I first came to China in the late 1980s. It was my first trip outside of Europe and I was an exchange student at a university in Shanghai. What an eye-opening year that was!
In those days China's roads were full of bicycles ridden by Mao-suit-clad men and women rather than the latest luxury cars. There were none of the now numerous western fast-food restaurants and the sight of a foreigner still drew much attention even in the major cities. It was an exciting time to be in this rapidly developing country.
Yet a culture and lifestyle so different from that of my home country certainly brought its challenges.
Challenge number one was of course the language. I had learnt a few phrases back in the UK, but at first they never seemed to be the ones required for day-to-day interactions with the locals. It took several months before I began to feel comfortable communicating in Chinese.
Then there was the challenge of figuring out how things were done here. ATMs were still a foreign concept and opening a Chinese bank account turned out to be a long-drawn-out affair. Coming to terms with the need to elbow your way onto a bus or else find yourself forever left behind at the bus stop also took a while. Not to mention the exotic food, incomprehensible shop signs and unusual two-tier money system. Sometimes it was all so exhausting that I was tempted just to give up and retreat to my basic but now familiar student dorm.
As well as the more practical difficulties, I also had to learn to deal with a culture often diametrically opposed to my own. The elderly were venerated, their every word respected, and children seemed to automatically do what their parents asked. Young people studied hard, wanting to make something of themselves, and were grateful for opportunities given. Yet most shop assistants seemed more interested in chatting to each other than in serving any customers who happened to come along. Sometimes the complexities of this seemingly alien society just baffled me.
Nine months passed in a flash and it was soon time to return home, but along the way I had certainly gained a new insight into the challenges of living overseas.
It was some years later that I first heard about Antioch Missions - Chinese Church Support Ministries' plan to open the Antioch School of Missions (ASM). As I thought back on my own first experiences in China, I knew that such a training school could make a huge difference in helping prepare people to live and serve in China. How different that first year could have been for me if I had known more about the country I was going to, had understood the concept of culture shock and how to deal with it, and had had a team of experienced China workers around me to help my transition.
I followed with interest as ASM first started in Taiwan and then after a year in Singapore moved to a new base in Thailand. The students went through a three-month training period there before moving to China for a nine-month placement.
In 2003 I first visited the ASM in Thailand and saw what a great job Barry and Rowena McKnight were doing in overseeing the school. I met the six students who had just completed the year's training and heard how God had been at work in and through them. And then I saw the arrival of the seven new students who were about to be launched into the course. All that I saw confirmed what God had been saying to me about moving to Thailand to help with the ASM.
I have now been involved in the ASM school for more than eight years. Of course changes have taken place. Various teachers have come and gone. The school is now based inside China for the whole year. After six years of faithful service, Barry and Rowena moved on to a different area and a new leadership team has come together. But the foundational aim of the ASM school remains the same. We want to prepare Christians with a call to China to serve as effectively as possible in their God-given roles.
Each year a variety of gifted teachers visit the school to train the students in areas such as prayer and intercession, Bible study, cross-cultural ministry, raising a support team, understanding China and the biblical basis for mission. Students begin studying the Chinese language almost as soon as they arrive and have opportunities to put all they learn into practice as they are introduced to various service areas. In the second part of the course they are encouraged to become more involved in ministry with the local people. And by the end of the year we trust that they are ready to make the transition to a more independent life on the field.
What encourages me most as I continue to serve each new intake of ASM students is the fruit that we see in lives laid down for service here in China.
I look at the young lady who on arrival struggled so much with the local food and see her now regularly hosting groups of Chinese students who cook her delicious meals as a thank you for her faithful excellence in teaching them English. Several of these students have now come to know the Lord.
I remember the older lady who found it so difficult to return to a classroom situation and study a foreign language for the first time. Today she is overseeing two foster homes for orphans and abandoned children in central China and has a vision to see many more children rescued from difficult and often loveless situations.
Then there is the student who for two years kept wondering what on earth God had brought her to China for. Finally she found her place as a consultant therapist in a project caring for the handicapped among a remote and unreached minority people group.
Other ASM graduates are now helping to run a community centre for the urban poor, operating a business with a vision to provide jobs for the unemployed, teaching in various schools and universities, caring for orphans and disabled children, reaching out with God's love to several different unreached minority groups...
