In the wake of my expulsion from China, my wife and I have been overwhelmed with the outpouring of prayers and kindness on our behalf. Believers and churches from all over the world have contacted us to let us know that they are praying for us and the four churches in our city. At the combined farewell service that I mentioned in the last post, we presented each of the four churches with over 60 pages of letters of blessing and prayers that had been sent in from brothers and sisters all over the world. In particular, my home church has been so evidently set on welcoming us home and encouraging us in this time. All of this has confirmed to me that God’s people really do hurt for and with each other in their suffering.
But there are also questions. People who in the past have felt that what we were doing was stupid and nearly suicidal seem to have found the evidence they were looking for. We’ve been foolishly open and now it has come back to bite us. The most stinging accusation is, of course, that we have put Chinese believers in terrible danger by our irresponsibility. For those who feel this way, I am sure that nothing I write will change their minds. But I know that there are also many who have genuine questions about what led to our expulsion, what lessons there are to be learned, and how we feel about the whole thing.
So let me answer some of these questions that I am hearing:
What is the reason you were kicked out? What led to the police taking action?
After all, we have been very open for several years. So why now? What changed on this weekend that led to the police coming? I asked the cops that same question during my interviews with them. One of them told me, ‘Someone complained, of course.’ Which is the norm. This is my best guess about what happened. The Thursday before the cops came, one of the pastors asked me if he could use the five pastoral interns’ help to distribute 7,000 invitations to their Easter service. I didn’t think much of it, but I think this invitation was part of the problem. Printing invitations is nothing new for us, but this one had all four churches’ names and phone numbers on it (the Chinese guys wanted to save money by making one flyer instead of four!). The interns succeeded in pushing out those invitations that Thursday afternoon, but not without getting booted out of a few apartment complexes. Almost certainly, one of those confrontations with a neighborhood guard led to a phone call to the police, and then the dominoes fell.
So, when the police showed up at the churches on Sunday, they caught me redhanded. They knew about my involvement with these churches, but when they came in 2011, I was not there. But I was this time. So down to the station I went.
The police were clear. John and I were finally expelled for leading illegal church services. There were other foreigners at two of the interrupted services that day who were reprimanded, but not expelled. John and I were out because we were preachers and church-planters.
Let me explain what I mean by an open ministry for those who may be less familiar with the church in China. When I say open, I mean that our churches indiscriminately invite strangers to come to our services. The other pastors and I have introduced ourselves as pastors to total strangers for years. The churches have visible signs on the outside of their houses indicating that a church meets there. The churches post their services on the internet and host public groups on social media sites for the members. The churches distribute masses of literature that contain the church contact info (address, phone number). The churches are not trying to conceal themselves at all, rather they are trying their best to let all their neighbors know that there is a church nearby!
So is this why we got kicked out? Well, if the churches had not acted in these ways, the police would never have come to the services. But none of those things is what led the police to kick out two missionaries! In case you didn’t notice, I said that the churches and the pastors have done these things! It’s not that a missionary was passing out brochures or posting things on the internet, so he got in trouble. No, our churches were meeting openly, and that led to the police coming. Once the police came, it was clearly a problem that foreigners were involved in the leadership of the churches.
Did your openness on the internet contribute to the situation?
This question comes often, and I confess that it is so bizarre to me that I don’t hardly know how to answer it. Not one time in all these hours of questioning did any information culled from the internet appear! They simply don’t know about my web page. And even if they did, there wouldn’t be as much evidence against me as we spread around town by ourselves every week! We don’t worry about exposure from the internet for the same reason that smokers aren’t worried about the risks of sitting in the smoking section at a restaurant! Having information on the internet about our ministry would not make the top ten list of riskiest things we did while in China (see my explanation of an open ministry in the last section). Someone pleaded with us that we must take our information off the internet lest it endanger our ministry. Dear brother, it is our ministry that endangers our ministry! Our deportation had to do with having a public ministry, not with our information being leaked on the internet. In order avoid the risks we’re running, we would have to significantly change the way we do ministry, not just ask American churches to take our info down from the web!
