Following Jesus in China
By Miriam Adeney, Associate Professor of World Christian Studies
In the powerhouse that is China at the beginning of the 21st century, 80 million people call Jesus Lord. Across all the provinces, across all educational and social levels, and across a wide variety of ethnic groups, a massive movement is sweeping the country. People are thinking and talking about Jesus.
The Chinese church is now larger than the Communist Party. My upcoming book, Kingdom Without Borders: The Untold Story of Global Christianity (InterVarsity Press, November 2009) will tell this rich story more fully.
What They Can Do
Some Chinese churches register with the government. Others do not. Among the unregistered are at least 20 large house-church networks with millions of members. Some of their congregations have 2,000 people meeting for Sunday worship, even though the maximum gathering allowed by law without official permission is 25.
There is also a growing “Third Church” movement. While unregistered, these churches don’t hide. They make their presence known, pointing to the official constitution of China, which guarantees freedom of religion. They want to make China live up to its claims, to be all that it should be. Lawyers from such churches advocate for human rights, for rights of conscience and speech and assembly. They defend the cases of people who are unjustly accused, both Christian and non-Christian. Members of these churches create programs to help disadvantaged groups such as migrants to the cities, or victims of earthquakes or floods. They contribute visibly to the welfare of the nation.
Christians businessmen may run factories or restaurant chains or import-export enterprises with thousands of employees. In their workplaces, they bless their employees with clinics, computer classes, libraries, gyms, and even karaoke rooms.
China is not a monolith. The government is not one giant mind. There are layers and layers, and winds that blow from many directions. In most cities there are vibrant open churches. The sermons are excellent. The study of the Bible is balanced and rich. It is possible to order Christian materials through the mail, or buy them at bookstores. In some regions, church members witness by performing as street entertainers or by showing videos or inviting people to faith-based events.
What They Can’t Do
Technically, this public witness is not legal. That is one of the restrictions the government religion bureau has placed on churches. Another restriction prohibits youth ministry. Children and youth are not to be taught in church programs. Likewise, certain Bible themes cannot be taught, such as Jesus’ Kingdom at the end of time. That is banned because it contradicts Marxist theory.
Whether these restrictions are enforced depends on local officials’ interpretations. They in turn respond to political currents. Before the 2008 Beijing Olympics, for example, many local evangelists were arrested, and foreign missionaries were deported because the government did not want to risk any disruptions during the international sports events.
In some regions, police have been brutal, charging into unregistered worship services, flailing bamboo rods, kicking people who fall down, fining the participants, and sentencing them to hard labor. This happens more in the countryside than in the cities, because urban persecution may be flashed around the world immediately. Rural persecution can be hidden away.
Why does the government restrict, and even persecute, Christians? For two reasons, one religious and the other social. At the beginning of the communist movement, Karl Marx called religion “the opiate of the people.” Religious people have their eyes on heaven, “so heavenly minded they are no earthly good,” in a common phrase. When Christians do think about life here and now, they tend to focus on individual morality. Given massive injustices in so many places, such a focus is trivial, Marx believed. It distracts people from the struggle for equal rights, yet that is the struggle that will usher in a healthier, happier society for everyone. Because religion is an opiate, a distraction, it is harmful and must be opposed.
Atheism remains a pillar of Marxism in China. However, in the 1980s, party leader Deng Xiaoping turned the economy in a more efficient direction, including greater participation in the global economy. Instead of focusing on ideology, the government emphasized effectiveness. “It doesn’t matter whether a cat is black or white as long as it catches a mouse,” Deng reportedly said. Pragmatic business successes were praised, while religious issues became less important as long as social order was not disrupted.
“Disrupting social order” is the second reason why officials may crack down on unregistered meetings. Respect for elders and authorities is a bedrock value in Chinese culture. Confucius taught it. Respect contributes to social harmony, vital for a successful society. Individuals should defer to the common good, subordinating personal whims to their leaders’ plans. This will result in the best situation for everybody in the long run. Resources are limited. Economic and social challenges are huge. Collaboration is essential. A country with such a large population cannot afford the luxury of too much diversity.
