“You can’t just start churches in China” and other phrases like this come up in conversations I have with young people in discussing missions in countries that frown upon missionary work. Usually the ones who tell me traditional missionary work of evangelism and church planting doesn’t work in China haven’t yet realized that I was apart of a church planting ministry in mainland China before being arrested and deported in 2014.
But doesn’t being arrested and deported prove the point? You can’t church plant in China or you’ll get kicked out? Let me begin with first by encouraging the idea that missions primarily is evangelism and church planting. Therefore, if one’s missions strategy does all but evangelize and church plant, it cannot hardly be called missions. Secondly, mission stratagems must primary strengthen the purpose of evangelism and church planting rather than dilute the missionaries time with secondary projects.
Primary Goal of Evangelism and Church Planting
We all know the main thing is making disciples who may continue to make disciples of of their own, but why do we sometimes allow the methods whereby we accomplish the work distract us from making as many disciples as we can? Well we do it because “you just can’t do that in China, or North Korea, or Morocco”. There are governments and cultures that simply will not have any of this talk of Jesus and a His church.
The Need for Time and Freedom
And so there are road blocks prohibiting access to those areas. That is when we begin devising ways that will allow us access behind the roadblocks, albeit at the expense of straightforward Gospel ministry. Instead of full time church planting, we become full time teachers, or doctors, or students, or just something other than missionaries; whatever the host country is in need of at the time. Filling this economic need grants access behind the roadblocks but at the cost of valuable time and freedom to move about.
Ordinarily the time that would normally be invested in some disciple’s training, or inviting people to church is now sacrifcied to a profession that maintain’s the access behind the roadblocks.
Freedom to move about from place to place, city to city, house to house is now exchanged for a profession that demands one’s presence in a fixed location, and perhaps even a location that does not serve well for church planting.
As a church planter in China and Taiwan, (or anywhere for that matter) time and the freedom to move about are indispenible to the mentoring and church planting processes. It is true for all of the young men I have trained and currently training to occupy generous amounts of my time. It is common for me to have young men with me for 10-12 hours a day, every day apart from Monday to which I devote to my wife and son. As for church planting, we begin first with bible studies in urban areas. Not every bible study is going to advance into a church plant. But when one study in a certain location shows growth, it is imperative to continue to have services in that location. If church planting is anything like fishing, then the fisherman knows it is important to cast his line into many fishing holes, and then move to where there are fish biting. But if the fisherman has another occupation that limit his movements to only one or two fishing holes, his efficiency and purpose will be frustrated. And how unfortunate would it be to be obligated to one fishing hole that is without any biting fish!
As someone who is dedicated to the calling of Gospel ministry, our desire is not satisfied with only one church plant and one disciple but many. Just as Paul and Christ Himself moved to areas that responded to the Gospel, so do we look to sow Gospel seeds in diverse places that are receptive. Jesus Himself began this trajectory of the future of missions by saying, “I must preach the kingdom of God to other cities also: for therefore am I sent” (Luke 4:43). Jesus fulfilled His own desire to see the Gospel go to other places by training men who would take the Gospel to the “uttermost” (Acts 1:8). Paul would never remain in places that had a Gospel witness very long because he was “debtor both to the Greeks, and to the Barbarians” (Rom. 1:14).
Driving the Gospel Through the Barricade
So what am I advocating for these restricted countries? How should a missionary gain access behind the road blocks? Simply by driving past the road blocks. “But that is what you can’t do!” Yet that is exactly what we did, and we bore the consequences from it.
Breaking Laws for the Sake of the Gospel?
Are there any objections to breaking the rules for the Gospel sake? Would ignoring the laws against evangelization be something Christians should be obligated to recognize? This is primarily a theological question and it is one that Jesus Himself answers. First consider the answer He gave to his parents when they were seeking Him in the temple “How is it that ye sought me? wist ye not that I must be about my Father’s business?” (Luke 2:49) Even though He submitted to His parents soon after, His answer set precedence for His refusal to submit to religious and political leaders of the nation. The authority and will of His Father has preeminent over the precepts of man.
