Using the Wok in the Oven: The Challenge of East-West Partnerships

Invitation to the Banquet
The spirit of Lausanne has often been summarized by several keywords: network, partnership, and kingdom mentality. Many areas of world evangelization are too big to be handled by a single agency. Collaboration and partnership are, without a doubt, foundational building blocks for world evangelization. At the same time, the center of Christendom has shifted from the traditional Western world to the Majority World in the South and East.

As the Church in the South and East plays an active role in world evangelization, it must consider collaboration with Western groups already engaged in the Great Commission. In this article, I will share some collaboration efforts that have been established between the East and the West. I will also explore issues that affect such collaborations and the lessons learned.

The concept of a feast, a banquet, or a good meal is understood by all people. The collaborations discussed in this article are very similar to getting a group of chefs from different cultures to prepare a meal together. Different utensils are mixed (the wok and the oven). Different ingredients are used (imagine duck tongue—a Chinese delicacy—served alongside Beef Wellington). This certainly is a foretaste of Isaiah 25:6-8, where a feast for all peoples is prepared.

This discussion is based on observations about collaborative efforts and partnerships in the past twenty years. However, most of the partners in the West have been mainly from the U.S.; some were from the U.K., Canada, and Europe. In the East, it has primarily been limited to the “chopstick culture” in East Asia, rather than the “fork and spoon” culture in Southeast Asia or the “eating by hand” culture in South Asia. Among the chopstick countries, most of my experience has been with China. Thus, the immediate context will be limited to China, although there are obvious applications to other chopstick countries and by extension to other Asian countries.

Chopsticks Come in Many Styles
To the typical Western mind, China is one big monolithic block. However, if you understand its size (same as Europe or the U.S.) and population (four times that of U.S. or twice of Europe), you will see that China is very complex. Indeed, China is as culturally diverse as Europe with just about as many different language groups. What works in one particular setting in China may not work in another setting.

Furthermore, in much of the collaboration efforts, the Western partners have involved the Chinese Diaspora in the West and in Asia. The Diaspora population adds another level of complexity. They are bicultural, and often bilingual. Dinner for these people can be a piece of beef steak or a bowl of chicken rice. However, many find a stronger affiliation to terms like “Asian American” or “British-born Chinese.” Others look at themselves as Overseas Chinese (in Chinese “hua qiao” or “hai wai hua ren”) as opposed to Mainland Chinese (“hua ren”).

Moreover, they often have ancestral or extended family relationships that can be deployed for ministry purpose in China. Overall, this group has played key bridge roles in various partnerships and is a very strategic gatekeeper.

The Setting of the Table
Three contextual and historical factors have played significant roles in these collaborative efforts. In the early years of China’s open door policy, the main concern for ministry in China was security. After thirty years, such concern has lessened somewhat, but is still a significant factor. Much of the work cannot be discussed openly for fear of government intervention. Partnership is difficult if you are not free to discuss your ministry with others.

However, since the early 1990s conferences organized by China Source have provided platforms for China ministries to interact with each other. As leaders from different agencies became more comfortable in sharing their ministry, collaborative efforts and partnerships began to form.

Furthermore, Interdev rose to the occasion in the late 1980s and 1990s. Their teaching and workshops on partnership ushered in a new way of thinking about world evangelization. Largely as a result of their ministry, the concept of partnership became widely accepted and many partnerships were organized. 

In the last few years, China has occupied the center stage of world affairs. As the host for the 2008 Olympics, it dazzled the world with unmatched pomp and pageantry, and was honored with the biggest gathering of world leaders for any Olympics. Since then, its economic growth in the shadow of the global financial crisis has put China in the driver seat of such discussions.

In the decades to come, China’s global influence will continue to grow. So will the role of the Church in China in world evangelization. As the Church in China enters this scene, it must consider partnership with Western agencies who are already engaged in Great Commission work around the world.

Three Typical Dishes
I will illustrate partnership between the East and the West by three examples. All involve Western entities. The Chinese partners include Mainland China, American Chinese, and Overseas Chinese. For security purpose, the identities of some of the partners are not specified.

Example 1: A center in the U.S. to provide better training for those going overseas. The first partnership happened when a group of U.S. agencies realized that there was no uniform training for workers sent to China. Many workers were not screened and caused more trouble than contribution in China. Much effort was spent fixing problems caused by these workers. Thus, a training center was established which provided the essential preparation for aspiring workers who were already accepted by an agency.

