From Hong Kong to Harbin: Some Observations on a Journey through China

by Jeff Ritchie

It was my privilege to travel to China last month for the twenty-fourth time in my life. My traveling companion was the Rev. Choon Shik Lim, Regional Liaison for East Asia for the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). Choon and I have been friends for over thirty years, and it was the fourth time we had visited China together. 

We traveled from Hong Kong to Harbin, going from 50 degree weather in Hong Kong, chilly for them, to 10 degree weather in Harbin, almost “pleasant” for a city that regularly sees sub-zero temperatures. I had wanted to see the famous Ice Festival in Harbin, and on this visit I caught the final days of the marvelous ice sculptures. Even though the natives were often without gloves, I wore multiple layers of clothing to keep warm! 

There were many contrasts in climate over the two weeks we traveled, but there was a remarkable commonality in what we experienced in the lives of the Christians of China. The church there does not use the term “missional” to describe their life, but that is what they are. They are a church that is passionate about Jesus, desirous of making him known to all who are around them, and intent on demonstrating the gospel to impact their communities.

The Church in China has more freedom than ever before in some places. Jiangsu Province, where Choon and I spent four days, is one of those places. In other places like Zhejiang Province the Church is experiencing increasing scrutiny from the local authorities. A good friend of The Outreach Foundation in that province was arrested just before our trip, and we were unable to see him. We continue to pray for the Rev. Joseph Gu and his family as are all the Chinese Christians whom we met.

What did we hear from Chinese Christians? How do they want to relate to Christians from other countries, particularly the United States?

“Welcome, old friend!”

Everywhere we went, The Outreach Foundation was welcomed as an old friend (“lao peng you”). We have been visiting China since 1993, and the consistency of our attention to the relationships has not been lost on our friends in China. The Rev. Li Meilan, shown between Choon and me, spoke of the trust that the leadership of the Heilongjiang Provincial Christian Council has for The Outreach Foundation. “We can count on them to do what they say they will do.” Through this trip we were reminded of a principle of mission that was expressed by Confucius over 2500 years ago. When asked by one of his disciples what he desired for humanity, Confucius responded, “I wish for friends to be sincere (trustworthy).” Wherever we carry out our life and mission, may we be those on whom others can count.

“Help us develop our seminaries. Help us train leaders.”

The Church in China is growing and maturing. Yet their basic call to partners is the same as when we first started visiting China eighteen years ago: “Help us train our leaders.” 

In Nanjing, Jiangsu Province, the Rev. Zhang, Ke Yun, head of the Church in Jiangsu Province and Principal of the Jiangsu Theological Seminary, told us of the Council’s plan to build twenty lay training centers around the country. In the past “help us train leaders” meant “provide financial support.” Now that request for help is a request for short-term teachers who will go to China and train leaders in these centers over a three-five day period. It is an invitation to send teachers for week-long modules at the Jiangsu Theological Seminary or at its new branch campus in Suzhou.  

In Jinan, Shandong Province the President of the Shandong Provincial Christian Council and Principal of the Shandong Theological Seminary, the Rev. Gao Ming (shown at left in the photo above) invited us to send English teachers to upgrade the English level of the seminary. There too the request for help was a request for people resources. We find ourselves being called to greater involvement in China through people. Where will we find these resource people for the Church in China?

“Learning English is part of our outreach. Join us. ”

Proficiency in English is a requirement to get into college. It is a necessity for Chinese who will be involved in global business. Building on those two felt needs, the Dushu Lake Church in Suzhou, Jiangsu Province carries out an exciting ministry to university students. Intentionally planted six years ago in a “university town” of twenty-four colleges and universities with over 100,000 students, the Dushu Lake Church has a growing membership that is very young. Over one hundred university students were baptized last Christmas. The Rev. Wang Bin, shown left in the photo, coordinates this outreach to university students. He is always looking for more volunteers for the collegiate ministry. The day Choon and I visited him he had interviewed two potential volunteers and welcomed us to send more. 

The Dushu Lake Church is not alone in seeing this amazing mission field right before their eyes. In every city we visit in China we find churches located near universities. Most have some kind of English ministry – an “English corner” for conversation, an English Bible study or worship service. The Chinese are seeing the mission field around them and engaging it at the point of the felt needs. They are inviting us to join them for the short- or long-term.

The Church in China has many ministry and mission challenges in addition to these. The number of church-run homes for senior citizens is increasing. In the large cities churches are reaching out to the children of internal migrants, people who have come to the cities by the tens of millions from the rural areas to find jobs. A large vision for the blessing of the wider society is shared by the church leaders in Heilongjiang Province. The Heilongjiang Provincial Christian Council has recently opened the Mount of Olives Retreat Center to be a place where the Church and various sectors of society can intersect through life-long learning programs in a beautiful setting. Birthed out of a vision of the leaders of the Council, the Rev. Lü De Zhi and his wife, the Rev. Li Meilan, the Center houses the Heilongjiang Theological Seminary and has one hundred beds for special events and programs for farmers and business people, for government officials and scholars. The Church in Heilongjiang hopes through this Retreat Center to be salt and light for the whole society, not just for the members of their churches.

Choon Lim and I left China energized by our time there. The consistency of an outward orientation of the church inspired us. The welcome for more in-depth relationship and resourcing through people is motivating us to find those whom God is calling. But we also saw that we need to be connected to China.

At a time when US-China political relations are up and down – there are areas of tension and areas of cooperation – we as followers of Jesus can be bridge builders between ordinary Americans and ordinary Chinese. As we join together in God’s mission in China, and as we invite Chinese Christians to spend time with us in our ministry contexts, we all may learn something about the gospel, the church, and God’s mission that we would not have learned apart from each other. 

Jeff Ritchie
Associate Director for Mission