Unregistered groups seem to challenge all this. Their existence is an affront, implying that government structures do not serve the people adequately, so that the people find it necessary to create their own. Furthermore, many churches do teach children and youth, and do preach about the kingdom of God at the end of time with Jesus on the throne. These teachings sow seeds of chaos, some officials believe.
You can download the Bible in China. You can download discipleship and leadership training materials. But Christians in poor rural areas may have limited Internet access.
During times of persecution like the Cultural Revolution, Bibles were few and were kept well hidden. In secure settings, they would be brought out. It was a privilege to borrow one. Some believers copied the Bible by hand, or at least as much as they could, before they had to pass it on to the next person. Some memorized whatever portions they could.
Today Bibles are printed in China exclusively by the Amity Press in Nanjing. Between two to three million Bibles are produced each year for sale inside the country. Because the Bible does not have an ISBN number, however, it is not sold in Chinese bookstores. Amity Press also publishes Bibles in eight Chinese minority languages; in Braille for Chinese; and in non-Chinese languages for sale globally.
Yet believers multiply so fast that the demand for Bibles exceeds the supply. Getting mature pastors is another challenge. “In China the two-year-old Christian teaches the one-year-old,” wrote the Economist in its Oct 4, 2008, issue. Unfortunately, without grounded teaching, heresies can develop. Some strange and terrible cults have swept across China. These cults not only seduce sincere seekers but also give Christians a bad reputation with the government and the larger community.
A Chinese Christian Mind
Following the Tienanmen Square massacre in 1989, many students turned to Christ. At least six of the top 30 protest leaders became Christians. Today in the universities, the media, the arts, and the professions, thoughtful people are exploring new ways to think about the world. Many are investigating the Christian faith.
Christianity is associated not with tradition and ritual but with modernity, business, and science. “We are first-generation Christians and first-generation businessmen,” says one house-church pastor. “Christianity is the basis for good citizenship in China,” says another leader, a former party official. “The market economy discourages idleness. But it cannot discourage people from lying or causing harm. A strong faith discourages dishonesty.”
Many thousands of Chinese study overseas. And by the hundreds they are meeting Jesus. After training in discipleship, they return to China and salt universities and professions.
Some scholars’ interest is intellectual rather than personal. Known as “cultural Christians,” they ask, “What can Jesus do for China?” For them, Christianity is merely a lode to mine for ethics. But others have come to see that Christianity is not just academic. It requires commitment of mind, heart, and action. It means obeying Jesus as Lord. A decade of discrete conferences run by Chinese scholars inside China have clarified the matter.
Christian intellectuals have a passion to relate their faith to all of life. Often grassroots believers have not been allowed to take leading roles in society. Shunted to the margins, they have loved God, loved each other, loved their neighbors, and looked forward to heaven. They have not spent energy struggling with broader social issues. Many have received little education. But scholars care about science and arts and social organization. They believe that any ideology worth following must relate coherently to all these areas, and must do so in a Chinese way.
The Silk Road Anew
Who knows when the gospel first came to China? Not everybody writes things down. We do know that by A.D. 578, Nestorian Christians had arrived. They travelled the Silk Road from the area that is now Iran and Iraq. During the next several centuries, many thousands of Chinese believed in Jesus through their witness.
Today, Chinese want to carry the gospel back along the Silk Road, planting churches in Muslim, Buddhist, and Hindu communities between China and Jerusalem. This is a long-term vision. A group known as the Jesus Family pioneered it in the 1920s. Periodically it was revived. In the late 1980s, when many millions of Chinese were following Jesus and experiencing more freedom than they had in earlier decades, leaders began to talk again about mission to the West.