The partners came from diverse backgrounds (theological, academic, ethnic), involving westerners, Mainland Chinese, and Overseas Chinese. It took two years for the partners to work out a mutual agreement. The training curriculum was an intensive mentoring-focused program that lasted four to five months. Lectures in history, culture, language, and spiritual formation were included in the curriculum. The training center operated for a few years and had about thirty graduates. Not all the graduates received endorsement to proceed to the field; only about 2/3 did. The center was successful in preventing potentially inappropriate workers from being sent. Those who were sent had fruitful long-term ministries.

Example 2: Follow up with new converts going back to China. The second collaborative effort relates to students and scholars from Mainland China who received Christ when they were in the West. This phenomenon had been going on since the early 1980s. Many Western groups, including Chinese churches in the West, had been faithfully leading these students and scholars to Christ. Since the mid-1990s there had been a steady increase of these students and scholars returning to China, enough for the Chinese term “hai gui” (returnees from overseas) to be coined.

But there was no system established to follow up with these believers. Such follow-up work required collaboration between groups in the West and in China. For many years, discussions took place among groups in the West on how to tackle this issue. Participants in these discussions included churches and groups in the U.S., the U.K., and Europe, plus Chinese churches and groups from these areas. Everyone saw the need for a coordination body and a formal steering committee was established.

In recent years, such discussion has been coordinated by the Overseas Chinese and the Mainland Chinese participants. Although no formal partnership was established, this is a fine example of how East and West worked together.

Example 3: Indigenous mission movement from China to the world. The third example is the sending of cross-cultural workers from China. This is an ongoing initiative and formal partnerships for this are still being established. There were very strong emotional debates about the so-called “Back to Jerusalem” movement in the late 1990s. Indeed, there was much exaggeration in the claim of the size of the workforce. 

However, there has been a steady stream of workers being sent overseas who would identify themselves under the umbrella of the Chinese term “fu yin chu zhong hua.” The label “Indigenous Mission Movement from China” (IMM from China; pronounced as “I am from China”) has been suggested as an appropriate name. IMM from China is certainly one area where collaborative effort is needed between East and West.

Key Lessons from the Cooking Class
There were at least five key ingredients that each of the three examples featured.

  1. Preliminaries and foundations are important. If there is no platform for exchange and to establish relationship, there will be no partnership. Along this line, the Lausanne Movement or events like Cape Town 2010 will provide natural avenues for such platforms.
  2. It takes significant work to set up each partnership. But in all three cases, the only way to accomplish the goal was to have collaboration. To put it simply, it cannot be done by any one group alone without the help of other groups.
  3. The importance of the gatekeeper or the bridge agent cannot be overemphasized. The Overseas Chinese Christians, particularly in the West, have a unique role to play in this regard.
  4. The partners need to clearly define the goals and objectives. In the case of the training center, if the objective was to establish a school that will continue for many years, then the center failed. But if the objective was to prepare the workers for long-term ministry and prevent avoidable casualty, then the center succeeded.
  5. There are different worldviews and values involved among different partners. East and West do not mix automatically and even if they do, they may not mix well.

Using the analogy of the banquet, the meal may only last a few hours, but it took months to plan the celebration. And if we want to have an international menu, we must have an international crew. Better still, the chef should be cross-trained. And the chefs must agree on what meal they want to serve. Finally, spices from the East and the West may not mix well.

Preparing for the Final Banquet
Looking ahead, as the East and the West work together in partnership, what can one expect? The Chinese translation for the word “crisis” are two characters “wei ji.” The first character is danger and the second is opportunity. Certainly, there is both opportunity and danger. I will use IMM from China as an illustration.

China has about the same number of Christians as that of the U.S. Given time, China should have a similar impact on world evangelization as the U.S. However, missionaries from China will face the same challenges that Western missionaries faced. There will be difficulties with cross-cultural stress, incarnational ministry, language learning, children’s education, etc. But the biggest challenge will be the issue of ethnocentrism coming out of strong nationalism from China. The pitfall of imperialism is not only a Western phenomenon. It can also apply to the East, even to China.

As we prepare for the Banquet in the final Consummation, my prayer is that when the unreached world hears the gospel message, they will hear Jesus preached not by a team of Caucasians, but by an Asian working alongside a westerner. May all peoples come to the Banquet (Isaiah 25:6-8) because of our partnership.

Rudolf Mak, Ph.D., is special assistant to the executive chair of the Lausanne Committee for World Evangelization. He was raised in Asia and lived for over three decades in the West. His major spiritual gift is networking and people-connecting. He can be reached at [email protected].