For more than 30 years, the world has marvelled at the phenomenal Christian revival taking place in China, sometimes at seemingly break-neck speed. There is little doubt that much of this astonishing growth and outpouring of God’s Spirit was made possible by the sacrifice of many faithful martyrs. But there is another group of Chinese believers who have also sacrificed much, an often invisible but courageous group of believers who have played a critical role in church growth – China’s domestic missionaries.
Domestic missionaries reach out to one or more of the 55 ethnic minorities that comprise around 8.5 per cent of the Chinese population. Some of these ethnic groups fall into the ‘unreached people group’ category. Traditionally, domestic missionaries are sent out with little support from their home church with the expectation they will plant churches and become self-sufficient within a year or two. They are bold, determined and very sure of God’s calling and ongoing provision. However, sending churches are often unaware of the immense language and cross-cultural challenges, isolation, rejection or even persecution that domestic missionaries face from the people they endeavour to serve. Chinese missionaries often feel disgraced if they do not ‘succeed’ on the field, preferring to never return home rather than face the shame of failure.
Mr and Mrs Cheng* are one such couple. Their passion for the gospel and their love for the Buddhist-background students was always tempered by the constant pressure to make ends meet financially. The pressure eventually took its toll on their lives and their relationship. After years without a break, the Chengs found themselves spiritually and emotionally burnt-out, and their marriage at an all-time low. They were hardly communicating with each other. This is a common story not often told: many Christian marriages in China suffer due to the pressure to produce ‘results’ in ministry, often at the expense of family relationships.
The Chengs’ story is one of perseverance in what is one of the toughest mission fields in China. Despite losing the financial support of their sending church, suffering damage to their marriage, and physical, emotional and spiritual burnout, they have continued to be obedient to God’s call, and are seeing their efforts rewarded by God’s power and grace.
A ‘PECULIAR’ COUPLE
Mr and Mrs Cheng, a Han Chinese* couple who have been reaching out to a devout Buddhist ethnic minority in the west of China for many years, have had their work shut down by local authorities – just as they were beginning to see the fruit of their labour.
Knowing they were called to serve this specific group of Buddhist believers, the Chengs set out as evangelists with the support and blessing of their house church. However, they soon discovered that the ground was hard, needing to be softened and prepared very carefully before any seeds of the gospel could be sown. It was difficult to develop friendships and build rapport with families that were traditionally wary of their neighbours.
It took some time, but the families began to see that the Chengs were kind and caring – trust was building. The Chengs knew breakthrough would come one day, but sadly, as is often the case in China, and in spite of much sacrifice, their sending church decided to cut support to the Chengs due to so-called ‘poor results’ on the field.
It is true that by that time there was little tangible ‘fruit’, but the Chengs were not done yet.
So convinced were they of their calling, the Chengs pushed on by themselves despite having their support cut. They believed God for His grace to supply their spiritual needs, and His financial provision for the work. They were also motivated by the need to provide educational support for the high school-aged children of these minority families, who often struggle at school due to the language barrier, economic hardship at home, and ethnic isolation. So the Chengs decided to start a youth activity centre to help the children.
THE WORK GATHERS MOMENTUM
The Chengs’ home was not far from where the ethnic minority children studied and lived, so once the activity centre was set up it didn’t take long for the Chengs’ home to become a popular drop-in venue. Students could get help with their studies, as well as relax and enjoy the family atmosphere. The Chengs would often help the students with various challenges and even cook for them sometimes.
Back in their home village, the parents of these children were beginning to trust and appreciate this ‘peculiar’ Chinese couple. Some other evangelists visited the parents as well, adding trust and depth to the growing friendships. Such relationships were rare, but who wouldn’t be moved by the Chengs’ genuine love for the children and the way they served and taught them so they could one day enjoy a better standard of living?
God’s faithfulness was proven yet again when a house church from another province heard about the Chengs’ work and decided to support them. God had not abandoned them, and with renewed support the work began to gather momentum.
Gradually, the children and their parents came to understand that the love shown by this ‘peculiar’ couple was because the Chengs are followers of Jesus. For many Buddhists, religious devotion doesn’t mean they must read Buddhist scriptures, or even grapple with ‘truth’ – it’s simply all they’ve ever known. They follow family traditions. To them, adding another ‘god’ to the existing pantheon is not necessarily bad. But to be told that Jesus is the only way to God, the only eternal truth and the giver of life, is unthinkable. To then be told that God loves them and wants a personal relationship with them was, in their experience, almost laughable.
Yet the Chengs’ unconditional love was undeniably ‘out of this world’ and something the families had not experienced before. In the end, the parents were so touched that they allowed their children to visit the Chengs’ youth activity centre whenever they wished.
‘DISOBEYING OUR PARENTS CAUSES STRIFE AT HOME’
By mid-2018, a few children had become Christians and the Chengs began to teach them the Bible. The Chengs also found worship resources in the local dialect, so the new teenage believers could worship Jesus in their heart language. Soon, more of the students believed too, but some struggled with pressure from both family and culture to return to Buddhism. Even if they didn’t oppose the Chengs, as devout Buddhists the parents would still insist that their children worship the family idols – even if they knew their children had begun to follow Jesus.
“Sometimes it is really difficult,” a young believer from a Buddhist background said. “We know we shouldn’t bow to idols and we really don’t want to, but to disobey our parents would cause terrible strife at home.”
Recently, Open Doors teamed up with Mr and Mrs Cheng and another youth ministry to hold a youth camp customised for these eager Buddhist-background children. The camp was held in a remote village, and a dozen students took part – some of them new Christians, some very close to believing, and some just inquisitive. Prior to the camp, some children became Christians at the activity centre, and during the camp another two took that final step and surrendered to Jesus - they were baptised there at the camp!
DOMESTIC MISSIONARIES NEED LOVE AND SUPPORT
But just as the Chengs began seeing Buddhist background teenagers turn to Christ, the Chinese government launched a new initiative to restrict Christians from influencing children under 18 years of age. The police visited the Chengs and ordered them to stop what they were doing. They questioned them about foreign involvement, specifically about some foreigners who turned up at their vacation youth camps. The Chengs simply told the police they have no contact with anyone outside of China, so the police warned them one more time before leaving them alone.
Some of the new believers from Buddhist backgrounds graduated and moved away while a few remain in the area. The Chengs wanted to keep the momentum of Bible study and fellowship going, but the issue of their faltering marriage and spiritual burnout loomed large.
At this point, a supporting church stepped in. The church is one of a new generation of churches that have realised domestic missionaries need love and personal support if cross-cultural missions are to be lasting and effective. The church has given the Chengs one year off, except for some summer and winter vacation contact with the students.
Open Doors is working in partnership with the supporting church to help the Chengs work through marriage counselling, and to construct daily plans that balance ministry with quality time together. They will learn how to communicate effectively to hear and prefer one another. The church has scheduled time for them to visit their relatives, and have organised a vacation for them, a luxury almost never enjoyed by Chinese church leaders or those in ministry. The Chengs will attend regular meetings and church events without any pressure to perform. Already they are more relaxed than ever before, and their marriage is recovering quickly.
*The Han Chinese are an East Asian ethnic group that make up around 92% of the Chinese population.
Source: Open Doors