In fact, a ground-breaking event took place in 1996. Leaders from large networks of churches met. They pledged to ignore their divisions and instead work together to spread the gospel to the unreached peoples west of China. Eight adjacent countries were chosen for pioneer work. The missionaries would evangelize. They would revive existing churches. They would share some resources, but divide some geographical areas so as not to conflict. They expected God to guide them through dreams as well as through planning. They expected him to provide financially. And they determined to send some of their top church leaders as missionaries. They wanted to give their best, even though they expected that some would be martyred.
“The Back to Jerusalem missionary movement is not an army with guns or human weapons," says church historian Paul Hattaway. "It is not a group of well-dressed, slick professionals. It is an army of broken-hearted Chinese men and women whom God has cleansed with a mighty fire.”
Twelve Billion Dollars in Africa
The Jerusalem movement is not the only Chinese mission thrust. Because Africa has minerals and oil, China is investing heavily there. In Congo alone, China is pouring in $12 billion. Yet before the government’s economic push began, diaspora Chinese missionaries were on the ground in Africa. In 1998, Chinese around the world formed a mission society to reach out to that continent. In April 2008, they celebrated their 10th anniversary.
In the Middle East (in Israel and Arab countries), thousands of Chinese labor as temporary workers. So Chinese missionaries are bringing the good news there too. In Dubai, 500 Chinese workers recently committed their lives to Jesus as Lord at the annual Moon Festival.
Confucius as Old Testament?
Confucianism may be seen as a kind of Old Testament preparation for the gospel. The Apostle Paul once said that “the law (of God) was our schoolmaster to bring us to Christ” (Gal 3:24 KJV). By this, he meant that the law shows us our inadequacy to keep its standards. The law causes well-intentioned people to hunger for the power to live like they should. It shows us our need for something more, and makes us yearn for grace. Confucianism is like that. It holds up an ethical standard that people cannot keep.
ut Confucianism does not parallel the Old Testament completely. Jesus saw himself fulfilling the Old Testament specifically, not any other religion’s ideals. Abraham, Moses, David, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Daniel, Esther, and Nehemiah described key dimensions of the God whose love led him to the cross and whose power burst the bounds of death. No other religion foreshadows this so comprehensively. Still, the ethics Confucius taught, as well as the questions Lao Tse raised, can be seen as gifts of God’s creational, common grace.
This has some implications for Chinese missionaries. Because Chinese culture is so rich, it may subtly become an idol even for Christian workers. The Jerusalem movement was birthed amid awesome testimonies of steadfastness and martyrdom. Yet “although (Jerusalem) house church Christians have served in northwest China for 30 years, scarcely any have learned the local language," says a missionary with much experience in that area. "To the indigenous people, these Chinese missionaries appear to be one more arm of the imperialistic Han (majority Chinese).” He adds, “Chinese
missionaries desperately need missiological underpinnings.” As do we all.
No Parallels in History
There are no parallels in history to the Chinese church’s huge growth since 1970. It is unprecedented. Will it continue indefinitely? Some fear there is a 10-year window before materialism saps vitality. Yet the global Chinese church exhibits breadth (variety), depth (organizational infrastructures, leader-training institutions, publishing, missions), social-networking among Chinese worldwide, literacy, technological sophistication, and confident activism. Both as thinkers and as actors, Chinese Christians demonstrate dynamic vitality.
Fifty years from now, Chinese may lead the world church. In that case, like all peoples who lead the church for a period of time, they would do well to remember Constantine. Before the emperor Constantine (d.337), Christianity was a minority faith. He installed it as the preeminent religion throughout the empire. Thereafter, the church bogged down in bureaucracy. Faithful Christians continued, but there was unrelenting pressure to wed faith to power. This remains a perennial temptation for leaders. Humility is good policy, and a Chinese virtue as well.
Miriam Adney is an associate professor of world Christian studies at Seattle Pacific University. She has been at SPU since 1976. She holds a doctorate in anthropology, and has worked on five continents. Since 2002, she has taught short courses in Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Guatemala, Costa Rica, Peru, Ecuador, Brazil, Spain, Morocco, and Canada.
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