Focusing on the Historic Presbyterian Mission Areas of China: A U.S. Perspective

Installment 11 of the History of The Outreach Foundation in China

by Jefferson Ritchie, Mission Advocate

The previous installment of the history of The Outreach Foundation in China was about the thirteen years that the Rev. Dr. Peter Lim was involved in our work in China, first as an informal consultant and mission partner, then as our China Mission Specialist. In this installment we want to return to the decision made in 2004 to focus most of our efforts in China on the parts of China where Presbyterian missions were strongest. While we did not give up our relationships in other parts of China, we pivoted toward Jiangsu Province and, to a lesser extent, Shandong Province.

We did not know at the time that God was putting the same idea on a Presbyterian congregation in North Carolina, First Presbyterian Church in Wilmington. This is a brief account of their China story.

Let us begin by turning back the clock to the year 1895. In that year Dr. and Mrs. George Worth, who were members of the First Presbyterian Church of Wilmington, North Carolina, were sent by the Southern Presbyterian Church to start a medical mission in Jiangyin, a city in Jiangsu Province. From that time until 1949 First Presbyterian Church had a relationship with the Jiangyin Mission, which expanded to include education and evangelism as well as medical mission.

The advent of the Peoples Republic of China ended the missionary era, but the story began again a couple of decades after the churches were reopened in China in 1979. Chinese from Jiangyin approached the Wilmington congregation with an overture to reestablish the relationship. In 2007 the church sent a small team to Jiangyin to explore this possibility and became quite interested in reconnecting with Jiangyin.

The group was warmly welcomed by the leadership of the Jiangsu Provincial Christian Council and the leadership of the local church in Jiangyin. Language and cultural issues, however, made it clear that they needed help in making a new start in Jiangyin. Their senior pastor, the Rev. Dr. Ernie Thompson, reached out to The Outreach Foundation, and we were glad to share what we were learning about culturally appropriate ways to develop a relationship with the Church in that part of China.

First Presbyterian Church began making trips every two or three years to China with most of their time spent in Jiangsu Province, and Jiangyin in particular. They also hosted several delegations from China to the U.S. Further, some of their members lived in Jiangsu Province because of their jobs, and their presence increased the interest of the congregation in China.

About this time the Jiangsu Provincial Bible School developed a plan to expand their campus and upgrade the quality of their education. Their hope was that they could become an accredited Bible College that could grant a Bachelor’s Degree. To get to that status, they needed to enlarge their library.

Providentially, First Presbyterian Church received a generous gift from a member for the church’s China Mission. In consultation with The Outreach Foundation, the church decided to use a portion of the gift to upgrade Jiangsu Bible College’s library. This gift and donations to the Bible School from other U.S. partners of The Outreach Foundation helped Jiangsu Provincial Bible School to receive government recognition as a college-level institution. In 2012 it became the Jiangsu Theological Seminary. The seminary has continued to develop and as of 2018 over 400 students are enrolled on three campuses. (The balance of the donation went to the Church in Jiangyin which was developing a lay training center.)

What The Outreach Foundation and First Presbyterian Church of Wilmington have learned from these years of partnership with each other and with the Church in China include the following:

1. The Church in China has a different understanding from the American Church of what the basic unit of “church” is. For most American Christians – even those of us who are part of denominations with local, regional, and national structures – the basic unit of the church is the congregation. Anything above the congregational level is seen to be an entity to strengthen the life and mission of the local church. By contrast, the basic unit of “church” in China is a broader geographic area. It can be a province (e.g., Jiangsu Province), a municipality (e.g., the city of Nanjing) or a county in a rural area. The one church in these geographic areas is distributed in local assemblies throughout the region.

The Outreach Foundation saw this understanding of the church in our first major project in Heilongjiang in the period 1998-2000. We wondered why so much attention was being paid to the construction of just one congregation in Harbin. The leadership explained that this congregation was the priority for the churches in the whole city of Harbin and even, to some extent, throughout the province of Heilongjiang. When this church was completed, the churches banded together to build the next church prioritized by the Municipal or Provincial Christian Council. Over a period of years dozens of churches were built through this spirit of “one for all and all for one.”

First Presbyterian Church in Wilmington learned this lesson also as they saw that while the Jiangsu Provincial Christian Council was happy to see them reconnect with the church in Jiangyin, the Council wanted the Wilmington Church to share the Chinese understanding of what “church” means in the current situation in China. Namely, to be connected to Jiangyin is also to be in relationship to the church in the whole province. First Presbyterian Church of Wilmington was happy to adopt that understanding, and it has balanced support for the church in Jiangyin with support for the Provincial Seminary.

2. The second thing we have learned through our experiences in China is that for both us and the Church in Jiangsu, the word “friend” describes our relationship more than “partner.” The 2018 trip to China, which included members of First Presbyterian Church, Wilmington, emphasized this point. We had come to China to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the Jiangsu Theological Seminary. At the celebration, the Rev. Zhang Ke Yun, President of the Jiangsu Seminary, gave this word of thanks to The Outreach Foundation and its U.S. partners: “You were present with us when we needed help to enlarge our campus. You have not only been long-term friends; you have been good friends.”

To be called “friends,” not “partners” or “donors,” is significant for us, for indeed it is our friendships with Chinese brothers and sisters that keep us returning to China year after year. As friends we join hands in God’s mission in China, in the United States, or wherever God calls us.

Jefferson Ritchie
Mission Advocate