The Back to Jerusalem movement

October 13, 2009

For the Centenary of the World Mission Conference, to be held next year in Edinburgh, Kim-kwong Chan has written a paper on the Back to Jerusalem movement, a movement among China’s house churches to evangelise the area between China and Jerusalem (essentially the Middle East), with the original aim to send 200,000 Chinese missionaries there within ten years. This project is consistent with the notion, popular in Chinese evangelicalism, that the Chinese are called upon to'”fulfil the Great Commission” of world evangelism by completing the last leg of the global evangelical relay. It also dovetails with secular sense of China´s mission as the new global modernizer that has picked up the torch the U.S. and Great Britain had carried before it.

Chan locates the origins of the BTJ movement in the 1940s, when a number of Chinese missionary groups were dislocated to the relatively peaceful Xinjiang. The Reverend Mark Ma, at a Bible school in Shaanxi, received a series of visions that “the Chinese church should assume responsibility to take the Gospel”to Xinjiang and, in order to complete the Great Commission, to the rest of the world.” An American missionary began to promote Ma’s group in the U.S. and the UK. The group was soon disbanded and its members imprisoned, but in the 1990s, veterans of this and other groups were joined by new evangelists. A veteran named Simon Zhao, who had spent twenty years in prison in Xinjiang, declared upon his release that he had received a vision similar to Mark Ma’s. Liu Zhenying, who escaped from prison and fled to Germany in 1997, has been popularised in a book by the New Zealand missionary Paul Hattaway. As a result, a number Western mission agencies have become interested in supporting the BTJ movement in what Chan calls an “outsourcing model:” they provide money and training, and China provides the missionaries. “Currently there are at least a couple dozen mission agencies who are actively involved … with more than a dozen [clandestine] training centers in China and at least another ten abroad, training potential BTJ missionaries.” They also hold clandestine international conferences. BTJ missionaries are found in at least 12, mostly Muslim countries, as students, entrepreneurs, and contract workers. Most are between 20 and 25, come from rural areas and poor backgrounds, and have a high school education. There is an abundant supply of recruits and selection is competitive.

Chan notes that much of the interest is practical: keen to evangelise the Middle East, Western churches have limited funding, and presumably there aren’t many missionaries willing to take the risk. The money that is spent on supporting one Western missionary is enough to finance ten Chinese, who live in much poorer conditions and are used to hardship and illegality from China (where they belong to the illegal house churches and most are rural). Some Chinese house churches have an explicit ideology of martyrdom (shared perhaps with traditional millenarian movements and the Falungong).

Meanwhile, the Chinese government is ‘turning a blind eye’ to the training facilities. One can see why: technically, they are illegal. In the case of a crackdown on these missionaries no blame can be laid at Peking´s door, and it will not protest against their punishment. On the other hand, they can be a useful instrument of rapprochement between China and the usually anti-Chinese but powerful American Christian Right.

Chan does not discuss how successful the movement has been in gaining converts, but presumably not highly so. Yet this may be a new development in worldwide Chinese evangelical proselytising, which has so far been overwhelmingly directed at other Chinese. I wonder how easy this transition might be, as in my view the success of Chinese proselytising lies partly in ethnically homogeneous congregations for which shared experiences of migration and entrepreneurship or studying, as well as transnational links to mainland China, are central. If an army of outsourced Chinese missionaries arises, it is likely to merge in this network of Chinese evangelism rather than stay under Western command.