we Chinese are going to start our own school; we are going to develop our own leaders, and we don’t need to be dependent on the missionaries to do this anymore. This was what was so exciting about "hua shen". There was a new vision – Chinese creating their own vision, training their own pastors apart from the missionaries. So, when I was invited to come to "hua shen" in 1975, I was just an associate professor. I had no leadership role. I was just a teacher. It was a Chinese school from beginning to end. And, you saw the church maturing.

I came to learn something when I came to Taiwan. The church in Taiwan in the 1950s-60s had many problems. And many people said, "We are going to solve those problems." They would come to me, and say, "We still have those problems." That is why Moses needed 40 years in the wilderness. It took 40 years because the first generation is often the generation that "came out of Egypt" – not very mature. It took the second generation to go to the Promise Land.

I saw this generation mature by the 1970s-80s. I saw more and more leaders coming forth. By the mid-80s, I felt that I didn’t wasn’t needed in Taiwan anymore. These Chinese have become very sophisticated. My ten students whom I was mentoring with were college graduates. Three had Masters, and three had a Ph.D. I understood what it was like to be Moses, standing at the Jordan River, looking over to the other side, and God saying to Moses, "You’re not needed anymore. Joshua will take over."

I left in 1990. I felt like I was standing at the Jordan River. This is the new church, this is a new generation. These new leaders are gifted and talented – far superior in training, wisdom than in the 1950s and 1960s. That is called people growth. And I saw a church that was just an exciting church. So I thought, "Lord, they belong to you. I’ve done my role. They’ve grown up. They are the leaders." I’ve seen this infant church [once] filled with squabbling leaders, but now an adult churches taking command and marching to the front lines.

So more specifically, what was the situation of Taiwan’s churches in 1990, just right after you left?

There was a lot of zeal and enthusiasm. They had a movement that I was kind of part of an "yiwan jiao hui yun dong" (ten thousand churches movement). They had a goal to set up ten thousand churches and two million believers. I had a feeling that it wouldn’t be so easy. There was almost too much enthusiasm on the simple method of building the churches, from half a million to two million [believers], one thousand to ten thousand [churches]. One of the famous leaders Xia Zhong Jian (Rev. James Shia), who shared this vision, discovered that is easy to have a slogan, but making the strategy is difficult.

But, it’s their struggle. God raised up these Chinese leaders. They have to struggle with it. And the last time I went back to Taiwan, they didn’t come close to their goal because it was more than setting a goal. But they still have the vision. What they were struggling with was connecting the gospel to the spirit of the Chinese culture, the Chinese soul, in the way that it connects with them.

What did you do after leaving Taiwan?

In 1993, we were [considering] ministering in Melbourne, Australia. There were 17 Chinese churches in Melbourne, and they were trying to put together a Methodist union worship. There was a large church there that had 390 [people] – English, Cantonese and Mandarin. They heard we were leaving from Malaysia. They invited my wife and me to work with them [in Melbourne].

But the Lord led us back to our old home in Minnesota. Primarily, the main reason why we didn’t go to Melbourne is because the Chinese taught us very well that we have responsibilities for our parents. And, my father died when we were in Taiwan. My wife’s father died when we were in Taiwan, and only one was left – my wife’s mother. And no one was there to take care of her, and she was sick. She was 83, and she had cancer. So, we struggled. We prayed, "Lord, you are leading us to the Chinese church in Australia, and my mother-in-law had cancer."

So, God opened this door for us to work in a church back home. I knew very well it was one of these "megachurches," and they said we are looking for director of missions. So, I took over as the director of missions in evangelism and discipleship. And there were five people in my department, working in overseas missions, local urban missions, discipleship training, [and] small groups. And, this was a big church. God opened the door and kept us there. And, for the next eight years we were totally immersed in a new culture – which was the "American culture."

We had some friends in a church in Taiwan. I cherish the opportunity to speak with them again. But, we lost contact. I would speak at the Twin City Chinese Church. There were three or four of that "hua ren jiao hui" (Chinese church) in Minneapolis, MN. And then, I spoke with different kinds of people in mission conferences in Chicago, or other places.

I even spoke at the University of Minnesota. I was involved with the Chinese Hospitality Center. And, so we had an English program for Mainland Chinese, and helped them start a church for Mainland Chinese called the Faith Chinese Church in St. Paul, MN. That came out of the student center at the St. Paul campus. My main job was to work with Caucasians, though.

Then, we moved to Atlanta. [Pastor] Zhou Zhijian (Rev. Jonathan Chiu) was there. He said, "Come over and help me at my church." Zhou mushi (Pastor Chiu) and I were old coworkers back in Taiwan when he was the Campus Crusade director. When we arrived several months ago, Zhou mushi left Atlanta, and came to California.

And, so we got re-immersed in the Caucasian church. I spoke at Chinese Christian mission conferences in Atlanta and Washington – but not too much. This is the first time, in many years; we have been back to an inter-church mission conference. We used to do this a lot in Taiwan. But now, this is like opening old doors all over again. We have been gone for twelve years. We are back in what we were pretty much involved in when we were in Taiwan.

We don’t know where the Lord is leading us, but we trust in him. We are not as young as we used to be, but we have had our experiences.