At the end of December, I joined almost 3,000 other people for Chinese Missions Convention (CMC) 2016 in Baltimore. Attending this conference was for me like being in familiar waters after spending some time in a different part of the ocean, and I’d like to share some observations from my time there.
I want to write about CMC because some of you may, like me, have grown up in Evangelical Chinese churches (in America) and later in life found your home in the Reformed tradition. Feeling like we’ve grown apart theologically from much of the Chinese church in America, we may easily see many things we want to leave behind, but I want to remind us not to forget some of the precious lessons we can continue to learn from the communities where we first heard the gospel.
I also write to encourage those outside of the Chinese church with a glimpse of the Chinese Evangelical community in America, and I hope that some of you would be spurred on to praise and prayer as Paul was when he heard reports of the Ephesian church.
So, What Does A Chinese Missions Conference Look Like?
At CMC, there were all the things you might expect at any other missions conference— workshops, exhibitors, and plenary sessions with notable speakers (in the English track, Kenneth Bae, Becky Pippert, Bob Sjogren, David Choi, and Francis Chan). But there are some things that those unfamiliar with ethnic church ministries may find surprising and different.
We ate together. Yes, all 2,930 of us.
In Chinese culture, sharing a meal is a huge part of community and conversation. The conference coordinators purposely included a meal plan as a mandatory part of registration in order to foster opportunities for people to sit, meet, and talk to one another.
Fun fact: My husband told me about one awkward moment when at CMC years ago, he sat down to eat at a table only later to realize it was labeled, “Singles.” My response was, “That’s such a Chinese thing to do.” They didn’t have that table this year, but it makes sense, right? What better place to meet other single, missions-minded people?
There were multiple tracks for two languages and programs for all ages.
Like in most Chinese immigrant churches, there were separate programs for Chinese and English speakers. This is necessary because most Chinese-Americans (like me) are not able to read or understand more than conversational Chinese. Not only that, but issues addressed to the Chinese and English tracks are often different. There were combined, bilingual opening and closing sessions, but the rest of the programs were divided by language and age. This year was the first year they added a track specifically for Chinese-speaking students.
My five-year old was able to attend the children’s sessions, which included care all the way down to infants, and the youth in our church went to their own program that incorporated community service. I didn’t even think about how this wasn’t the norm for conferences of this size until a missions representative mentioned to me how it was so nice that the whole family could attend together. This is no small feat considering the conference is over four days long and staffed almost entirely of volunteers.
There was a strong local church emphasis.
CMC is run through a partnership of a parachurch organization, Ambassadors for Christ, with local churches. The conference happens every year in a different region in the US (I went to “CMC East”), so many of the leaders are local. Many Chinese churches have been bringing groups to the conference for years and many volunteers are from nearby churches. This made, at least the English track, feel more like a joint retreat with many churches rather than a large event hosted by one organization.
Some Strengths I Don’t Want To Leave Behind
I have my fair share of qualms with some of the theology I grew up hearing in Chinese Evangelical churches, some of which I heard repeated at CMC. Nevertheless, it was good to be shown some weaknesses that I have within my new “home” in the Reformed world and to be reminded of some of the Chinese Christian community’s strengths.
At CMC, I was reminded of the following:
- A strong emphasis on personal piety and obedience is helpful at times.
There’s nothing in Reformed theology that would actually encourage this, but with the emphases on growing through common means of grace, I found that slowly in practice I’ve stopped expecting to see God work in out-of-the-ordinary ways through answers to prayer, in radical conversions, and in risk-taking obedience. I don’t think I’m the only one who has had this experience.
Chinese churches may be accused at times of being legalistic (not necessarily true legalism regarding salvation, but burdening people with guilt in the Christian life), but at the same time, there are strong examples of lived, practical obedience and expectant faith. There are many in the church who give, pray, go, and evangelize—and are not afraid to challenge others to do the same. Therefore, the sessions at CMC were full of practical steps and how-to’s from people who have had experience on the mission field.
During the conference, there were also constant exhortations to seek God’s will, to pray desperately, and to actively look for opportunities to evangelize. Many testimonies were given of God’s power and miraculous intervention in answer to prayers regarding conversions and in the midst of persecution. This emphasis on personal piety reawakened in me a desire to daily pursue God and his will with more desperate faith and increased expectancy to see him work.
- We need to remember that theology is truly weighty when lived out.
Though at times during the conference I disagreed with particular interpretations of Scripture, methods or missiology, I felt the loudest messages spoken were in the lives of missionaries attending. This was the real gold—to hear not just from their minds, but read from their lives the worth of Christ through their suffering and obedience.
In the first plenary session, the person introducing the speaker said something to the effect of, “the reason I’m excited to hear him is because of his life.” Likewise, many workshops were run by those who were fresh from the field.
One missionary to Muslims shared that he and his wife have already told their children that when they die, they don’t want their bodies flown back to America. They want the presence of their graves to be a sign to the people they serve that God loves them so much he’d send missionaries to them. This couple is also praying that each of their children will be buried in a different country, serving the Lord.
