Dear Friends and Family,
Recently, friends in the US sent us a copy of an article that appeared in the Western press that describes the author’s perception of the state of the church in China. They asked us how that author’s picture compares with our experience in China. What follows is an edited version of our response.
Thanks for your questions about God in China. It’s a pity that we do not have time to do them justice by way of a more thorough response. Let us make just a few brief points:
1. The source of the article you sent to us is readily available to us on the internet -- and as far as we know -- to everyone else in China. The article -- and many of the others by the same author -- directly take strong exception to certain positions taken by the authorities here. Despite those strong declarations, that expression of opinion has not resulted in a muzzling of the voice. That fact, in itself, tells a story.
Based on our experience, this is not the only example of such laissez faire in today’s China. There may be many factors that account for this situation, some of which may not be benign, but we give thanks for it, in any event.
2. China -- like the US -- is a big country. Therefore, in China -- as in the US -- one can find many different, equally valid examples of practices that raise hope, on the one hand, and heighten concern, on the other. Therefore, we sympathize with the author in trying to characterize the entire condition of Christianity in China, based a recent short-term trip and the gleaning of some powerful anecdotal stories. We think this difficulty is evident in the author’s good news - bad news essay.
For example, it is difficult to merge the fact of Bible studies and baptisms in public Christian bookstores (like the one we saw near a major university campus) and the fact of the imprisonment of a Chinese pastor of the large -- and at one time publically lauded -- “house church” not far from another nearby university. Similarly, it takes some bending and twisting to make sense of a campaign to remove crosses from churches in one province with a strong suggestion from authorities that the church in another province should erect a cross in order to “look like a church”.
Like you, we read stories -- primarily in the Western press, some of which are accessible here -- about the persecution of the unregistered (and registered) church, which we do not doubt. At the same time, we have attended registered churches where preachers teach the full Bible from Genesis to Revelation, encourage the sharing of the Good News, and use contemporary events to highlight their messages, not always casting authorities in the best possible light.
In short, it is difficult to assess -- let alone characterize -- the state of the church in China in a short essay, including this one.:)
3. The author is correct in highlighting the impact of what some call “cults” in the Chinese religious scene. The author’s description of the group that calls itself “Eastern Lightning” seems a bit dated. It is our understanding that the group believes that Jesus has already come again and that he is living in rural China. Also, there are reports that some adherents of a spin-off group called The Church of Almighty God took their evangelistic enthusiasm over the edge when they beat a customer to death in a fast food restaurant when she refused to give them her telephone number for “further discussions”.
4. Bottom line: God is at work in China. The progress over the past 30 years exceeds most “optimistic” predictions from just a couple of generations ago. Oddly enough, sometimes it seems that this remarkable progress engenders more impatience than gratitude, more frustration than thanksgiving, and more self-motivated zeal than patient obedience. We have learned to be humble about what we know and do not know, thankful for what we see and do not see, and confident that God’s will is being done, despite the efforts of opponents to hinder the process and the efforts of anxious believers to accelerate the process.
-Donald and Karen Barnes