“You don’t know us very well.”
The “us” to whom my Chinese friend was referring was a core group of Christian leaders with whom I’d been working. It probably was equally referring to Chinese in general though. My friend was being brutally honest, and it stung. But he was right—even if I had been in China for nearly a decade.
Back up twelve hours. I was meeting with the aforementioned group of core leaders for one of our regular leadership meetings. But this meeting wasn’t regular. We were discussing a major change—one that would potentially alter the trajectory of the network in which they were involved. I was bringing this idea to the table because I thought it might really help the network grow and thrive, rather than just continue in survival mode. But it didn’t go over well. Only one of the leaders was really in favor of it, and he was the one least affected. He was also the one who called me the next day.
As we debriefed the previous night’s meeting, I was still dealing with the frustration of it all. I’m not sure that I wanted brutal honesty, but that’s what I got. “You don’t know us very well,” he began. “If you did, you would’ve taken each one of us out to eat beforehand and discussed the change you were suggesting over a meal. Then when we had the meeting last night, everything would’ve gone smoothly.”
I had lived in China long enough to know that Chinese culture places a high value on relationships. I also knew each of the leaders well enough individually to realize that sometimes new ideas met with opposition simply because they were new. But somehow knowing those things in the abstract didn’t translate. In hindsight, I wonder why I didn’t put two and two together.
I suspect, however, that I had functionally compartmentalized these relationships as work relationships. I had spent time with each of these leaders, but largely in a work context, rather than for the sake of simply building relationships. In my mind, our meeting was a work function. And as such, I expected a certain set of rules (probably largely shaped by Western notions of efficiency) to be in play. What I realize now, and what my friend was pointing out then, is that I had effectively overlooked the Chinese cultural value of relationships in favor of efficiency. Relationships aren’t just a means to an end; they are a worthy end in themselves, and one that has the added benefit of facilitating ease of discussion in matters like the one that happened to be on the table that night.
That realization has significant implications for ministry to international students from China. Whether you’re engaged in evangelism or discipleship with Chinese students, understand that relationships are important—and not just as a means to an end (even a worthy one). Cultivating those relationships is a part of befriending and loving them well in a way that makes sense in their cultural grid. They’ll instinctively feel the difference between relationship as a means to evangelism or discipleship and relationship as a way to know and love them irrespective of any particular outcome.
One way you might think about this is as contextualization; another is as loving your neighbor as yourself. Regardless, the gospel pushes us in this direction. In Christ, God accommodated himself to us, meeting us at our point of need. Christ took on human flesh, satisfied the demands of the law, and suffered and died on our behalf in order that we might be redeemed and reconciled to God. The fact of God’s accommodating to us in sacrificial love then becomes the fertile soil out of which our response grows: “In this the love of God was made manifest among us, that God sent his only Son into the world, so that we might live through him. In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins. Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another” (1 John 4:9-11).
So don’t just meet once a week for Bible study and then never spend time together outside of that meeting. Cultivate a relationship that extends beyond the bounds of that weekly time slot. Don’t only talk about the gospel with your non-Christian Chinese friend. Find out about the details of their life. Share a meal. Ask them to cook for you. Learn about their culture and invite them into yours. You still may not know them very well, but the very fact that you are pursuing a relationship with them will predispose them to being much more forgiving of cultural and personal missteps.
What do you think? Share your insights in the comments below.