Interview With American Missionary Couple to China: ‘We Knew Nothing About China but God Called Us to Go’ (Part 1)

A city.
A city. (photo:
By Grace Song, Anthony Lee August 24th, 2022

Editor’s note: In their forties, American missionary couple Stephen and Denise were called by God to share the gospel with the Chinese people. After a decade’s efforts, a church was established in one of the metropoles. Through their ministry in China, they experienced God’s providence, guidance, and work in the hearts of Chinese Christians. Due to COVID-19, they are unable to travel back there to strengthen local church leaders but they serve as the role of coach to sustain them. This is part 1 of the interview, see part 2 here.

China Christian Daily: Can you introduce yourselves first?

Stephen: I'm Stephen, and this is my wife Denise, and we've been married for almost 41 years. We met when I was in Bible College here in Tennessee. We went to China in 2006 and spent 11 years serving in the country.

Denise: We have eight children, and there are more children who are really children to us in our hearts - several girls who were orphans that we took care of while we were living in China. We consider them our children. We have eleven grandchildren and two more on the way.

China Christian Daily: So why did you come to China?

Stephen: We really felt a calling from the Lord. That was a long process.

We were both working - self-employed - we had our own business while raising children and serving in our local church. Things were going well, but I began to have a stirring feeling in my heart that there was something else that we were supposed to be doing. But I wasn't sure what it was, and we began to pray and try to figure out what God was trying to tell us.

That was a period of probably two years of searching, praying, and trying to figure it out. I looked into several things, but none of those doors opened.

Our local church was very involved in world missions, so we support missionaries financially and through prayers, and they’d come to our church to share their experiences. After the church service, we went out with them to eat together, and my friend began to talk to me about China. Obviously, we had talked about China many times before, but that night was different.

It was almost like my friend’s voice faded into the background, and in my heart, it just seemed like God was saying to me, ‘Stephen, this thing that you’ve been praying about - this is it. I began to feel excited but also shocked. Denise answered that she was going to China with me.

So that's where it began. From that moment, we spent about two years making preparations. We sold everything. We put the home that we lived in for 20 years on the market. The house still hadn’t been sold after we arrived in China. It was another amazing time of God because we didn't have to move out of our home and live somewhere else temporarily.

Denise: We also had three children in college at that time during the planning phase. Our children were very much on the same page with us. One of our daughters, who was 16 at the time, wanted to go with us to China. So when we came to China, there were us two plus our 16-year-old daughter.

China Christian Daily: How did you come to China?

Stephen: As China is a big country, we took a survey trip to decide where we were going to serve. Our missionary friends shared with us about China and introduced to us another missionary who was living in a southern city. He suggested that we plan a trip to visit there and see what happens. We looked around the city, and I felt like that was the place. We didn't even go on some of the other visits that we had originally planned to go to. We decided that it was where we were supposed to be.

Looking back, the city was a very - if I can use the words - a strategic place to do mission work. Because it's a factory city and there were people living there and working there from all over China. We’ve seen this happen many times: people would come to know the Lord, and then it wouldn't be very long before God began to burden their hearts about their friends and their family back in their hometown. Then they would take Bibles back to their hometown when they visited family.

Denise: We chose the city, but we had no idea what we were doing. All we knew was that God had called us there to share the gospel. We didn't know what that ministry was going to look like at first and we literally had no plan.

We had been told that you cannot tell anybody about Jesus. You have to wait for them to come to you and ask you about Jesus. So we never ever imagined that we would have a church because we didn't think that was possible in China. All we knew was that we would try to build relationships with people, even one on one, and share with them about Jesus.

China Christian Daily: You went as individual missionaries. Were you sent by any organization?

Stephen: We did go out under the authority of our local church in August 2006, sixteen years ago.

Denise: Yes, our church sent us, but they didn't give us any instructions or anything like that. They didn't have people that studied about China or studied the dynamics of living there. I even took forks and knives and spoons with us! We did not know anything about China.

China Christian Daily: Then how did you initially preach the gospel in China?

Denise: Our approach was to go to places like Starbucks and try to meet people. From our experience, if you’re a foreigner in China, people will come to you to say hello or practice English.

Actually, on the day we arrived in Hong Kong for transit to Mainland China, we had no idea what to do. We couldn’t speak Chinese and no one spoke English to us. We took a taxi, then got on a bus, then got off the bus and on again, queued, waited, but all the way we didn’t know what we were doing or supposed to do. That was a perfect picture of us going to China - knowing nothing but that God told us to come here, to tell these people about his son Jesus Christ.

Stephen: Our missionary friend tended to be more cautious and careful. We think that’s because he spent most of his time closer to Beijing. Generally, we were more relaxed. We didn't go out on the street and hand out Christian material.

China Christian Daily: It seems that the West usually pictures China as a severely persecuted country. But actually, it’s very complicated in China.

Stephen: We were very amazed by how things unfolded. First, we started meeting people in coffee shops, then we began to invite some people to our apartment. Then that gradually developed into Bible studies. After two or three years, we rented a hotel conference room and met there every Sunday. Usually, over 100 people would join us.

But suddenly the hotel told us that we couldn’t use their place anymore. They never really gave us a clear-cut reason, but we think it possibly could have been the pressure from the local authorities. The local authorities never confronted us. Police never appeared in our gatherings. A local friend suggested that the authorities probably knew you were here and knew what you were doing, but we should be fine as long as we weren’t causing trouble.

