“Back To Jerusalem” In The Late ‘40s
Despite suffering and chaos, spiritual revival spread among young people across China during WWII and the Civil War that followed. Brave bands of evangelists felt called to reach the poverty-stricken Northwest. Without knowledge of each other, they went out from Shanghai, Jiangsu, Henan, Shandong and Shaanxi.
One team from Shaanxi had a vision to take the gospel back to Jerusalem. The other groups had similar ideas. They would first evangelize the seven northwest provinces, then seven countries across the Muslim world. An American missionary in China heard about their vision and named them the “Back to Jerusalem Band”, a legendary term today.
Tentmakers By Necessity
These young people had the blessing and prayers of their churches or Bible schools. But there was no organized support of any kind. They were committed to living by faith. One group of four made a 105-day journey mostly on foot.
Upon arrival in Xinjiang, they all had to find work to support themselves. Some had higher education: a midwife, a doctor, even the head of the provincial postal service. Others had Bible college training and made a living in carpentry, auto repair, dressmaking, photography, etc. Still others had menial jobs, working as farmhands. They all purposed to rely on God alone and any work He provided along the way. They were tentmakers by necessity.
The Unfinished Task
A few members of the BTJ Band made it to the China-Afghanistan border in late 1949, but no further. The Shanghai-based Chinese Christian Mission had the vision and strategies to reach the Uyghurs. However, their work was terminated in the early ‘50s when the government halted all mission work in China.
Together with the Northwest Spiritual Band and the Christian National Evangelistic Crusade, these groups had some success reaching the Han majority in Xinjiang. Many of the churches they planted have survived to this day. But the price they paid was heavy. Beginning in the ‘50s, many endured long years of internment, and not a few died in prisons and labor camps.
Their Faith Continues to Speak
The house church movement in China began during the Cultural Revolution years and continued to flourish in the ‘80s. During rapid church growth in the ’90s, the stories of several surviving members of the original BTJ Band, who remained faithful serving in Xinjiang inspired many Christians throughout the world. Churches in China began to send workers to reach ethnic minorities in different parts of the country. The first cross-cultural, cross-border missionary efforts also began.
Today, though not large in number, workers from China can be found in countries from Central Asia to the Middle East. Most of them are Muslim nations that do not issue visas to missionaries or even NGO workers. So these Chinese missionaries operate businesses from travel agencies to beauty salons to vegetable farms. Others work as Chinese teachers, translators, acupuncturists, etc. Again, they are tentmakers by necessity.
China’s first tentmaking missionaries were buried in the sands of the Great Northwest. They never got beyond her western borders. But their vision and faith still speak to a new generation of tentmaking missionaries from a different China and a different time.
From All Nations to All Nations
Today, all the Muslim countries that the BTJ Band hoped to reach are among the 60+ nations in the vast Eurasia economic zone that will be created by China’s Belt & Road Initiative. Along the high speed rails connecting these countries, international trading hubs will spring up to attract economic migrants from remote unreached towns and villages.
The region’s rising demands for services in finance, IT, logistics, education, etc., will generate opportunities for tentmakers and business people from around the world as in many Chinese cities today. The Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank financing OBOR projects will be made up of 80 member states from around the globe, some of them missions sending countries. This is the time and call for China and many nations around the world to send tentmakers to the Belt & Road nations.