Refining the Mission in China: Focusing on Regions with a Presbyterian History
Installment 9 of the History of The Outreach Foundation in China
by Jefferson Ritchie, Mission Advocate
In the first six years of our commitment to the Church in China, The Outreach Foundation supported specific projects identified by Chinese Christians to help them meet their priority goal of training more leaders for their growing church. We had begun taking groups to China to see what God was doing there and to invite their participation in that work. The connection with the Church in Heilongjiang was strong, and the “mini-library” project was in the process of being implemented at the national level.
I still felt that something more was needed for The Outreach Foundation to be as effective as it could be in China. Language is the gateway to understanding the heart of another, so I began taking Chinese in Nashville in 2003. I then asked our Executive Director, the Rev. Dr. Rob Weingartner, about the possibility of taking a sabbatical in China to study Chinese. He gave me permission to do so, and I worked with a PC(USA) missionary in Nanjing, Dr. Don Snow, to set up a program of language study at Nanjing University in the summer of 2004.
The fruit of those two months was much more than being able to carry on a rudimentary conversation in Chinese, though I did accomplish that. The most significant result of my sabbatical in China was a more focused commitment of The Outreach Foundation in two provinces of China where there had been a Presbyterian mission presence prior to 1949. Jiangsu Province, located in eastern China near Shanghai, was where the Southern Presbyterian Mission had devoted major efforts. Shandong Province, immediately north of Jiangsu, was where the Northern Presbyterian Church had invested some of its best people and resources.
I arrived in Nanjing in mid-June of 2004. The Jiangsu Provincial Christian Council had a guest house where I could stay and eat my meals. I met with a tutor at Nanjing University each morning for two months. In addition to language learning, I took a group from First Presbyterian Church of Houston to Harbin, Shanghai, Nanjing, and Xi’an, and I did further exploration of the church in other parts of China on my own. It was a fascinating summer.
Particularly significant for me were the times I spent with the leaders of the Jiangsu Provincial Christian Council. The Rev. An, Xin Yi was President of the Council at the time. I had met him in 2003 in California at a Chinese-American Christian Forum. Now I was on his “turf,” and the Rev. An was a gracious and patient host. His welcome inspired me to learn as much as I could to be able to communicate with him and his colleagues.
The Rev. An and the Vice-President of the Jiangsu Council, the Rev. Zhang Ke Yun, were from the northern part of Jiangsu Province, where the Southern Presbyterian presence had been strongest before 1949. The missionaries had laid a good foundation, and the Church in North Jiangsu now had 2/3 of the Christians in the province.
The downside of all this growth was that there were many churches, but few pastors. For example, one county, Xu Yi, had 100 churches but only two ordained pastors. The burden of building up the churches of necessity fell to lay leaders, many of whom had little Bible and theological training.
To meet the need to train the many volunteer lay leaders, the Jiangsu Council proposed the establishment of four lay training centers in the north where lay leaders could come once or twice a year for a month at a time (in some cases for three months). They would study the Bible and practical ministry to become better equipped to serve their churches.
On behalf of the Jiangsu Council, the Rev. Zhang shared this proposal with me, and it caught my attention. The Revs. An and Zhang asked their staff for Overseas Relations, Mr. Chen Xiang Sheng, to take me to the cities where they wanted to establish these training centers. I enjoyed time with Mr. Chen on these trips and around the office especially when his young son, Jia Le, was with him. Children are often a gateway into the people and culture of a land, and Jia Le soon became my “hao peng you,” my good friend.
While I was developing deeper bonds with the leadership of the Church in Jiangsu, I was having conversations with the Presbyterian missionary in Nanjing, Don Snow, about the next steps for The Outreach Foundation in China. Don suggested that since The Outreach Foundation was a small mission organization while China was a large country, we might be most fruitful if we were to focus our efforts on those provinces where the Presbyterian heritage was strongest, namely, Jiangsu, Shandong, and perhaps Zhejiang. That suggestion sounded right to me, and since my connection with Jiangsu was deepening, we chose to begin there.
We adopted the proposal of the Jiangsu Council to establish four lay training centers in north Jiangsu and found a strong supporter for the work in Eastminster Presbyterian Church in Wichita. This was the same church that had supported the Hallelujah Church and Lay Training Center in Heilongjiang. It was a blessing to see God at work in the clear vision of the Chinese Church for their development and in the response of American friends who had seen firsthand how God was at work in China.
I finished my sabbatical with enough Chinese to get around on my own with minimal help. At the same time, I realized that my best efforts would not be enough for effective, fruitful work in China. We needed a person on staff, full-time or part-time, who spoke fluent Chinese and who understood both the historic Chinese culture and the current political and social ethos. I was introduced to such a person, the Rev. Peter Lim, as he had come on our 2002 trip. He was, however, working with another mission organization, so we put that dream on hold for the time being.