At CMC,I was reminded to “honor such men”— those who have given up much for the cause of Christ (Phil 2:29-30). Yes, there is an appropriate time to passionately argue for correct theology. But there is also an appropriate time to just humbly, quietly, fervently pray that I would display Christ’s worth in my life as these older saints have done and continue to do.
- The awareness of the debt we owe missionaries is a precious gift.
A personal highlight of the conference for me was hearing my husband saying to a missionary who served in Taiwan for 30 years, “Thank you for serving my people.”
A Korean missionary to Central Asia wrapped up his testimony saying, “I want to repay the debt we owe to missionaries who went to my country.” Likewise, many of us Chinese-Americans can trace back up only a few generations to when the gospel first made headway into our families. Not too long ago, someone crossed cultures to Taiwan, Hong Kong, or China, bringing the life-giving message of Christ at great cost to themselves. It is a precious gift to have this memory fresh in our minds as we consider our call to serve the multitudes who have yet to hear.
Being at the conference also reminded me of why I have a heart for the Chinese Evangelical community I grew up in. Here are a few of the needs I saw there and possible prayer points:
- Pray for those who face familial barriers to ministry and missions.
One pastor at CMC shared that when he and his wife told his Christian mother-in-law about their call to ministry, she said, “I hate you. I hate you. I hate you. I wish my daughter never married you. If I knew you were going to do this, I’d never have let my daughter marry you.” Though this may shock some who are not familiar with Asian culture, for many in the audience, this was not a surprising scene.
It’s not uncommon to hear of Chinese parents disowning children or refusing to speak to them after they share their desire to become pastors or missionaries. This is a real hindrance to many who feel the call of God on their lives to vocational ministry. At the same time, because of the strong emphases on family in Chinese culture, I’ve seen God use my friends’ call to missions to help their Christian parents go deeper in their faith. As a note of hope and praise, the pastor above shared that, much later, his mother-in-law was convicted at a prayer meeting, repented, apologized with tears, and is now the number one supporter of their ministry.
Many immigrant parents have sacrificed much to bring their families to America and it can feel devastating to hear that their children want to give up the security and opportunity they worked so hard for to go into full-time ministry. Hence, many grown children struggle with guilt and a desire to honor their parents while seeking and obeying God’s will first.
- Pray for true conversion and discipleship of the second-generation in Chinese churches.
Francis Chan gave a session to the English and Youth track that struck a chord with me. He pleaded for attendees to consider their own souls as he shared about his own experience growing up in a Chinese church and how he seemed to be the only one who seriously believed what the Bible said about God, his wrath, and salvation. Many adults in Chinese immigrant churches are first-generation Christians and in my personal experience, I’ve seen many if not most of their children grow up in the church but later leave.
- Pray for churches as they consider how to reach out to the changing demographic of Chinese international students.
The demographics of international students coming from mainland China have shifted over the years. A workshop speaker in the Chinese track noted that churches that were effective in reaching Chinese international students twenty years ago are struggling to minister to the newer population. While students from China used to primarily be in graduate or post-graduate programs, now many are much younger. Not only are they coming as undergraduate students, an increasing number are high school or middle schoolers living with homestay parents.
- Pray for increased theological discernment and gospel-centered teaching in the Chinese Evangelical community.
Though I am thankful for the strengths of the Chinese Evangelical community, I also was reminded at CMC much of what the community is like theologically. Most Chinese churches are not explicitly steeped in a theological tradition, but are generally conservative while influenced theologically by whoever the local leaders listen to or read.
Many of the sessions at CMC were a mixture of personal testimonies and topical messages focused on the commands of Scripture. With most of the emphasis on our call to action, few speakers (at least in the English track I attended) spoke from the Scriptures about the way that Christ empowers our obedience or gave a vision of who God is that, I felt, would motivate and sustain obedience.
The teaching of one particular speaker was problematic. Without calling it such, he focused his teaching around a two-tiered Christianity of those who live for themselves versus for God. The problem wasn’t that he simply mentioned it, but sought to motivate out of this framework—and that many expressed they were moved by his teaching.
God used CMC to bless many attendees from our church. I am tremendously grateful for that and even with my concerns, would encourage people to consider attending. But at the same time I have seen the long-term effects of wrong or incomplete theology in the lives of many in the Chinese Evangelical community. At the conference, I was reminded of why I desire to see the gifts of Reformed theology and expository, gospel-centered teaching work their way into the local Chinese church.
Gratitude and Prayer
God has done and continues to do much through Chinese churches in America. Not only that, but he has done much for me through them. I was reminded of that at CMC.
It was in the Chinese church that I first heard the gospel and learned the Scriptures. I can call to mind the names of many older saints in Chinese churches who faithfully taught me in Sunday school, supported me on missions trips, and prayed for me as I stepped into ministry.
It is with this debt in mind that I yearn for God to continue to reform Chinese Evangelical churches in accordance to his word. May he work mightily in our churches for his name’s sake and his glory in every tribe, tongue, and nation.