In our 11 years in the city, there were only a few times when we were under tighter control. Mainly in 2008, because of the Olympics, we needed to be quiet and stay low-key. We would meet in smaller groups and meet in different places, like parks. But for the most part, we felt freedom in the city that we really never expected.

Denise: In the first year we joined an English Bible study group, but the leader only spoke English and didn’t like using a translator. So his study was limited to English-speaking Chinese.

We always thought, what about the people who can't speak English? How can we reach them with the gospel? Then the next year, we met another American and we decided that we could have a Bible study group with a translator from 2007.

In the study, nine people came. But the second week there were over 30 people there. Then shortly after that, we started meeting in a hotel conference room on Sundays.

The Chinese people were very eager to share the gospel. It was just like the story of the pearl in the Bible. When a Chinese person found Jesus Christ, when they came to know him as their savior, they wanted to share that love with their people, their friends, and their family.

After the hotel forced us to stop coming, we rented our own places and used as our church.

China Christian Daily: Can you tell me more about your church? For example, what’s the demographic like in your congregation?

Stephen: When we first started, most attenders were young, student-aged people, and most of them were women. By the time we left China in 2017, the church had about over around 200 people coming regularly, with a good mixture of ages, from babies to eighty-year-olds.

At first, we had many students and new graduates from college, working their first job. But over time, that began to change because these single people eventually started to get married and set up families.

As a result, a lot of our ministry involved helping these young people learn what the Bible says about relationships, marriage, parenting, and family.

Denise: Many came because they heard that there were Americans and that they could learn English. We didn’t mind that. As long as we could speak about Jesus, we were happy to speak English with them all day long. Many of them didn’t believe to start with, but they would continue to come back. I think it was the Holy Spirit that drew them back.

China Christian Daily: Share with us more about those young couples.

Denise: In China, most people either send their children to live with their grandparents for the early years or invite the grandparents to come and live with them. Then the grandma would take over everything. But we encouraged them not to do that.

We needed to teach a husband to put his wife as the first priority in the family, rather than his mom. This idea was also new to Chinese families.

Stephen: We were very amazed to see how God worked in the hearts of these young people and these young families. They really wanted to obey God. Sometimes they had to make some hard decisions.

China Christian Daily: Could you give us a story on parenting?

Stephen: A young couple in our church, Jack and May, made some very difficult decisions about their parents’ involvement in their family. In the beginning, their parents were very upset but gradually they saw how happy the children were and how they were obeying their parents. They were amazed.

What was more, to homeschool their children, they decided that May would resign from her job at China Mobile. They felt so strongly about the education of their children that they were willing to do that.

Denise: It took Jack about two to three years to decide to follow Jesus. He came because he wanted to learn English, then he had many questions. But once he’d made the decision, he was 100 percent in and he was eager to train his family in the ways of the Bible.

Homeschooling is a very different route from the ordinary education path in China. Normally students would start from primary school and go all the way to high school, then college. In their case, they needed to have faith that God would prepare the way. There were still other options, including studying in a college abroad, being accepted by on in China through other exams, or maybe after 10 years the policy might change. But whichever route they take, just as the Bible teaches us, don't worry about tomorrow. Then the other thing is, that the Bible also tells us to prepare for tomorrow.

In their case, they are still preparing their children's minds through home education, to do their best to always be learning, and to teach their children to love, learn to grow. In one sense, they're teaching them Math, English, history, and science at home, but in the other bigger sense, they're teaching them to be productive individuals, to work hard, to study hard, and to always be growing.

In our particular case, we adopted a little girl, who came to live with us when she was nine. At that point, she was failing all her subjects at school and particularly hated Math. We persuaded her aunt, who used to take care of her but couldn’t anymore, that we would homeschool this girl. I told the aunt that one thing was certain: if the girl came home, she would have an education. But if she stayed in the public school, she couldn’t even pass the exam to enter middle school. When she came to America with us, she always got As and Bs at school. The homeschooled children might not get to university, but they will be very educated and able to do whatever they want to do.

We have a Chinese daughter in northeastern China. She is going to an underground college that is for Christians. She’s learning about the Bible and music. She will not get a degree but she will get very equipped to do music training and lead worship in a church. Her heart is very strong for working in the church, so she doesn't care about the money or the prestige or anything like that.

When God comes in, he changes the person’s priorities, and he equips people from all walks of life.

China Christian Daily: What was the biggest challenge when leading the church?

Stephen: Leading the church - that in itself was interesting. Because I had never been a pastor in America, although I served my church in other ways. But while I was in China, my pastor in America gave me a lot of support, and I also benefited from my observation of him throughout the years.

Another one of the biggest challenges was helping these young families to work through their marriage problems and family problems.

One of the challenges we had was finance. We had to raise our own support, although our church in America did give some support. But when we arrived in China, we found out really quickly that we went kind of underfunded.

But God is so amazingly faithful. Throughout our entire experience, God guided people to see our situation and put in their hearts the desire to help us, financially. So we never lacked. We praise the Lord. There were some lean times, but we never went without and God always took care of us. 

Denise: I think translation was a major problem in the early stages. We needed to find a translator that doesn't just know English, but one that knows the Bible. Because the Bible is almost in another language. And the translator needs to be faithful. Some would hear something and choose to translate it into something else.

When we were there, we translated songs for the Chinese to sing. For each song, we had English lyrics, Chinese, and pinyin. Actually, many songs had been translated but we didn’t know back then.

Another challenge was that, as we had more children and teenagers, we needed teachers to teach them and educate them in a biblical way. God sent us another American couple that came along beside us for a couple of years that helped us a lot to start a Sunday school.

(To be continued...)

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