Later Jesus responds to a question that was intended to entrap him, “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s” (Mark 12:17) Certainly this fortifies the preeminence of the Father’s business, namely the command to carry the Gospel to all nations, restricted or otherwise.
And finally and perhaps the most direct to our cause, Peter gives an answer to the refusal to adhere to a government that prohibited the Gospel, “We ought to obey God rather than men” (Acts 5:29).
After some time we were arrested and deported from China. We metaphorically got into our gospel vehicles and drove it straight passed the barricade. The missionaries we had to come to work with weren’t pulled over right away. They drove as far as they could down the road before someone finally caught up to them, but by time that happened we were already participating in a gospel movement that had planted four churches, trained three pastors over the course of five years.
One might take a more secretive approach to the barricade and disguise the gospel vehicle with something that would be allowed to pass. Lord willing one might start one or two churches in twenty years and praise the Lord for that! But I would rather the first scenario. I think too Christ and Paul would advocate the more direct and effective vehicle, the unhindered Gospel ministry.
But what about such places like North Korea where one might face death or imprisonment instead of deportation? As a married man entering the Gospel ministry I needed to make a decision where I would take my family and future family. If I were a single man, Gospel work in North Korea might actually be an option, because I would only be risking my own life. But as a married man, I am not willing to put my family’s life in that kind of peril, not the lives of my wife and son. However my wife and I made a decision that we would risk the known consequences of missionaries being caught in China and those consequences caught up to us.
Of course everyone will face unknown consequences for the Gospel, but our decision was based upon what we knew. We knew being arrested and deported was a certain bet, we just didn’t know how far passed the barricade we could get before it happened. A young man might make it passed the barricades into North Korea, but almost certainly the consequences of doing so will catch up to him. But that young man knew that before going in, and he was willing and ready to make the sacrifice for the Gospel sake. His life will join the “cloud of witnesses” who call us to lose the weights that frustrate the Gospel.
The Gospel we know and love today has always thrived off of those kinds of selfless sacrifices. People who loved the Gospel more than their own lives made it possible for others to hear it and love it also.
Im sure if we began working now, we might discover some clever way to gain access even to places like North Korea, but the reason why I do not utilizes such a strategy is because I know that the most efficient method of getting the Gospel to people in need is the Gospel. Five years of disciple making and church planting is more profitable than twenty of divided attention between the ministry and something else.
That of course leaves something to be said for proper preparation of the Gospel worker. If one only has five years to work, then let that man’s preparation be sufficient for the task. That certainly includes an expert understanding of the host language. That includes knowledge and experience in mentoring and hospitality. That includes knowledge and expertise in sermon preparation and training leaders. That kind of preparation does not leave room for preparing for much else. If my plan is to become an engineer so that I might enter North Korea, then I must spend the necessary time and money to become an engineer, but I will sacrifice necessary training to be an effective church planter and mentor.
A Word to My Tent Making Co-Laborers
Now you might be reading this and feeling as though I am attacking tent making mission strategies. You yourself might be involved in such a strategy. My intention is not to deter you from what God has called you to do. I am very away that God saves doctors, engineers, teachers, and then uses their abilities to further the Gospel. This article is primarily speaking to those young people who have yet to invest their years into preparation for missions. I am primarily speaking to young people who have told me “you can’t plant churches in China”. My message to you is that you can and you should. You don’t have to become a doctor so you might become a missionary. You become a missionary to become a missionary. You become a church planter to become a church planter. You become a mentor to be a mentor.
Finally I am advocating for those tent making missions people to work along side these church planting missionaries. Because Lord willing, God will give increase to your work and you will see people saved. But they will need a church. They will need someone to mentor them. They will need to be trained and sent out themselves. The training grounds to do that is a church. China, North Korea, and Morocco will need churches if they are going to pass along the Gospel torch and continue to observe all things they are commanded to observe. To be called by God into missions work is first a calling to be sufficiently prepared. First, to understand what is required of the great commission, and second, be trained in disciple making and church planting.