The ninety-two-year-old grandfather looked twenty years older than his birth certificate would indicate. It didn’t take long for me to understand why. Fifty years ago, this man had served as a leader during the underground church’s resistance to an oppressive regime. Like many in his generation, he wasn’t super talkative, but he did manage to tell me that the time when the government systematically hunted down Christians “was not easy.”
During my fifteen-plus years in East Asia, my team and I encountered more than a few seasons that weren’t easy either. On numerous occasions, I was followed by undercover police officers, and my electronic communication was constantly monitored. During my time living in East Asia, police officers asked local friends about my family, my business partner was forced to leave the country quickly, and we watched emerging church leaders commit moral failures. Over time, friend after friend left the country because of health challenges, government pressure, or burnout.
Would we relive those days if we could? Absolutely. The joy we experienced in seeing people who never heard the gospel trust Christ outweighs all the pain. Planting churches in an area where there were few brought more pleasure than I knew possible in this life. Seeing God open the eyes of short-term teams to the needs around the world and their crucial role in meeting them is one of the greatest treasures I’ve been given.
The joy we experienced in seeing people who never heard the gospel trust Christ outweighs all the pain
But more than any of that, we grew to love Christ more. We began to understand that he’s the one who turns the heart of the king wherever he wills (Proverbs 21:1). We watched him heal blind eyes, open deaf ears, and exchange hearts of stone for hearts of flesh (Ezekiel 36:26, John 9:39). We learned that prayer is the work and that the Lord is a just judge who loves to answer those who cry out to him day and night (Luke 18:1–8). Through the uncertainty of persecution, the sacrifice of caring for a new church, and the hardships of communicating cross-culturally, he deepened our dependence on him and the church.
As the next generation of workers looks toward East Asia, I’d like to offer a few reflections and suggestions to consider before heading overseas.
English is Key but Ultimately is Insufficient
Most students start studying English in kindergarten and are required to possess a high level of English grammar and vocabulary to attend college. Those who speak English fluently can easily connect and begin relationships with those in East Asia. For years, English provided easy opportunities to meet students and short-term teams could easily use English to cast a wide net.
At the same time, if workers in East Asia want to share not only the gospel but their lives as well (1 Thessalonians 2:1–8), they must learn the local language. For native English speakers, Mandarin is one of the hardest languages in the world to learn. Despite the prominence of English in the culture, true gospel impact often comes when you speak in someone’s own language. To be sure, the work of learning a language like Mandarin will take years of dedicated study and discipline, but it’s worth it.
Those who work as missionaries in East Asia may never fully enculturate, but they can become acceptable outsiders
In East Asia, there is a high level of distrust in Western ideology which can create obstacles for missionaries from Western countries. Even before the ideological fissures caused by the pandemic, people in East Asia have held a high level of suspicion toward those from the West. Those who work as missionaries in East Asia may never fully enculturate, but they can become acceptable outsiders. Because of the communal nature of the culture, there’s almost nothing people won’t do for those in their inner circle. The depth of the relationship and opportunity for life-on-life evangelism and discipleship provides amazing opportunities for gospel impact.
Persecution is Inevitable but Ultimately is Ineffective
Missionaries in East Asia should expect the government to monitor all their communications. Nothing escapes the eyes and ears of the largest surveillance state in the history of the world. The state will keep tabs on any and all who enter their borders.
Due to years of persecution, the church in East Asia has developed deep resilience in the face of opposition. Persecuted Christians pride themselves on their ability to endure suffering and hardship. As opposed to those who grew up in the West, these Christians often expect to suffer and the church has thrived under the heavy hand of oppressive regimes.
Unlike pioneer areas, many gospel resources are available in urban areas, and there are existing churches to work alongside. Those seeking to serve in East Asia should seek to submit to, come alongside, and learn from established churches and networks.
Big Cities are an Opportunity but Ultimately are Draining
The largest country in the world offers many urban areas with plenty of needs. With 50-plus cities with over a million people, there are plenty of people to go around. In my years in East Asia, I often found myself astounded at the size of the crowds. Though there is gospel work in many areas, entire pockets of the population remain untouched by the message of Christ. Even within large cities, one district may have loads of churches and another be completely devoid of them.
For those who grew up in more rural areas, life in a major urban area requires significant adjustment. The noise, pressure of living in a bubble, and lack of opportunities for solitude can crush many. Those working in urban areas will need to consider ways to effectively escape the urban sprawl and enjoy God’s creation.
As pandemic measures begin to lift around the world, the doors may open for students and teams to return to East Asia. My hope is that God would send workers back into the harvest because so many of us had to leave before we would have chosen.