Blog Alumni

Beyond the Degree: Joann Pittman

Wednesday, June 3, 2020


Joann Pittman studied Social Science at Northwestern and graduated with her degree in 1982. Today, Joann lives in New Brighton, but for several years in between, she taught English and spread Christ’s light in China. Joann served in China for the better part of three decades, and she is grateful for the opportunity God gave her to have a front-row seat as the nation opened up and changed, as God grew his church.

In 1979, God put the country of China on Joann’s heart during a summer ministry program in Hong Kong. She shared how that was the first year China was open to American tourists, and she had the opportunity to visit Hong Kong for a few days. Joann traveled to China in 1984 with the organization called English Language Institute/China (ELIC). Joann’s expectation was to teach English for one year and then move back to America, but God had other plans for her journey in China. While staying on for a second year of teaching, God called Joann to long-term service there. Joann’s sojourn in China lasted from 1984 to 2012. During that time, she lived in three different cities: Zhenghou, Changchun, and Beijing. Joann also served in many roles throughout her journey, including teaching English, studying the Chinese language, serving as language/culture learning coach,  working as Chinese language program director, and acting as a consultant for individuals, businesses, and organizations engaged in China.

Joann discussed how China was emerging from decades of isolation from the outside world in the 1980s when she first traveled there. The students she was teaching knew little of the world beyond China and had never seen or met foreigners. They took every opportunity outside of class to ask questions to learn about the culture behind the language they were learning. Outside of campus, Joann and her fellow team of foreign teachers were quite the curiosity as well. A simple walk or trip to the market would draw crowds of curious onlookers!

Some things Joann experienced when moving to another culture took getting used to. Everyone’s life in China was strictly controlled, as students were required to register to visit Joann’s apartment and she was prohibited from visiting people in their homes. When she first got to China, there was little variety in the food they ate. Joann ate a lot of cabbage in the fall and winter and cauliflower in the spring. The vast majority of people rode bicycles everywhere as there were few cars. By the time Joann came back to the US in 2012, it was as if she were leaving a different country than when she arrived. China had developed into the second largest economy in the world, and the Chinese people were traveling abroad and exploring the world by the millions. Despite all the change, several cultural values remain, including the value of the group over the individual, the value of indirect communication, the value of hierarchy in relationships, and the value of ritual and ceremony.

During the 2000s, Northwestern’s Dr. Easterling and Dr. Morgan brought students in the cross-cultural internship programs to China for a few weeks. Joann played host and tour guide during their time in the country, arranging housing and ministry opportunities. On occasion, she also hosted students at her apartment in Beijing. Joann has wonderful memories of those trips and loved when the students came through.

Living cross-culturally forced Joann to examine what aspects of the practice of her faith were cultural and which were biblical. While the Gospel remains the same for all peoples, it finds different expressions in other cultures. Joann learned that different cultures think differently about basic concepts, such as sin and grace. In Chinese culture, there is not a concept of sin as taught in the Bible—there’s not even a word for it. In a culture that values reciprocity, grace is also foreign. It requires rigorous thought and prayer for wisdom to communicate such concepts in a way that is understandable. The Bible classes Joann took while at Northwestern were instrumental in grounding her in the Word of God, seeing beyond the stories to God’s global purposes.

Joann currently serves as the senior vice president for a ministry called ChinaSource, which seeks to provide objective and balanced information about the church in China. Joann has served with ChinaSource since returning to the United States in 2012. In her role she does research and analysis, works with ministry partners, and provides various training programs, sharing information about the current church in China.

For instance, the situation with the church in China is complicated. Despite widely held belief, it is not illegal to be a Christian in China. There are five legally approved religions in China, and Protestant Christianity is one of them. Generally speaking, there are “faces” to religion in China:

1) There is a government-sanctioned registered church, with congregations (and in many cases huge structures) in every city. In the larger cities, these congregations may number into the thousands. These churches are under government supervision. That being the case, there are many pastors in these churches who love God and strive to preach the gospel every Sunday. There are approximately 36 million who worship in these churches.

2) There are rural house churches. These churches grew up between the 1950s and 1980s when there was severe persecution in China. Believers in these churches refused to join the registered churches believing them to be under government control. These churches are technically illegal and are what are typically termed “underground churches” by those in the U.S. The number of Christians in these churches is unknown, but estimates go up to 100 million.

3) There are also urban house churches. These grew up in the 1990s among educated city-dwellers. Though they are technically illegal, these churches tend to operate more openly in rented public space and with an online presence. They believe that if the government can see that they are not a threat, it will help their cause. They also do not want to join the registered churches for political reasons. After enjoying a few decades of more tolerance on the part of the government, things have become more difficult for these churches over the past five years as the Communist Party has sought to regain control of all aspects of society.

The church in China continues to thrive and grow. Missionaries are being sent out. And despite the cancellation of in-church meetings during the coronavirus outbreak, many Chinese churches have continued to “gather” and share the Gospel online.

Read Joann’s Blog