The Greatest Threat to the Chinese Church (2): Popular Religion

As we noted last time in part one, the greatest threat to the Chinese church is that it will be infiltrated by non-biblical cultural ideas, values, and practices. Indeed, the church has faced this danger in all times and places, and has all too often come out the loser.

Religious resurgence

In recent decades, Chinese popular religion – sometimes called folk religion – has staged a massive comeback, especially in the countryside. In a land where religions of all sorts were banned and apparently banished forever during the Great Cultural Revolution (1966 -1976), things have returned to “normal,” with the added presence of Christianity.

Many excellent chapters in Christianity and Chinese Culture, edited by Miikka Ruokanen and Paulos Huang (reviewed at Global China Center), point out the necessity of all those who are interested in Chinese Christianity to take the relationships between it and other faiths very seriously.

Tens of thousands of temples have been rebuilt or newly constructed, many of them elaborately decorated and furnished. “Ghost palaces” and “hell houses” have been built to attract tourists. In the 1990s, overseas Chinese visitors financed much of this construction, but now the funding comes from local sources, as people return to the ancient rhythms of their ancestors.

The world of Chinese popular religion is populated with ghosts, buddhas, demons, gods, and a variety of invisible beings who are believed to have influence over the affairs of this life and the next. In particular, ancestor worship has resumed its central place in Chinese piety and religious practice, with offerings and prayers to departed relatives who, if happy, can bestow blessing, but if unhappy – or hungry! – can blast people with baneful curses, including disease, infertility, and financial loss.

These gods exist for the benefit of their worshipers, and are expected to deliver very tangible goods and services to those who pray to them – healing, children, deliverance from demons, good harvests, a job, a mate, etc. When they do not, one simply goes to another god residing in another temple or shrine, in a true “free market” of religion. In essence, Chinese folk religion is dominated by pragmatism and utilitarianism, not a personal relationship with the Lord of the universe.

Enter Christianity

During the 1980s, when all these beliefs and practices were labeled “superstitious” by the government, temples were shut down or converted to secular uses, as were Christian churches. This eradication of folk religion left a vacuum of faith, which demanded to be filled.

That’s when Christians began to penetrate the rural areas of China with a new message, one of hope, joy, and peace. Jesus was a new God, more powerful than the old ones, who could deliver you from demons, disease, danger, and destitution. Believing firmly in the power of God, fervent evangelists traveled all over the interior of China, proclaiming this new “god” and urging people to put their trust in him. Usually young and lacking a sound knowledge of the Bible, these zealous preachers often portrayed Christ as a replacement for the old deities, and in the same terms: He could do more for you than they did!

Of course, many Christian evangelists preached a pure gospel of salvation by grace alone through faith in Christ alone; that is the real source of the incredible growth of the Chinese church in the countryside. Even they, however, could not shake off the pragmatism, utilitarianism, and this-worldly focus that pervade Chinese culture. Though they may have believed the gospel of redemption through the cross and resurrection of Christ, they may also have so couched their preaching, and directed their prayers, as to give the impression that Jesus and God were very similar to the deities of folk belief.

Some of this derived from the clear teaching of the Bible. God can work miracles; prayer to him in Jesus’ name does result in deliverance from demon oppression, inner peace and joy, and – often – physical healing. When we follow biblical principles, we shall, generally, enjoy better health, happier homes, and a measure of material prosperity.

On the other hand, these biblical truths and realities appeal so strongly to Chinese pragmatism that in some places more than 60% of “conversions” take place after someone has been healed through prayer to God in Jesus’ name. Even mature Christians often give testimonies that focus on material and temporal blessings rather than spiritual benefits that accrue to those who trust in Christ.

This sort of pragmatism and utilitarianism affects not only the rural churches, but those in the cities, too. And not just poor and uneducated people, but highly-intelligent, well-educated churchgoers as well. Even in the West, where Chinese churches are filled with PhDs, the testimonies you hear have mostly to do with answers to prayer for healing, a job, a visa, a child, or academic success – precisely the same message being conveyed in the simplest country congregation in rural China.

Baneful consequences

The results are not good for true Christianity.

Rather than preaching that we should seek God for spiritual blessings; thank him for forgiveness of sins, reconciliation, and access to him in prayer through Christ; and stress the hope that we have of eternal life with him, both clergy and laity tend to fix their eyes on this world. The Cross loses its centrality; God becomes a means to an end; faith the instrument of accessing worldly goods and services.

Of course, when your prayers aren’t answered, you can easily lose hope. One knowledgeable observer said, “Millions of Chinese Christians are one unanswered prayer away from leaving the church.” That is why the “back door” of many churches is just as wide as the “front door.”

Before we criticize such pragmatic and utilitarian features of Chinese Christianity, however, it might be good for Western believers to examine our own prayer lives. Perhaps we, too, have our hopes set on this world, rather than on God and the grace to be brought to us when Christ returns. Are we going around angry with God for not giving us something we really want?

What about our “prosperity message” preachers? Are they not saying the same thing, with their “name it and claim it” religion? As former TIME Magazine religious editor Richard Ostling once told me, this “health and wealth” preaching is real journalistic “news”: never before in church history have Christians preached, or believed, such crude heresy.

From the “therapeutic,” feel-good sermons of many preachers, including Joel Osteen, to the baser appeals to desires for health, beauty, prosperity, and earthly happiness of too many others, our own “folk religion” looks just as worldly as does that of millions of Chinese churchgoers.

What to do?

For those who want to see God’s kingdom advance among Chinese, the question is urgent: What can we do about this revival of Chinese folk religion and – even more important – about the pervasive influence of pragmatism and utilitarianism among Chinese Christians? A few suggestions:

First, we should remember Jesus words, “Let him who is without sin cast the first stone.” Let us first take the beam of worldliness out of our own eye; only then will we see clearly enough to help our Chinese brothers and sisters. After all, Western “health and wealth” preachers are widely heard in villages deep within the Majority World. I once heard a Benny Hinn sermon in the foothills of the Himalayas! One Chinese church leader has said, “Your prosperity message is ruining our church!”

Even within orthodox, evangelical circles, we need a deep revival of true devotion to God and Jesus Christ, worked within our worldly hearts by the Holy Spirit.

Is it not possible that we should re-examine our comfortable lifestyles to see where they reflect a fixation on earthly comforts? Maybe we need to set an example of self-denial and radical discipleship.

On the other hand, maybe some staid and sensible Christians in the West need to recover faith in a God who truly does work miracles, including healing and deliverance from demons, and who provides our daily necessities if we ask for them in faith.

Then, we should pray that Chinese preachers would proclaim Christ and him crucified, as John Song and other 20th-century revivalists did with such power.

Biblical and theological training for Chinese believers and their leaders is a must, if truth faith is to thrive. We can help out by supporting ministries that take such solid instruction to the Chinese, such as Far East Broadcasting Company and Trans-World Radio; Third Millennium Ministries; Systematic Asian Leadership Training (; LeaderSource (; and many others.

In the U.S., Ambassadors for Christ bookstore supplies hundreds of Christian books in Chinese ( For a similar service in Taiwan, go to Campus Bookstore ( There are good Christian bookstore in China, too.

The main reason I have written several books is provide a balanced and biblical view of both the spiritual and temporal blessings offered to us in Christ, as well as the fundamental core tenets of the Gospel. I would appreciate your prayers that God would use these to advance his kingdom among the Chinese.

G. Wright Doyle