Last week I stopped into Beijing, as one does, and went to a church called Next. This church is part of the larger BICF, but it meets separately in this funky restaurant. They were a wonderful and whacky group of young internationals and they asked me to share a story. OK . . . why not?
I told them the story of a Chinese book that changed my life, a book that is celebrating its 100th year anniversary this year.
The book, Missionary Methods: St Pauls or Ours (1911), by an Englishman named Roland Allen, was a harsh critique of Western missionary methods that the author found to be unsustainable and quite unhelpful.
Somebody say “MISSIONARY COMPOUND” and keep a straight face.
Allen recommended going back to the New Testament [HELLO!] to discover the way of Jesus and his disciples, something that he felt would enable a more indigenous and less Western approach to ministry. His book was based on insights from China as well as a search of the Scriptures regarding how the Apostle Paul achieved such remarkable results.
In many ways, the book was forgotten for its first 50 years, as the author anticipated, but was re-released to the world through Bishop Lesslie Newbigin who wrote a glowing intro to the book and highly recommended it to a Western world struggling with a post-Christian identity. Allen’s later book, The Spontaneous Expansion of the Church and the causes which hinder it (1927) was also helpful in moving the church to its roots with a more simple and reproducible strategy.
The lack of Chinese-oriented books that teach an indigeonous Chinese way of following Jesus and doing ministry in a Chinese context worries me. And not just China. When I was in Hong Kong the week earlier, I asked a Seminary student what Chinese books he was studying and he stared back blankly, not able to name a single book.
“What about Watchman Nee? The Normal Christian Life?”
“Ahhhhh . .. No”
Now that worries me!
The church in China is vibrant and strong, growing rapidly over the past 60 years to become one of the largest in the world with some estimates as high as 130 million, a number including registered and unregistered churches.
THEY MUST HAVE DONE SOMETHING RIGHT!
On the other hand, the church in the West has not grown for 150 years and today it is in deep, deep trouble. Why should be we exporting our dysfunctional, resource-sucking church models to the world when other countries have already discovered a better way? The Chinese have much to teach us, and much to teach themselves, based on a rich heritage including both Chinese leaders and missionaries like Matteo Ricci who is still honored in China today. I hope to see more Chinese-inspired and Chinese-authored books available in the future, not just in China, but around the world.
Related on TSK: Roland Allen and megachurches on the internet
I agree that the world doesn’t need more market driven Christianity of western culture imported to their shores. The U.S. may be great at marketing capitalism, but much of our brand of Christian evangelism is woefully lacking. Western Christianity has been influenced too much by its self-centered, materialistic culture. Eastern cultures, at least until recently, have emphasized the importance of family and relationships. An authentic, discipleship based model of Christianity will bring stronger and longer lasting results. Asians need a demonstration of authentic Christianity, not popular American Christianity.
People would write books about expressions of church and ways to do ministry if there was a chance that the book would be profitable or even make up losses. Unfortunately, they don’t. So the ideas are expressed in other forms, or not at all.
Americans are interested in reading books about church expression in Australia or the UK, but not in Africa or Asia. Local markets are too small to entice practitioners to spend that much time in a room, writing.
One of the difficulties in truly contextualizing church and the gospel for urban Asians is that on a surface level their lives have come to resemble Westerners in so many ways – they drink coffee at Starbucks, wear jeans, watch Hollywood blockbusters, etc.
The challenge is that many unspoken assumptions lie beneath the surface. Many Chinese are not aware of the influence that Confucianism has on their thought processes and values, especially in Mainland China where Confucius has just been rehabilitated after 50 years of suppression.
Many of the revolutionary developments in missionary activity came in missions to China and similar places which already had a flourishing civilization. Matteo Ricci couldn’t rely on contemporary practices in places like South America and Africa where the missionaries came with civilization and technology that far exceeded that of those they ministered to.
It forced him to learn the Chinese culture and understand them, because it was not immediately obvious to them that he had something worthwhile to offer. Unfortunately papal politics went against him, and all of his influence, which included having the ear of the emperor was lost in the following generations.