EAST ASIA (BP) — Alexander and Maggie Kirkpatrick* moved to East Asia in 1989 — the same year as the Tiananmen Square massacre. Their wedding anniversary shares the same date.
During their 25 years of service, the Kirkpatricks watched China change and the church boom. The Christian workers say the number of believers in the country is “staggering.”
“The day where we arrive in a city and we go for months and months and never find a Christian are really gone,” Maggie said. “That is a major, major God-thing.
“[We] would pray that the Gospel would take root in the far reaches,” Maggie, recalling their first years on the field, said.
“We would be disappointed, if after 25 years, we couldn’t find any trace of the Gospel in any of the places we’ve been,” she said. “But God hasn’t disappointed. We can find the results of evangelism and discipleship, even in some of the most far-flung places.”
The Kirkpatricks moved to Asia to work in an unengaged and unreached city in western China. In the late 80s and early 90s, western China was the “wild west” — uncharted territory for many Westerners.
“Twenty five years ago, we came here to be the Christians in those cities and to be a presence of Christ in some of those unreached places,” Maggie said.
As the nation and church were still recovering from Mao Zedong’s Cultural Revolution, “it was very difficult to even find anyone who believed,” she added.
“[Believers] were there; they were the remnants of the church prior to the Cultural Revolution. It took time and relationships to find some of those people.
“In the meantime, we set about breaking new ground and winning the lost,” Maggie recalled. “It is many of those people who believed in the early days who are now taking the Gospel forward in China.”
Stories and historical tapestries began to unfold as Christian workers in China led people to Christ.
“Interestingly, as we’ve won new people, we began to discover more and more about the church that was left here after the Communist takeover,” Maggie said. “A number of those networks from prior to 1950 are still alive and well and spreading the Gospel not just in China but all over the world.”
Believers from 20-30 years ago began new house church streams, sharing the Gospel domestically and internationally.
“It is all a God thing; it wasn’t our doing that caused a wave of change,” Alexander said. “We were just there on the front row, or second row, participating in the joy.”
The change of a nation
Politician and reformer Deng Xiao Ping’s economic reforms ushered in a new era for the nation, the couple noted. China’s economy went from being state-run, to foreign companies being encouraged to joint venture with Chinese companies.
“The younger generation is quickly forgetting what their grandparents’ generation went through during the Cultural Revolution,” Maggie said. “That era in China, to them, is long ago and far away. Their China is connected to the world.”
The Kirkpatricks at first had to travel in and out of China from neighboring countries. “It’s gone from us not even knowing if we could live in country for long periods, to being here long-term,” she said, recalling they even had to use special currency.
The city where they first served is now a major hub for expatriates. Western amenities are abundant such as Starbucks, Dolce and Gabbana, Mexican food and Walmart.
The couple remembers when Chinese people lived in work units called a “danwei.” People of the same profession would live in the same building.
Under the old socialist system, food, housing and health care were all provided. Now, people are free to live wherever they choose and provide for themselves.
The Kirkpatricks remember big Russian trucks and no private cars. Bicycles were the main form of transportation in the late 80s and early 90s.
Now, Lamborghinis, Maseratis and Ferraris tear through the empty night streets, revving their high-dollar engines. “China has so many millionaires — that was unheard of back then,” Maggie said.
However, a recent World Bank listed China among the five nations housing the world’s poorest people.
Freedom of travel has also been a major change. The couple recalled when only the Communist Party could get a passport and visa.
“From Paris, to Munich to Rio de Janeiro, to Mogadishu; pick a city, [Chinese people] are there,” Maggie pointed out.
If there is a sizable population of Chinese people in a city, virtually in every nation in the world, the Gospel is as well, she added.
“If they take the Good News with them,” Alexander said, “it will be a way to get the Good News out faster.”
As the Chinese moved into various cities to find work, cities became a prime place for seeing the Gospel spread.
“[Apostle] Paul was relating to people in the cities,” he said. “Cities are still strategic because of … migrants coming to the city to find work.”
Migrant workers move frequently. And many of them who are new believers often return to their hometowns and begin spreading the Good News. “[The Gospel] travels back with them to their homes and families,” Alexander said.
Alexander said he’s partnering with a seminary in the U.S. to provide theological education for believers.
The role of the Western Christian worker in China has changed, he added. Now, their role is “primarily to come alongside [local] workers, provide training, equipping, encouragement … and eventually finish the task, the Great Commission.”
Growth of a nation
Alexander said he sees parallels between the growth of his own son and daughter and the growth of the church in China.
“At first, you need a lot of information on what to do and how to do… As you grow in your walk, you need someone to come along and encourage and work alongside … not as much directive but more supportive,” Alexander said.
In addition to training, Alexander counsels pastors and leaders on small group dynamics, investing time into building up the church and helping believers learn how to cast vision. He challenges Chinese believers to take the Gospel to unreached areas.
Maggie said, “The local brothers and sisters are doing the work. Some of the things they need to accomplish what God is asking them to do are things we can provide.”
The Chinese church sends its own workers to countries Westerners cannot enter. Chinese believers also founded the Back to Jerusalem movement — a commitment to take the Gospel to unreached areas.
“In 25 years, we’ve gone from seeing people come to faith, to training them, to seeing them do it themselves,” Maggie said.
Even with the rapid changes and developments in China, the Kirkpatricks said there are many places in China that are the “old China.”
“There are places where the future and past coincide,” Alexander said.
The next 25 years are an open book for China, The Kirkpatricks say. They pray it will be 25 years saturated with the Bible.
Caroline Anderson is an IMB writer living in Southeast Asia. Get Baptist Press headlines and breaking news on Twitter (@BaptistPress), Facebook (Facebook.com/BaptistPress) and in your email (baptistpress.com/SubscribeBP.asp).