For that matter, I’m not entirely sure what information of ours people imagine is on the internet! To my knowledge, we haven’t put the name of the city we were in on the internet, nor have I plastered my last name all over my web page. Yes, if you google my name, you will see that I’m a missionary to China, but I think the same is true for nearly every missionary to China that I’ve met! True, I have never bought into the silliness of writing or speaking in code. If text messages, emails, or phone calls could get you in trouble, we would have been kicked out long ago!
Don’t you feel bad about the danger you’re putting Chinese believers in?
There are at least two answers to this question. First, if you imagine that I am the one big mouth in a church full of hushed Chinese believers gathered around candles, you are seriously misunderstanding the situation. The Chinese pastors that we have trained have taken as many steps of boldness (if not more) than I have. They have independently led their churches to be completely open about their services and boldly invite strangers to church. And I refuse to teach them a lesson on ‘how to avoid suffering at all costs.’ In our absence, the churches have continued to operate as openly as they did before.
Second, what suffering do you imagine they’ve gone through? They had to sit in a police station for a few hours answering questions about the Gospel. And they rejoiced in the opportunity to bear witness to Christ. But get this: not one time did the police tell any one of the pastors to stop having their services! Seriously, they know the pastors’ names, phone numbers, addresses, and service times… and they’ve done nothing about it! The churches have continued to meet with the implicit permission of the police! So why exactly should they be taught to hide in the shadows? Two of the pastors recently contacted one of the officers that expelled us and mentioned in passing that they had paid the rent on their buildings for another year. The cops didn’t seem to care.
To be honest, this question is insulting and hurtful because it implies that the asker cares more about these Chinese believers than the missionary who won them. Talking to a friend in a Muslim nation in the aftermath of all this, he recounted how he was rebuked by another missionary in his country for the way his bold efforts put Christians in danger. My friend was dumbfounded. Christians in danger? They weren’t even Christians before he took a risk and proclaimed the gospel to them! They were in far greater danger before he did – danger of God’s judgment! A desire to keep people out of danger leads to bold preaching, not to mumbling cowardice! Let us be more concerned about people being spared from the wrath of the lamb than the wrath of the dragon!
Here’s where this worry originates, I think. The dominant missionary strategy in China is to cooperate with existing Chinese churches. Thus, the foreign missionary has attached himself to a group of people that are not his spiritual children. So if that missionary does something that gets those believers in trouble, it seems that he has been more of a liability than a help. At least he feels bad for rocking their boat. I think the best solution is to build your own boat. If the people in your boat were drowning before they got pulled in, they’ll be less likely to complain later when you rock the boat!
Do you have any regrets about what happened?
One thing that makes me very happy about what has happened is that it demonstrated that our city was not some rare exception. Even in recent days, I have explained to people how openly we have operated in northeastern China for years without serious repercussions. And they have actually ventured to suppose that things must be different all over China, because they’ve heard from people how dangerous it is there. That is when I must gently remind them that we were just visited by over 50 police officers and expelled from the country. It would appear that we are not some anomaly where there is no persecution after all. Though we are surprised that something like this happened, we still maintain that the benefits of operating open churches in China far outweigh the risks.
In the past we have said that our position on boldness was based on two factors. First, that the risks of ministry in China are exaggerated. In other words, we believe that persecution in China is the exception, not the norm, and that when it does come it is relatively mild stuff. And second, that regularly sharing the gospel openly with unbelievers is a non-negotiable for missionaries, whatever the cost. If a missionary is unwilling to run the risk of whatever may happen in his country when the gospel is shared with an unbeliever, he ought not go. Even after all that has gone down in these recent weeks, these two factors have not changed.
