Collaborating with Nationals in Church Planting, Part 1 – Why Do It?


In this three-part series, Sa Zhong Zi makes a case for the necessity of partnering with locals in ministry. Today, the author introduces the parallels he sees between mountain climbing and local ministry partnerships.

Sa Zhong Zi (meaning “sow seeds”) is the pseudonym for an American assisting with the support and strengthening of the Chinese house church.

When my family and I arrived in China years ago I never could have imagined the things that were in store for us. We were not strangers to the challenges of cross-cultural living and ministry. My wife is Chinese, born in Taiwan. I was born and raised in the United States but spent several years living abroad in China while single. As a couple we assisted in two Chinese church plants in the United States and had years of ministry experience with Chinese students and visiting scholars at a major university campus. Both of us are fluent in Mandarin and when we arrived, we wanted to dive right into ministry.  

When our family landed at the airport, we were greeted by two local house church pastors and an Australian-born Chinese brother, all of whom became trusted and crucial ministry partners. The years of ministry that followed would teach me lessons about partnering with national leaders that I am certain I will never forget. My purpose in writing this piece is to focus on the two house church pastors that met us at the airport that day and what I learned from our partnership with them.

Why Partner with Local Leaders?

Before I launch into explaining what I have learned from these experiences, I want to use an illustration to highlight the thesis of this piece. In 2012 I went to Nepal and had the opportunity to do some trekking in the Himalayas with some of my fellow foreign workers. While my respect and admiration for mountain climbers grew as we spent several days trekking, there were some profound ministry lessons that I learned from that experience as well. I learned that sometimes progress is slow and acclimatization is difficult. Sometimes trekkers cannot continue and must turn back due to the challenges that are brought about by the trekking conditions. There were so many parallels between that trekking experience and my experience of doing long-term ministry in China that I felt compelled to write down my thoughts and observations. 

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After that trip I did a lot of research on mountain climbers and in particular those who climb Mount Everest. Both foreign workers and mountain climbers go through much preparation before they embark on their long journey. After nearly thirty years of ministry experience with Chinese both in the U.S. and China I have seen many people and organizations do well. I have also seen some horrible disasters. Inevitably along the journey you run into those who are fit for the task, acclimatize well, and seem to be making good progress; but you also run into those who are not prepared, are not handling the conditions well, and who are having a very rough go of it. 

In addition, both foreign workers and mountain climbers face tremendous risks.  One out of every five climbers on Everest dies. In a similar vein, foreign workers sacrifice a lot to go on the field and can face dangerous living conditions not only for themselves but for their families. At some point the decision to turn someone back could save their life and the lives of others, but that decision often comes with a lot of pain and difficulty. Both the experienced and the inexperienced must face the challenges of being on the journey and in some cases both the experts and the novices are not able to finish the task. In some cases the inexperienced ones can drain precious resources from the more experienced ones, leading to a disastrous toll on both.   

The journey is long and grueling and at many points the participants (foreign workers and climbers alike) ask themselves if it is really worth it.  

“Is it worth it to put my family through this?”  
“Am I depriving my children of important opportunities?” 
“Is it worth it to give up all the comforts of home?” 
“Is it worth it to face the risks and dangers of living in a developing country?”  

In the end, those of us who answer “yes” all know that we are working towards an eternal goal. Here is where the similarity between the mountaineer and the foreign worker ends. Unlike the fleeting glory of reaching the top of a mountain, which is the goal of the climber, the foreign worker works toward the eternal purpose of seeing God’s kingdom expand. It is truly a high calling (pun intended) and the cost cannot be compared with the ultimate reward of seeing lost souls won for the kingdom.

There is one final similarity, however, between the foreign worker and the mountain climber. Trying to accomplish the goal without the cooperation of locals, whether it is reaching the top of the mountain or planting a church, is a very unwise choice. Every expert climber knows that the Sherpas, the indigenous people who live in the Everest region, know the lay of the land better than any non-native, can acclimatize faster, and can assist the climbers in ways the non-locals are incapable of doing.

This was one of the greatest lessons I have learned working alongside the two house church pastors that picked me up from the airport that day. They have been my Sherpas – my guides, my partners, and my friends. They have taught me many valuable lessons and I, in turn, have been able to help them in areas where my experience was needed. Working alongside them not only made the journey more fruitful and enjoyable, it provided me with critical ministry lessons that I hope I can pass along to others.  

The results of our partnership with local leaders are evident. Two years after arriving on the field we started a seminary that multiplied fourfold in just three years. Several years after arriving we were able to start a local network, which now includes over a thousand church members from over half a dozen churches and is still growing. From this network we have seen other ministries such as campus ministry, ministry to the elderly, pro-life/adoption ministry, ministry to single mothers, and many others, not to mention the countless individuals whose lives have been touched by one-on-one encounters with church members.   

Additionally, this church network has influenced churches in other cities around China that want to use this model and we are actively coaching them in this process.  In the coming years we hope to see these other cities fully developed to influence their surrounding areas. This represents the lives of literally thousands of Christians.

Alongside God’s sovereign hand in all of this, none of these things would have been possible without the Sherpas who guided and navigated the journey. The terrain where I live is too difficult spiritually and culturally for us as foreign workers to have been able to pull any of this off on our own. The Sherpas have been essential.


The first two men to summit Mount Everest were Edmund Hillary and Tenzin Norgay, a Sherpa. The men were partners and the accomplishment was an accomplishment of teamwork, but it must also be emphasized that there were many elements outside of their control that made their climb successful. The weather was agreeable, the conditions on the mountain were favorable, they did not experience any extreme health problems. Things such as weather, the conditions of the mountain, and any number of physical maladies that often plague even the most experienced climbers, as well as countless other variables, are all part of what can make or break a mountaineers success in reaching the goal. All such variables were completely outside of the control of the climbers. Hillary and Norgay were successful in large part because all of these variables played out in their favor.

In a similar fashion it needs to be understood that success or failure in ministry is ultimately not in our hands. We need to do the hard work of learning language, studying the culture, and sacrificing the comforts of home, but we also know that “unless the Lord builds the house we labor in vain.” Every successful ministry owes more to those variables outside of human control and planning than it does to the ones we inevitably accredit to the “bright minds” of men. Often the truth is that success in ministry means that the ministers were fortunate enough to be at the right place at the right time.  

For those of us who are now fortunate enough to see ministry growth in China and in many other countries, we need to remember it was the foreign workers who served one hundred years ago that paved the way for today’s ministries successes.  They themselves often saw little fruit in their own lifetime. How can we ever feel proud when we know we are standing on their shoulders? While this is certainly a reminder to us to be humble, the ultimate thrust toward humility rests on the fact that every single variable that contributes to ministry success is ultimately not in our hands. God reserves the right to claim those ministry successes and our joy is in being a participant in that success.

We were fortunate to experience a level of ministry success in China and partnered with national leaders to promote church growth and theological education. This partnership between foreign workers and local leaders was a sweet taste of kingdom fellowship as well as a thrilling experience of watching the Spirit work in powerful ways. We saw an amazing amount of fruit in a very short amount of time.  Many lives have been changed as a result, including our own, but in the end we all must humbly admit that it is the Lord who orchestrated it all.  

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Further Reading

Witness In Persecution: Heart Struggle
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How I Prayed For Instruction
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God's Love in Trials: A Letter of Encouragement
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