In August, we returned from six months in China. In September, we spent three weeks traveling throughout the East Coast and Mid-West visiting friends and family.
At several stops we were asked, “What’s going on in China? Specifically, what is the state of the church in China?”
“The long of it” is contained in a copy of our comments below.
“The short of it” is that most of what we hear here in the US about the church in China is pretty negative and depressing. Persecution of Christian believers, demolition of church buildings, and congregations of old women -- these seem to be the pictures of the Chinese church in the minds of many Americans. In fact, there are citable facts/incidents to support this case . . . at least at some places and at some times. In contrast, our experience over the past 14 years has been that the church in China has made and is making greater progress. That progress is neither uniform, universal, nor guaranteed for the future, but it has been and is real.
This reality is a cause for celebration and hope. . .for the Chinese and for us.
“What is Truth?: Jesus and China”
We would like to share the truth that God has shown to us about China. Over the past twenty years, Americans have become increasingly aware of China. And with that greater awareness has grown some wonder, some astonishment, and some fear. With a population larger than any other country in the world; with an economy set to surpass that of the US this year or next; with foreign currency reserves worth trillions of dollars; with increasing expenditure on military hardware; with an army that is larger than that of the US and the European Union combined; and so on -- we have returned home to find that US news media and talk shows are projecting truth about China, but one that accentuates the negative.
As our rhetorical framework, we shall use Jesus’ famous “antitheses” in the Sermon on the Mount: You have heard it said… But I say to you…”
Let’s walk through some of these areas to show you what we mean:
1. Religious persecution:
“You have heard it said that there is tremendous religious persecution in China as the atheistic Communist Party strives to eliminate the last vestiges of religion in the country.”
a. Children are taught in school that religion is “the opiate of the people”.
b. Some pastors and laypeople have been detained, harassed, lost their jobs, and even jailed . . .or worse.
c. The Communist ideology believes that religion is superstition, so it is impossible to be both a Christian and a member of the Party.
All of this is true, or, to state it more precisely, all of this has been true in certain places and at certain times. However, . . .“Yes, you have heard it said that there is tremendous religious persecution in China, but I tell you . . .”
a. At one time, the government did actively discourage the practice of religion by the people, calling on them, instead, to rally ‘round the Communist Party and its ideals. But over the past 20 years, the people have seen that the Communist Party has not lived up to its own ideals; e.g., wide-spread arrogance, pervasive influence-peddling, and outright corruption. As a result, many people have been looking elsewhere for guidance and principles on how to live a better, more meaningful life. Historically, these conditions have led to civil unrest, which is the last thing the government wants to see happen. (Just look what 13 years of civil unrest has brought to the Middle East and North Africa.) Religion, in general, and Christianity, in particular, have been seen more recently as an approach to these issues that maintains the social order.
As Chinese have become richer, many of them realize that their lives have become more self-centered, more selfish and less enjoyable, less meaningful. They have been turning (or returning) to religion for greater depth and satisfaction from life.
b. The government realizes the problem and has changed course. While the government has closed some local religious institutions, they have also promoted others. For example, a few years ago China hosted the largest convocation of Buddhist leaders in history, as part of a celebration of the role that that religion has played and is playing in the society.
c. A few years ago, the President of China gave a widely publicized speech in which he recounted the positive role of all religions, including Christianity, in China.
d. There are Chinese Communists who are also Christians. In some cases, it is a matter of “Don’t ask; don’t tell.” In fact, we have had members of the Communist Party actively participate in a Christmas pageant in our church in China.
Yes, it is true that there is some religious persecution in China, but it is not the whole truth.
2. The state of the churches in China:
“You have heard it said that churches in China are being desecrated and destroyed”
a. This year a large church building in China was demolished ostensibly because the church’s leaders had not obeyed all of the construction/zoning rules. [Editor’s note: Since this was written, dozens of churches in that area have been demolished or had the cross removed from the top of the structure. Recently, some registered and unregistered churches have been forced to close.]
b. There are instances where some churches have been refused permission to refurbish old buildings or build new buildings.
All of this is true, or has been true in certain places, at certain times. However, . . . “You have heard it said that churches in China are being desecrated and destroyed, but I tell you . . .”
There is something of a building boom of churches in China:
a. Thanks, in part to President Jimmy Carter, in 1979 the Chinese agreed to return buildings that had been taken from Christian churches during the Cultural Revolution in the 1960s and 70s. As a result, hundreds of church buildings have been returned, refurbished, and re-opened. . .with government permission and even, in some cases, with government support. In fact, we know of an instance in which the government insisted that a refurbished church building “look like a church”; i.e., they wanted to see a steeple with a cross on the top, so that visitors to their city could see for themselves that the city was “Christianity-friendly”.
b. Many large, new churches have been built. Beijing has at least 14 800+ seating capacity churches, many with large, bold signs declaring the building to be a “Christian Church”, clearly visible to the 20 million Chinese living in the city.
c. In one city, the church is in the process of building a large training center to help new Christians from the countryside learn the basics of running a church. This Lay Training Institute will be expanded to include a 1000+ capacity worship center on the edge of a new 50,000 person housing development.
