Like most Chinese, I was educated as an atheist. All textbooks, philosophy classes, and conferences taught us that the Christian faith is an "opiate of the people's spirit" that Westerners use to numb and neutralize the creativity of the Chinese mind.
But as a student of English literature at Liaocheng University in Shandong province in 1987, my American teachers after class would sometimes pull out what we Chinese students called a "Little Red Book." It was a pocket Bible. And from it they shared what they called "the Good News."
They were a peculiar group of people -- laughing loudly with big smiles, always looking us in the eye when speaking to us. One day I went to the apartment of a teacher who had been in China for more than three years, and I saw him playing the guitar, crying as he sang. He told me he was homesick for his family in California, and I was touched by his openness -- such a contrast to the stern, cold teachers I had had before. The kindness and love he and his fellow Christian teachers showed was not to change China, but to offer life-giving truth in an authentic manner. Today's would-be missionaries to China could learn a lot from them.
Americans like to see things get done instantly: fast food, Twitter, and even "shock and awe" military campaigns. In the 1990s, one ministry organization put an ad in a major Christian magazine calling for donations with the slogan "one dollar, one soul," the idea being one dollar will purchase one Bible in China, which will help convert one Chinese soul. This instant-noodle approach to the life-and-death decision to accept Christ as one's only Savior and Lord is counterproductive. Chinese souls cannot be harvested like stalks of corn in a field, or iPads on an assembly line.
Missionaries should study China and it's people, culture, and history, which is almost 20 times longer than U.S. history. Especially after 60 years of communism and wave after wave of class struggle, Chinese are desperate for trust. Many of my classmates were more willing to share their personal secrets with our American teachers than with fellow Chinese students because they found the teachers trustworthy and caring. The American teachers I know said it took years living and interacting with the Chinese before their mission bore spiritual fruit.
Americans have much more experience with Christian theology than the Chinese. Many times I find Americans eager to sell China a certain brand of theology, rather than to live out and present the true Gospel of grace and truth. When I enrolled at Westminster Theological Seminary in 1997, I found I needed to fill out a form declaring my Protestant denomination -- with 200 choices! That was one of my first experiences of culture shock. Americans representing a certain denomination visit China for a few months on what they call a "short-term mission," trying to spread their church's version of the faith. They often leave behind an Americanized Chinese Christianity -- with believers who can pray only in English.
In the early 1990s, I met with a famous American evangelist in a five-star hotel in Beijing. The first question he asked was, "How many Chinese Christians have the spiritual gift of speaking in other tongues?" While I don't disapprove of this practice (and have even had this experience), it seemed that this secondary issue was his main concern.
After I left China in 1996, I learned that tens of thousands of copies of that minister's book, translated into Chinese as How to Speak in Tongues, had been distributed in China by underground printing networks. Now the tongues issue has become one of the most divisive issues among Chinese churches (those who can speak in tongues look down on those who don't, while those who don't speak in tongues think that those who do are possessed by demons). This man's "ministry" deeply hurt the cause of the Gospel in China.