Because of its sheer size and the rapid growth of its Christian community, China demands that Christians from other countries engage in full partnership with Chinese Christians, noted missiologist Miriam Adeney told the Association of Presbyterian Mission Promoters here Dec. 1.

“China is the elephant in every room,” Adeney — professor of global and urban ministries at Seattle Pacific University and a longtime member of Seattle’s University Presbyterian Church — told the crowd of about 100 mission-minded Presbyterians

“China reminds us of two truths,” Adeney said, “We cannot practice the faith in isolation, and if any country refuses U.S. dominance, it’s China so partnership is essential.”

There are currently more than 80 million Christians in China, Adeney estimated. Some are officially recognized by the government and many are not. “There are at least 20 large unregistered house church networks in China,” Adeney said, adding that “most Christians don’t try to hide because the Chinese constitution guarantees freedom of religion.”

There is some discrimination and harassment, she noted, particularly in more rural areas. “But by far the biggest problems are the lack of  pastors and other trained leaders and a shortage of Bibles because of the explosive growth of the church.”

And economic reforms will soon lead to another crisis of faith in China, Adeney said. “Some believe there’s about a 10-year window of opportunity,” she said, “before materialism saps vitality.”

In the meantime, stories of faithful Chinese Christians abound. As she did throughout her four keynote presentations during the Nov. 30-Dec. 2 APMP conference here, Adeney illustrated her point with a stirring tale:

 A congregation on the island of Hainan sent a mission team to a tribal group on a neighboring island and the team was attacked by the suspicious natives. One Christian was killed in the attack and the rest fled. But three weeks later, Adeney said, the mission team returned, this time including the widow of the murder victim, a woman named Leong.

“Leong introduced herself to the tribal people” Adeney recalled, “and told them that her husband wasn’t dead but was in heaven. Then she said that he would have forgiven them and so she was and invited them to meet her later.

A number of the villagers accepted her offer and after further conversation, Adeney said, “several accepted Jesus Christ as their Savior, including the murderer! Would any of us have been able to do that?”

To understand that dynamic in China, Western Christians “need to work with and under indigenous leaders,” Adeney said. “We have to understand their life and culture in order to understand how to best do mission there.”

Three cultural factors come into play, Adeney said: the economic reality of the partner, the social reality (the networks and relationships that structure their lives) and their world view. “If we want to communicate and work effectively, we have to learn about their culture,” she said, “but more importantly we have to believe that cultures are a gift from God.”

That doesn’t mean blind acceptance of any culture, Adeney continued. “”We are all made in the image of God, but we are also flawed and so are our cultures — there is beauty and creativity on the one hand, but exploitation and idolatry on the other.

“And so our mission partnerships must also be characterized by love and affirmation on the one hand, and confrontation and judgment on the other,” she said. “But the judges should always finally be the indigenous leaders who are immersed in the cultural context in which we partner.”

Long-term mission in China is still problematic, so it is one country where short-term mission trips are most practical. Adeney outlined five kinds of mission teams that have proven most effective partners with Chinese Christians:

  • English teachers;
  • Business leaders (who are valued for their ethical practices);
  • Bible teachers (who help fill the Christian leadership vacuum in China);
  • Entertainment teams;
  • Advocacy teams, who work in the U.S. and other countries to promote greater freedom of religious freedom and political dissent.