In Tipping Point, Malcolm Gladwell describes a moment in time in which an idea generates such momentum that it moves forward enabled by its own critical mass. As a snowball builds up size and speed, it moves forward under its own steam.
I may have just witnessed a tipping point on Jeju Island, South Korea. One thousand Chinese pastors and church leaders met for Mission China 2030, a headline which tells of their goal: to release 20,000 people into missionary work by the year 2030. No small ambition. They sang with unbounded enthusiasm. They prayed with intensity. They laughed and hugged with joy. With obvious abandon they anticipate God to be among and in them. Faith to risk. Love to spread. Joy to inspire. Hope neutralizing fear.
In 1949 there were 700,000 Christians in China. Today estimates range from 80 million to 140 million. This story is without precedence. No country in the history of the world has experienced such mobilization of faith.
But it is not the number that commands my attention. It isn’t critical mass of which I speak as a tipping point. It’s the nature of their conference, their mission goal. Foremost for them is the world. Nothing so exposes the heart of a church than reaching beyond to help others.
Such New Testament impulse was an essential mark of the early church. The biometrics of the health and wellbeing of a church can be measured by what it keeps and what it gives: how much for self, how much for others; plans to serve self, plans to serve others. A statement showing how much is spent on self and others, is telling.
Its tipping point is found in their intent to go global in witness. A spirit of mission energizes: a church who sends, gives and prays. The more a church gives, the more it has to give. The more they send, the greater the interest those sending have in places their people have gone. Which leads to more prayer for places they may never have heard of. The more they pray, greater grows their vision, generosity and a spirit of sacrifice. It’s as biblical as any creation principle I know.
Ironically, in the history of mission it was the Communist takeover in 1949 which pressed the Chinese church into what it is today. The Party implemented an idea raised decades earlier by a British missionary in China, Roland Allen who advised missionaries, in the early 1900s, to base their work on the idea of the “Three Self.” It was a threefold idea: the church would be self- funded, self-managed and self- evangelizing, rather than letting missionaries do it.
In the early 1950s, Mao threw out missionaries and implemented the Three-Self principle. Most outside China despaired, especially as the Red Guard took over and millions were killed or “re-educated.” What would all of this do, we wondered?
Surprise. As doors into China opened in the late 1970s, the church was alive and vigorous. Imposing Three-Self did opposite to what was expected. Instead of driving the church into an underground death, Chinese preachers, pastors, evangelists, prophets, and teachers rose to lead. Discovering the power of their own calling and the anointing of the Spirit, even in poverty they learned to be generous and energetic. Without missionaries, leaders led, teachers taught and preachers preached. They knew better how to evangelize their own people, how to contextualize the gospel into their worlds, and how to preach the rich truth of the Gospel in metaphor and meaning understood by their people.
Today the church is growing and is energetic, unwittingly transformed by those who intended to destroy it. It is alive and well. In classic Old Testament Joseph language, what one meant for harm, God meant for good. Biblically induced unintended consequences.
How to lead
Chinese church leadership is careful in following the advice of Jesus: Be wise as serpents and harmless as doves. They understand the importance of political harmony. When for example, a church wasn’t given a building permit to build larger, to comply with public ordinances they went to multiple campuses, keeping within the 250- seat maximum allowed, using video technology. One door closed another opens.
There are stories of heroism: histories of humble and wise servants of the Lord now gone to their reward. I met well-educated, committed and resilient young men and women.
As I spoke with them about global faith, I felt a welling up inside. All my life I have loved and prayed for China and its people. As a boy, Rev. Spence, interned in Japanese camps in China, told us stories that magnetized my young heart to this great land. I followed with interest the times of the Red Guards, reading what I could find. Then reports seeped out about the growing underground church. I’ve been here before, interfacing with government, trying to understand their concerns.
At Mission China 2030 I watched, listened, and joined an unquenchable company of Christians committed to pursue the God of peace, taking the lively message of Jesus to their world and beyond.
Is this a tipping point? Without overworking the metaphor, I did feel a growing momentum of witness and faith that’s irrepressible. Time will show its power and presence.
Brian C. Stiller
Global Ambassador, The World Evangelical Alliance