In Acts we find a story of The Jewish diaspora, in which Jews, allowed to legally hold to their faith, were nonetheless subject to the vagaries of Empire. The Jews were scattered through the Mediterranean world, particularly the eastern end, and like all diaspora peoples, they gathered together for mutual support and protection. They formed insular communities so that their religious and cultural lives could be built up. Whilst there was trade (and other) engagements with the wider, imperial community, this was limited. Integration was not part of their agenda.
Leadership and ministry potential
A surprising number of Christian students come to China with church leadership experience. While some are confused or lukewarm in faith, others are eager to be equipped for ministry and are incredibly responsive to capable, intentional and loving ministry training. A Pakistani Christian student wrote, “Just need more prayers so I could work more for Christ and become a source of light for others.” Is this an opportunity to strengthen churches and train people for ministry?
So what is “ISM in reverse?”
We know of “ministry to international students.” But what if international students themselves were the ones sharing with their fellow students, many from unreached cultures? This is “ISM in reverse” – international students doing this ministry to reach the nations.
Meet “Sam,” an American international student in China. He’s doing a two-year master’s in international business under a full Chinese government scholarship at a top-ranked university.
My Pakistani friend asked, “May I visit your church?” I welcomed him along. He listened to a Bible talk in English, read the Urdu text on my iPhone, and asked me questions in Chinese.
In my first article I described the numbers and diversity of the international students in China. Here I’ll outline some of the challenges and opportunities of ministering to them, some unique to this context.
“Jyrgal” from Kyrgyzstan and I sat on our couch talking about why he was studying in China, the beauty of the Kyrgyz mountains—and the claims of Jesus. I could do this with no Kyrgyz visa, no extra language, and no flight to Bishkek—he came to me.
My friend “Lalit” from Indian Kashmir and I are reading a gospel together. “Tesfay” matured in his faith while in China and returned to a persecuted church in Eritrea. Portuguese-speaking students from Mozambique, Angola, and Brazil meet together to study the Bible. These are some of the almost half a million international students in China, arriving from every corner of the globe.
This is the last in a series of blogs on the Global Connections conference in May 2016, From Where I’m Sitting, where we sought to explore mission from different perspectives. You can listen to the talks on the Global Connections events page. I had the privilege to seek feedback on what was heard on the last morning and made a wide range of points.
The three young missionaries met again in their favourite noodle bar.
The Young American: It was great to hear about the growth of the church in China this morning. If the church keeps growing at the current rate, we in the US of A are going to have to look out for our status as the largest Christian nation. Who would have thought it?
The Singaporean: Well you know the saying. God must love the Chinese, he made so many of us. And now he is bringing us into his kingdom. You had better start learning Mandarin for heaven. And at least with so many Chinese cooks there we will get everlasting noodles for eternity.
The Englishman: Doesn’t the growth of the church in China now get us back to the question we had yesterday? After all, the recent growth is not the first time Christianity has had a presence and influence in China. I was reading a book recently that argued cogently for St Thomas having got to China as well as India. Certainly the Syrian Christians got there during the Tang Dynasty and their message seems to have been accepted. The Great Church of the East once spread across China and into other East Asian countries, but nothing survives from that work today. Do we have any guarantee that the church in China today will continue to grow?
What can history teach us about the relationship between trade and the transmission of faith? Quite a lot it would seem. The answers to two further questions will help unpack some key lessons for missional business in 21st Asia.
Q 1: How did Islam arrive in East Asia? Answer: Muslim Traders.
Exactly how Islam came to East Asian communities is not known but scholars agree that a “direct relationship between trade and the spread of Islam is undeniable.” The maritime history of the Indian Ocean suggests that there were Muslim sailors working on ships plying the trade routes around the archipelago as early as the eighth century. As trade increased and connections with ports and peoples were strengthened, so the Muslim presence grew. In their book, Spice Journeys: Taste and Trade in the Islamic World, de Guise and Sutarwala write that “Islam and hospitality go together like coffee and cardamon. Islam and trade have also been inextricably bound since the time of the Prophet Muhammad.” Islam spread to the region, not to begin with by the intentional efforts of Islamic missionaries, but through merchants.
Are we on the The Cusp of Destiny in the 21st Century? How do UK mission agencies and the UK church respond to the changing needs of East Asia?
The 20th century was an age of unprecedented barbarism, yet also amazing globalisation of the gospel. Over the past 100 or so years Christianity has experienced an incredible transformation in its ethnic and linguistic make-up. The biggest phenomenon in the history of the church during the 20th century was the growth of non-Western churches. Today Christianity is a global faith, and you and I are privileged to live at a time of tremendous church growth.
This reality must not obscure the fact that there are still many peoples in many contexts who have yet to hear the gospel. But in the years since many of our UK mission agencies were founded, many of the national churches in Asia, Africa and Latin America have been growing and maturing and are engaging in cross-cultural mission themselves.
In many places across Asia the church is a marginalised minority, with restrictions aimed at curtailing its witness. But it can still have an effective voice if it pays attention to its identity, vision and character.
Recovering the forgotten heritage of Asian Christian IDENTITY
It’s difficult to have an effective voice if you’re perceived to be speaking with a foreign accent.
Unfortunately the idea that Christianity is a Western religion is so pervasive that many East Asian Christians seem to believe it, with most unaware of their Asian Christian heritage. The development of a Christian identity that celebrates the gospel’s deep roots in Asia’s rich soil is a discipleship imperative. Across East Asia, minority churches can strengthen their witness by recovering their forgotten heritage. The Princeton historian, Samuel Hugh Moffett, reminds us of Christianity’s Asian roots:
It is too often forgotten that the faith moved east across Asia as early as it moved west into Europe… Asia produced the first known church building, the first New Testament translation, perhaps the first Christian king, the first Christian poets, and even arguably the first Christian state. [A History of Christianity in Asia, Maryknoll: Orbis]