Some former ASM students have now returned to their home countries and they too are playing a vital role in expanding God's Kingdom. They are sharing about China in their home churches, interceding for the many needs of this vast country, encouraging others to come and serve, and supporting those who do.
Today the Antioch School of Missions is the entry point for all those who desire to serve in China with AM-CCSM. I believe it also provides a vital service in effectively preparing people who have a long-term calling to this country and in helping others to understand what living in a foreign country really entails. It has been a privilege and an honour to play a small part in this much-needed ministry.
"This year has been specifically structured to provide us with a platform to explore our calling here in China, to equip and train us for cross-cultural ministry, and to encourage and facilitate the deepening of our own personal relationship with the Lord. Being completely immersed in China's culture and surroundings means you have far more opportunity to put into practice what you are learning. I could never have predicted all that I have seen and been able to do as the months have passed, some things even unimaginable by my previous ways of thinking." - ‘M', ASM student 2010-11
"The benefits of really having to rely on God in new ways and therefore learn more about Him and His character have been an awesome experience. ASM has really been a great way for me to get to China in a safe and supported structure to seek God further and find out His calling for me long-term. I can't imagine landing on the mission field without this kind of program in place. I would say it has been essential to really help me get over culture shock, to settle in, stay afloat and follow hard after God. I highly recommend it." - ‘L', ASM student 2008-09
"I came to ASM expecting a year full of serving God, learning to love the Chinese, and in general making a difference in the world. In many ways, all three were born out, though the last maybe not quite in the way I expected. I learned a lot of things this year, about God and about myself. I feel like I have learned on a daily basis that God loves me more than I can imagine, and loves each and every one of His children in the same passionate, faithful way. Thank you, ASM, for showing me more of God's love!" - ‘C', ASM student 2007-08
"We have had some amazing people teaching us, full of wisdom and knowledge. I know that just in the first week, I learnt so much about the responsibility we have as part of God's family that I hadn't realized before. Having the course in China has allowed us to start learning the language straight away and to learn about the Chinese culture whilst seeing it with our own eyes. And we had a large support network around us to talk about all the new adjustments that we had to process both culturally and spiritually. I've also experienced God in ways that have just amazed me." - ‘L', ASM student 2006-07
"ASM prepared me spiritually, mentally, and relationally to minister in a cross-cultural setting. I learned so much through the insightful teaching, in relating with the other students and teachers daily, and through my own devotional times. I can see now that the three months laid a critical foundation for my next nine months in China and after." - ‘E', ASM student 2003-04
WHERE ARE THEY NOW?
Letters from some of our ASM graduates:
"I now have three weekly Bible studies with students. They are starting to bring their friends, so numbers are growing. They ask really good questions and seem to be seriously considering their worldview and Jesus. Please keep these students and sessions in your prayers. The weekly sessions with teachers are also going well. Two are so close to faith. Please keep them in your thoughts." - ‘C', ASM 2007-08
"On September 1, we officially started a foster care home for babies from the orphanage. We currently have three girls living with us in our apartment full-time. This has been a wonderfully amazing, frustrating, happy, tiring, inspiring, thankful time for both of us. We've been concentrating on helping the girls to feel safe and secure with us, as well as loved and having their physical needs met. It is wonderful to see them make progress physically and emotionally, but we also pray that they will come to know their Heavenly Father." - ‘T & J', ASM 2008-09
"We are excited about the opportunities to invest in lives here. ‘A' will be starting an Alpha course soon with our teammate who has been building relationships with a group of girls from the university. ‘J' will be teaming up with another teammate to start a weekly cycling club and a monthly adventure club with the hope that this will be an avenue to form more relationships with students from the university. Please do pray for Him to draw hungry hearts to us and for Him to be directing our thoughts and conversations with these individuals." - ‘A', ASM 2002-03, & ‘J', ASM 2008-09
"It is our hope that we will be able to employ our first Chinese worker soon and see our business start to give opportunities to those who otherwise would not have a chance to succeed. ‘J' has recently restarted her mums and tots group with some other mums in our complex. In addition to that she has also started visiting an orphanage once a week. Most of the children there suffer from some kind of physical disability. We trust that He is beside us and leading us in all things." - ‘M & J', ASM 2002-03