CHURCHES WITHOUT STEEPLES: Planting a Workplace Church in China

By Janet C. Smith

In September 2004, Maya Morgan left the United States to take an engineering position at an American company’s Chinese manufacturing facility. By January 2005, this intelligent and hard-working young woman, by God’s grace and her own initiative, had taken the first steps toward planting a small church of Chinese nationals within the company walls, and with the full knowledge and consent of her American boss in China.

That’s the short version of this remarkable story that began several years earlier in the Marketplace Ministries division of Christian Missionary Fellowship (CMF) in Indianapolis, Indiana.

Background

In the late 1990s, the mission began looking for innovative ways to send Christians to China, a country that does not grant visas to missionaries. These visionaries could see the urgent need to share the gospel in this enormous nation, a major player on the world stage.

In 2000, Alex Denny, a retired Christian businessman in Indiana, joined the team and used his expertise and contacts in a series of complex business negotiations to arrange, with funds from a partner church, to purchase a small percentage of a new, modern manufacturing facility that a U.S. company was building in a large industrial city in China. Two volunteers—retired, seasoned engineers—were sent as on-site consultants for the construction project.

This partnership of finances and people gave the mission a voice in the selection of a general manager for the Chinese plant. A young American Christian, Kent Wilson, married to a Chinese Christian woman, was hired by the company and moved to China to run the plant.

Kent was eager to share his faith in China, but was burdened by the many responsibilities of opening and overseeing a large new business in a foreign country. He was ready for CMF to supply an engineering intern who could work in the plant and develop relationships with the Chinese young people in the company. It was time to find the right person to continue the plan.

The Right Person, the Right Time

Maya Morgan was a recent graduate of Georgia Institute of Technology who had been active in Christian Campus Fellowship during her college years. She was working as an engineer for the state of Georgia when she was recommended for the mission. She was eager for the challenge to her professional skills and for the opportunity to share her faith cross-culturally.

“I am amazed at how God could put all these pieces together to make this happen,” she wrote before leaving. “Seventy to 80 percent of all Chinese Christians are young women. Business is booming in the area where I will be working. God is drawing young adults into the companies here. Young adults coming on their own are in need of community. Put these pieces together and you can see this trip is so amazing because young women, some of them new Christians, are being drawn into this area for opportunities at a better life. I hope to help foster a community atmosphere among these women, so they will find accepting and loving relationships with Christ and with other believers.”

She didn’t fully realize it, but Maya was heading to China to start a church!

Building Relationships

The plant’s young, Chinese women welcomed Maya with open arms. They helped her get settled in her new apartment, showed her around the town, and practiced English and Chinese with her. Within a month, she had hosted her first get-together for coworkers at her home and was on her way to establishing herself as a hard worker in the plant and a good friend to her coworkers.

She was also very open about her faith and constantly fielded questions about God and Christianity. Her coworkers’ spiritual hunger was very apparent.

“Around me is an office full of young, smart, ambitious individuals who value their families, want to be kind to others, and have opportunities all around them to ‘make it’ in this world,” wrote Maya. “In essence, there is nothing of myself I can offer them that they do not have. But no matter how hard they work, there is still an unsatisfied part they cannot fill. I can share my life, tell them of all the wonderful things God has done for me, and let them know God wants to be with them, too.”

The Next Step

Maya’s popularity with her coworkers, coupled with their interest in all things American, including Christianity, gave her the perfect opportunity to launch the next step: a Bible study held after hours in the manufacturing facility, a completely legal activity if the employees attend voluntarily.

Maya chose the book The Stranger on the Road to Emmaus for its heavy emphasis on Scripture study. The group of 10-15 Chinese met every Wednesday after work, and the discussions were lively and challenging. At their final session, the group gathered in one young woman’s apartment, and several of the Christians shared how they had “become cool” by being baptized in a bathtub!

For their next study, Maya chose The Case for Faith, and added another element to the young church’s experience: the opportunity for an outreach project to a local school for migrant workers’ children.

“It may be the first time many in our group have done any hands-on service to others in this way,” she wrote. “In fact, when I first brought up that we could help with a group such as this school, there were many puzzled looks and questions: ‘Why would we do that? Do they need our help?’”

With the backing of her company, and the help of the fledgling church, Maya initiated contact with the migrant school, and in February 2006, the company donated scholarships to 10 students. Within a few months, Maya and members of the fellowship were spending Saturdays teaching English to select groups of children at the school and offering advanced studies to the teachers.

A few months later, one of her Chinese friends, a young man named Brady, asked Maya and the church to baptize him.

“Brady sent me a text message on my cell phone—so Chinese! My friends and I did it. We read the Romans 6 verses, repeated the Good Confession, and then figured out how to baptize him in a bathtub. And God was there for every part!”

In September 2006, shortly before she left the plant and returned to the United States, two more friends from the fellowship were baptized. The little workplace church had borne amazing fruit in a year and a half!

The Church Goes On

Maya returned to the U.S. to take a new job, further her education, and get married. She and her husband hope to someday return to China. The little group of believers at the manufacturing facility continued the work at the migrant school with the blessing and support of Kent Wilson.

A year later, in September 2007, a second young Christian engineering graduate, this time from Mississippi State University, arrived in China to work as an intern at the plant with Kent Wilson and carry on Maya’s work. Brandon Carter has enthusiastically embraced life in China and is building relationships with his coworkers and strengthening the group’s involvement in teaching English at the migrant school. He works in partnership with Tracy, a longtime Chinese Christian young woman who moved to the city to work part-time at the plant and assist with the missions projects. Tracy restarted the Bible studies at the “church plant in the plant” in February 2008.

Brandon is very open with his Christian faith at the school, particularly as he tells the true stories behind the celebrations of Thanksgiving and Christmas. The opportunities for sharing the gospel with schoolteachers, children, and their parents are unlimited.

In the interval between Maya’s departure and Tracy’s arrival, some members of the original workplace church moved into small house churches in the area, while others worship at the authorized Chinese Christian church. Many of the church members at the company continue to help at the migrant school.

Church planting in China is challenging and requires a long-term mind-set and years of prayer and planning. Conversions come slowly and require time for building close personal relationships. To God be the glory for bringing together the right people at the right time to advance his plans for planting a church in China.


 

 

Janet C. Smith lives in Indianapolis, Indiana, and attends the Hazel Dell Christian Church. All names in this article have been changed to protect the identity of these Christians and Christian workers in China.

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