How I Have Been Shaped By China

Al LaCour serves as the nationwide Area Coordinator for Reformed University Fellowship’s international student ministry. After 30 years as a church planter and the senior pastor of four churches, Al now trains Christians to welcome international student into their homes and churches. Al loves to equip churches and campus ministries to “welcome the nations and equip kingdom ambassadors.”

Memorable encounters during my two trips in China have given me lenses through which to interpret life-changing experiences with Chinese friends and their culture.

My first trip to China was a brief one. A team of members from my church asked me, as their pastor, to visit and teach alongside them as they served students on a university campus in China. Before this first trip, in the spring of 2002, a friend gave me a travel journal that displayed Chinese calligraphy on the cover. On front one read the Chinese character for wisdom, 智慧. This became my prayer, along with “God, give me the eyes to see, to observe, and to learn wisdom from personal interactions with the Chinese.”

My ten days in China included a visit to a Buddhist temple. As I watched elderly Chinese lift their grandchildren to touch the ornate doors of the temple, one team member described this as a “double crime scene.” Human hearts were being robbed of the knowledge of God; God was robbed of rightful worship. But to me, this was also a vivid picture of a spiritual vacuum. The elderly, pre-revolutionary Chinese wanted their grandchildren to touch some spiritual reality. This vacuum only became clearer during my tearoom conversations with college students. A rising generation in China hungered for more than education and materialism.

After I returned from China, I led my congregation into the China Partnership. A number of church members became involved with international students. One member, a graduate student who had served in China, phoned me to say, “Pastor, I’ve just met two Chinese PhD students on the campus shuttle. They are as open to the gospel as any of the undergraduates I met in China – and they will become university professors!” To make a long story short, by 2004, I was full-time involved in international student ministry with Reformed University Fellowship (RUF). Not for the last time, the Chinese had changed my life and my ministry calling.

As I built support for my work, I asked a pastor outside of my denomination if his church would support global-local world missions. He said, “If you had asked me three months ago, I would have honestly answered, ‘No.’ But I’ve just returned from China where I met a leader who supervises hundreds of house churches. I asked him, ‘How can the American church help the church in China?’ He said, ‘Don’t come – you may get deported, but we will go to jail. Don’t send money – it’s considered foreign-devil money. But do pray: God is at work in China. And do reach Chinese students who come to the USA – the church in China desperately needs well-educated Christian leaders.”

After four years with RUF International, my wife and I were invited to visit the cities and campuses of eight Chinese professors and research scholars we had welcomed into our lives at Georgia Tech. Our 2008 China trip was extensive – 24 days. Chinese friends we had earlier welcomed into our lives and homes now served as our hosts among their families and in eight cities. Once again, I prayed for wisdom. But, this time, in a more specific way: “Lord, show me the most effective ways to reach China and the Chinese for your kingdom and to grow Christ’s church.” Once again, God answered that prayer through at least three memorable encounters. 

While in Beijing, in the Forbidden City, I visited rooms memorializing Matteo Ricci and his younger protégés, who were the first Jesuit missionaries to China. They were the most accomplished astronomers at the Imperial Court, successfully predicting solar eclipses that were considered auspicious events. In 1601, Ricci was invited to be an adviser to the Imperial Court, the first Westerner to be invited into the Forbidden City. 

While in the ancient capital of Xi’an, I visited the museum that houses the Nestorian Stele. This Tang monument was erected in AD 781 to document the first 150 years of Christianity in China. The stele is inscribed with the names of Syriac messengers who brought the “Luminous Religion” – the religion of light – to China in AD 635. These westerners may not have been vocational missionaries, but traders doing business using the ancient Silk Road network. 

While in the southern capital of Nanjing, I visited the home, now a museum, of John Rabe, the German head of the Siemens Corporation in China before and during the Japanese invasion, the “Rape of Nanjing.” As a former Hitler Youth and ostensibly an Axis “ally” of the Japanese, Rabe used his influence to not abandon his lifelong Chinese friends and employees. He refused evacuation with other German nationals. Instead, Rabe worked with a small group of Western missionaries to set up the Nanjing Safety Zone, where hundreds of thousands of Chinese women and children found safety and refuge. Rabe’s letter to Berlin to alert Hitler of the atrocities his Japanese allies were committing was intercepted by the SS. Rabe was deported home.

What wisdom, 智慧, did I gain from this second trip? I realized that some of the most effective ways to reach China and the Chinese are not vocational missionary efforts, but through: 1) scientific exchanges (hence, ministry among international students and scholars); 2) business and trade exchanges; and 3) western expatriate professionals in China who love their Chinese friends to such an extent that they will risk their own lives to save them.