It’s incredible that we (myself included) often assume that something went wrong because some hurting came! By that measure, how foolish was the Apostle Paul? I asked that in my farewell message to the churches. In Acts 14, on his first missionary journey, Paul gets expelled from one city, nearly stoned in the next, and legitimately stoned in the next! Does he learn his lesson? Does he find the volume knob and turn it down a few notches? No! He moves to the next city and continues to proclaim Christ just as openly as he did in the last! Paul doesn’t equate ‘I suffered persecution’ with ‘I stepped over the line of wisdom.’ Whatever wise as serpents means, it doesn’t mean avoiding suffering at all costs. If we can see it coming, by all means, let’s get out of the way. But let’s not fool ourselves into imagining that we’re being wise when we cower at every rumor of a lion in the streets. Nor let us fool ourselves into imagining that we’re being wise when we rarely find the opportunity to give the gospel to unbelievers. Paul certainly could have avoided being thrown out of those cities if he had adapted the approach taken by many of our brothers in closed countries. A little bit of creativity, a little bit of caution, and Paul could have enjoyed a long and uneventful ministry in Lystra.
Let me say adamantly that I am not so foolish as to imagine that the missionaries on our team are the only ones taking risks for the proclamation of the gospel in China! I rejoice to know that some of those who have been critical of our openness have themselves been greatly used to plant churches and preach the gospel! I only write these things to explain our position to those who have heard such criticisms. I praise the Lord that there are many faithful missionary-witnesses still in China. But even after all that has happened, I would urge upon these brothers the great benefits of openness in church-planting ministry.
In my next post, I will try to develop this question a little bit further and explain why I don’t believe ‘regret’ is a suitable thing for us to feel about the consequences of our gospel-preaching efforts.
Is there anything you’d do differently?
This doesn’t mean, however, that I have no interest in learning from this situation. The pastors have adapted in some ways that we hope will reduce the likelihood of this happening again. As I said above, I think the brochures we’ve distributed for years are not an acceptable risk. They don’t lead to people visiting the churches. But they do rile up the neighbors and lead to the eventual call to the police. We will still distribute gospel literature, but we will not likely give more info than a phone number. The pastors and interns will, however, continue to pass out their own business cards that contain their church name and info.
Ironically, the way forward we are finding is not less openness, but more of it! After all that I witnessed in that last week, I think that there is much to be said for national pastors maintaining an open line of communication with the police. Time will tell. But reading between the lines, it seems like that’s important to the police. They don’t like people sneaking around.
For example, during my second round of questioning, the officer said to me, ‘You know, we’ve caught Pastor Xu before when his church was in its last location. And we told him to stay in touch with us. And what does he do? He moves the church to a different building.’ You see, he interpreted Grace moving locations as an attempt to stay in the shadows. I was happy to inform him that there was no such intent. Rent simply came due, and Pastor Xu found a place he liked better for the church! So I think there’s at least good reason to believe that if the pastors stay in touch with the police, keeping them in the loop regarding the churches’ status, it may prevent future flare-ups.
We want to be sure that we really can’t get back in. If we can’t, then we will make our way to another Chinese-speaking environment in Asia to continue church-planting and pastor-training. Taiwan is the obvious choice, but we are trying to turn over some more rocks. I will continue to teach the pastors-in-training in China over Skype. It is a distant second best to be sure, but I think if we work at it, it will still help them to cover some ground in their preparation for church-planting ministry.
Back in China, a couple of the pastors are researching the possibility of their churches attaining some kind of a legal status with the government. This would not make them part of the Three Self movement, but it would mean that the government recognized them as an approved meeting place. Of course, there are many lines that our churches will simply be unwilling to cross, but we have seen some churches get some measure of legality without sacrificing their autonomy. Some, myself included, worry that the police will be friendly to them today and harsh to them tomorrow, but that will only put us back to where we are today. As everyone knows, China is changing. There is a chance that in the near future, underground churches will be given an avenue to register. It is happening on a small scale here and there. If the conditions are biblically acceptable, I believe some of the Chinese pastors on our team would be willing to register. Please don’t write me about a government church being destroyed in China. I’ll write about that in the future, but, suffice it to say, the fact that some enormous government church somewhere in China flagrantly violated building code and ran into trouble simply has nothing to do with our guys registering their churches (we’ll be sure not to build a huge building anytime soon, just to be safe!).
Thanks to all our friends who follow our blog for your faithful prayers on our behalf! We are confident that even in this we will be victorious through Christ!