Yes, it is true that there have been some church buildings destroyed in China, but it is not the whole truth.
3. Who goes to church?
“You have heard it said that when you go church in China, all you see are a few old women and fewer old men.”
a. Some congregations are small and consist largely of old women.
b. Until recently, children and young people were not legally permitted to attend church.
All of this is true, or has been true in certain places, at certain times. However, . . “You have heard it said that when you go church in China, all you see are a few old women and fewer old men, but I tell you . . .”
a. Some city churches have many young university students as attendees and as members. In the university district of Beijing, you have to stand in line for half an hour to be sure that you will get a seat in the 10:30 English language church service.
b. In a small city in China, we went to church at 7:30 AM in order to get a seat at the morning service. It was not until we arrived that we learned that the service -- which attracted roughly 1000 worshippers – had actually started at 6:30 in the morning.
c. Many of the new church buildings that we have seen have fine accommodations for child care and instruction.
d. We attended one of the monthly Christian young people’s rallies in a small city in China that drew more than 300 20-30-somethings on a Thursday evening for a time of music, fellowship, testimony, and Bible study.
Yes, it is true that in some churches in China you will find a few older women and fewer older men, but that is not the whole truth.
We could go on telling you about different truths in China.
We could tell you about the world’s largest Bible publishing house that is located in China and has published more than 100,000,000 Bibles. [Editor’s note: Most of these are printed in other languages and are exported, but many millions of Bibles have been printed in Chinese and distributed within China.]
We could tell you about the 34 people we saw baptized on one Sunday in one church during our last month in China and about another church in which we saw more than 80 people baptized in one service.
We could tell you about the pastor who berated his Chinese congregation because it had grown by only 40% during his eight years of leading the church, encouraging the brothers and sisters to become more serious about evangelism.
We could tell you about the 1000 New Testaments that our English language Chinese students in church bought while we were in China.
We could tell you about Chinese like Miss X., a teenager who bought one of the New Testaments one Sunday, read it during the week, and returned the following Sunday evening to announce, “I’ve read it; I believe it. Where do I go to ‘take the test’ to become a Christian?”
We could tell you about Chinese like Mr. W., a sharp engineering student at a top university, who – after reading the book of Matthew and attending church services for several weeks – announced, “I understand this wonderful message. I want to believe, but it is difficult because I have been told for so long that this religion business is superstition.”
We could tell you about an American colleague, who after spending four weeks in China this summer, as he was flying back to the US, struck up a conversation with a young Chinese student seated next to him. The conversation during that 13-hour plane ride covered a lot of ground, including the story of Jesus. At the risk of making an important story sound trivial, let me simply report that during the night of August 7, at an altitude of 35,000 ft., somewhere over the mid-Pacific Ocean, aboard a Chinese 747 airliner, this student gave his heart to the Lord. Our colleague said that he thought he could hear the angels rejoicing, given that – at 35, 000 ft. – he was that much closer to heaven.
We could go on and on telling you about what God is doing in China.
Don’t get us wrong. Although religious freedom is guaranteed in the Chinese constitution, it does not look exactly like religious freedom in America. There are problems -- big problems in some places, at some times. However, our message to you today is that God is doing a great work in China, and the work is making great gains. There will undoubtedly be ups and downs in the future. However, the current challenge for us is to figure out how to join Him in that work.
In recent years, we have gone to China at the invitation and at the expense of what we too-often call the “godless, atheistic” government of China -- with the authorities there fully aware that we are confessing, professing, and practicing Christians. As long as we stay within their laws, we have been welcomed in China for what we bring.
The questions for you, your children, and your grandchildren are “Are you ready to join God in His work? Are you ready to reach out in love to the loving, loveable people of China? Are you willing to go to China for two weeks, for two months, for two years? Are you willing to reach some of the 4000 Chinese who come to our US shores every day, many of whom are won to Christ by people like you? Are you willing to use the Internet, at little or no cost, to communicate with Chinese who want an American e-friend?”
The fields are white unto harvest; the tools for reaping that harvest are at hand; and the time for celebrating the incoming is now. We don’t know how long the doors to China will be open; already there are signs that there may be some difficult times ahead. But this is not going to stop God. Already there are more Christians in China than there are Southern Baptists in America. In the future, there will be many more.
Are you willing to play your part in this great movement of God?
-Donald and Karen Barnes