Early Outreach Foundation Mission Vision Trips to China: Learning by Doing

Installment 6 of the History of The Outreach Foundation in China from 1993-2018

by Jefferson Ritchie, Mission Advocate

By early 2000 The Outreach Foundation was well into a major project in Northeast China, the Hallelujah Church in Harbin. Construction had begun, and we were receiving photographs of the progress of the new sanctuary. Our primary mission strategy for China, however, was not construction, but the development of leaders, and to that mission we now turned our attention. Our next trip to China would be an exclusively Outreach Foundation trip and would be to discern which of the Bible Schools and seminaries we should support. Naturally, we also wanted to see the progress on the Hallelujah Church.

We planned our trip for the spring of 2000. We wrote the National China Christian Council asking for permission to go to specific cities and for help with arrangements, including the provision of a translator. I recruited a team that included the Rev. L. Rus Howard, an Outreach trustee, and the Rev. Carl Hamilton, Associate Pastor for Mission of First Presbyterian Church of Houston, Texas. Carl was especially interested in this trip as he had just baptized a Chinese graduate student from Mainland China who had been befriended by, and had come to faith through, members of the church.

We started our trip in Beijing and then flew northeast to Harbin. We were encouraged by the progress of the Hallelujah Church and felt the great need of the Heilongjiang Provincial Bible School for a new building to replace the leaky, moldy buildings they were temporarily using. Although we saw other seminaries and Bible Schools in each place we visited – Beijing, Shenyang, and Shanghai – we found ourselves drawn to the Heilongjiang Provincial Bible School and the Harbin Municipal Bible School as the places to invest at that time.

Following the trip, Rus Howard enthusiastically shared his experiences with fellow trustees, and two of them asked me to make another trip to China in the fall. One of the trustees requesting to go to China was former PC(USA) Moderator Elder Marj Carpenter. She had been to China in the early 1980s after the churches had opened again, and she wanted to see the progress that had taken place since then.

The other trustee to be part of the September 2000 trip to China was Elder Elizabeth Lancaster. Ms. Lancaster was the daughter of one of the founders of The Outreach Foundation, the Rev. Dr. Jack Lancaster. Dr. Lancaster was Pastor Emeritus of First Presbyterian Houston, which had a historical connection to China much earlier than its present interest. In the 1920s and 1930s it supported Dr. L. Nelson Bell, Presbyterian medical missionary to China. Having heard many stories about Dr. Bell and the mission in China at First Presbyterian Houston in her youth, Elizabeth was eager to see the Church in China for herself.

Two other people on that fall 2000 trip should be mentioned. On our spring trip we lost our good translator 2/3 of the way through the trip. His replacement spoke better English than we did Chinese, but we realized through this experience that we needed to have a Chinese speaker as part of future traveling teams. So I recruited a Korean-American couple, the Rev. Choon Lim and Mrs. Yenhee Lim, PC(USA) missionaries to Taiwan and friends since 1983. They had just completed Chinese language study in preparation for their work and were ideal candidates to supplement the work of our local translator/guide as needed. The Lims proved a great blessing on this trip, and Choon accompanied us on future trips as well.

By the time we arrived in China, the Hallelujah Church in Harbin had been completed and dedicated. We were thrilled to see thousands in worship in the 3000-seat sanctuary. That many such churches were needed all over China was abundantly evident as more than once we had to sit outside of buildings in an overflow area listening to a service through a loudspeaker.

The Heilongjiang Bible School, which had received support from First Presbyterian Church Houston following the spring trip, was making good progress on its new buildings. We asked the church leaders what else we could do to support theological education. Two suggestions that came up were supplying books for the libraries of these schools and scholarships for poor rural students.

After Harbin we journeyed to Shenyang and saw the Dong Bei Seminary, several churches, and Korean Americans in Shenyang working with Korean Chinese to feed hungry people in North Korea. Marj Carpenter had been to North Korea in 1995/1996 when she was Moderator of the PC(USA). She was especially thrilled to see the way Chinese and American Christians were cooperating on behalf of the church and people of North Korea.

As inspiring as the September trip was, however, we had the feeling that we had been an imposition to the Chinese Church by making this trip at this time. The reason is this: we scheduled our trip at the very time that the Chinese Church was marking the 50th anniversary of the founding of the “Three-Self Patriotic Movement,” or “TSPM.” Chinese Christians had founded this organization in 1950 to demonstrate their commitment to be a church that was patriotic (supporting the newly-founded Peoples Republic) and to be a church that was independent of foreign influence or control. In other words, it would be self-supporting, self-propagating, and self-administering. Although the Chinese Church had officially welcomed us to come, their energies were devoted to this important milestone. In retrospect, we would have done better to honor this event by scheduling our visit at another time.

We also realized that we needed more than a language helper for our trips. We needed someone to help us with Chinese cultural cues so that we could minimize misunderstandings and mistakes in our efforts to forge a long-term relationship with the Church in China. The next several years would be spent finding such a person.

As the 21st century dawned, The Outreach Foundation was ready to make a strong commitment to the Church in China. We needed more insight on how to work well with the Church, but we had been confirmed that our basic strategy of prioritizing leadership training was also a top priority of the Chinese. The next trip would lead to a huge breakthrough for The Outreach Foundation. That will be the subject of the next blog.

Jefferson Ritchie
Mission Advocate