The History of The Outreach Foundation in China: My Personal Introduction

by Jefferson Ritchie, Mission Advocate

The year that the Executive Director of The Outreach Foundation, Dr. Howard Chadwick, visited Taiwan and saw the movement of the Holy Spirit in the Presbyterian Church of Taiwan, he also came to South Korea where my wife, Megan, and I were missionaries. Dr. Chadwick led a retreat for the Presbyterian missionaries and told us what was going on in Taiwan as well as introduced us to the newly-formed Outreach Foundation. 

Around this time, we also began hearing about the reopening of the churches in Mainland China. Some of our denominational leaders had visited China and shared what they had seen with us when they stopped by Korea on their way home. Their stories interested me, and I hoped for an opportunity to see the Church in China one day.

I continued to learn about the rebirth of the Chinese Church when I traveled with a group of Korean pastors to Hong Kong in 1983. There we spent a week at Tao Fung Shan, a center for the study of religion in China. A few years later I read Households of God on China’s Soil, a collection of stories about grass-roots churches. The more I read, the more I thought, “This sounds like the church in Korea.” It was my sense that the next great growth of the Church in Asia had already begun to take place in China, and I hoped to be part of it in some way.

When our missionary service in Korea ended in 1989, I became a “missionary in residence” in the new Office of International Evangelism in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) in Louisville, Kentucky. I worked within the denominational mission structure, but our office had close ties with The Outreach Foundation and Presbyterian Frontier Fellowship, which had also begun while we were in Korea. These two para-church ministries were called “Validated Mission Support Groups,” and we worked in a covenant relationship with the General Assembly of the PC(USA) to support missionaries and evangelistic missions in the U.S. and around the world. As part of our covenant, we sought to include staff of The Outreach Foundation in our programs and vice versa.

One of our General Assembly evangelistic programs was a series of “Evangelism Immersion” experiences. In 1991 we took a group of pastors and elders to experience the evangelism work and prayer life of the Church in Korea, and Mr. Jim Phillips, the Executive Director of The Outreach Foundation at the time, was part of our team.

Two years later, we did a similar “Evangelism Immersion” trip, this time to China. I had been to China in 1990 on a PC(USA) staff trip and had seen first-hand how zealous the Chinese Christians were for evangelism. The PC(USA)’s liaison missionary to the Church in China, the Rev. Dr. Philip Wickeri, told us on that trip, “If you want to see evangelism in China first-hand, go to Zhejiang Province.” He mentioned that there was a city in that province, Wenzhou, whose percentage of Christians was higher than the percentage of Christians in “free” Hong Kong. I wanted to see this for myself.

So in 1993 a group of twelve American Presbyterians immersed ourselves in the province of Zhejiang, China for a couple of weeks. Neil Newton, an Associate Director of The Outreach Foundation, was part of our group. A future trustee of The Outreach Foundation, Mrs. Pamela Bowman, also joined us. At the time Pam was editor of ReNews, the magazine of Presbyterians for Renewal, another of the “Validated Mission Support Groups” of the Presbyterian Church (USA). We were looking to Pam to help us tell the story of our time in China.

The Church in Zhejiang Province did not disappoint us. Located on the east coast of China, its churches were growing. Many new ones were being planted, and churches were being constructed or reconstructed. Most of the rural churches we visited were run by lay leaders, as there were simply not enough pastors to go around. We saw churches in large cities such as Hangzhou and Wenzhou, and we visited churches in rural and seaside locations. 

The need for training new leaders was quite evident, and the recently opened Zhejiang Theological Seminary was looking to expand its capacity to train lay leaders. As it had helped in Taiwan, The Outreach Foundation also committed to raise funds for the Lay Training Center in Zhejiang, thus setting the primary strategy of how The Outreach Foundation would support the Church in China: it would help build the capacity of the church for its evangelistic mission through leadership training at all levels.

At the same time another pattern for mission in China was being set, namely that mission involves both giving and receiving, as Paul mentions in Romans 1:12. For our 1993 trip, we had not gone to China primarily to learn how we could help the church there; rather, we had gone to experience their life of faith for the renewal of the Church in America. 

By all accounts our goal was accomplished. Some of our reactions to the Church in China were recorded in Pam Bowman’s article in the Presbyterians for Renewal’s ReNews (August 1993):

“Chinese Christians have internalized the gospel. They feel a sense of urgency to share the Good News with their family and friends.”

“We observed people drawn into the church by the testimony of believers and their lifestyles.”

“In the deeply moving testimony of our translator, Li Ya Ding, we sensed the deep faith and enduring hope of a young Christian who has known suffering in ways we could barely imagine.”

“We came home inspired by our Christian brothers and sisters in China. They demonstrated evangelism and spiritual growth through prayer, hymn-singing, Bible study, and generosity. We sensed an urgency to share the gospel and a joy not based on circumstances. It’s a good formula for doing evangelism and doing justice!”

It was experiences like these that motivated me take groups to China after joining the staff of The Outreach Foundation. The Church in China has never failed to inspire and deepen the faith of those have been on our vision trips. In my next installment, I will share another mission principle for the work of The Outreach Foundation: mission happens through relationships. We will see how Presbyterians have had unique historical connections in China which opened the doors for us when the churches reopened.

Jefferson Ritchie
Mission Advocate