(See our Global China Center review.)
Western Christians have a lot to learn from the recent experiences of the unregistered churches in China. Here are a few possible points to ponder:
- Protestant Christianity in China has grown, largely in an unfriendly environment. Since 1950, faith in Christ, and the open practice of Christian discipleship and proclamation, have been restricted by the government. Sometimes believers have been harshly persecuted; recently, they have been tolerated, but restrictions remain, and following or expressing faith in Jesus is definitely not a good “career move.”
Nevertheless, boldness and a willingness to suffer rejection or worse have characterized China’s Christians for several decades now. Others see this courage and dedication, and cannot help but ask why believers in Christ are able to resist pressure and remain steadfast not only in their allegiance to Christ but also in openly sharing their faith with others.
We in the West have largely been spared harsh persecution just for being Christians, but the atmosphere in Europe long ago became hostile to evangelical Christianity, and no one can fail to observe that faithful followers of Christ are being increasingly vilified in the United States, as government, media, education, and even workplace animosity grows. Many Christian leaders believe that we must prepare to face the kind of trials that Chinese believers have lived with for decades. Are we ready?
- Spectacular church growth has resulted from a remarkable work of the Holy Spirit; God alone could effect such a great turning to Christ. At the same time, we must acknowledge that the Spirit has used human means, including fervent love for Christ; diligent study of the Scriptures and even memorization of large portions of the Bible; sustained, persevering prayer, often with fasting; small group meetings rather than large buildings; “ordinary” believers rather than paid clergy; zealous evangelism, both personal and organized; and patient endurance of suffering.
These are all marks of New Testament Christianity that, sadly, appear almost absent from Western churches.
- The gospel of the Cross of Christ has energized believers and drawn seekers. Though Christians know that they must do good works as disciples of Jesus, their most potent message has centered upon the death and resurrection of Christ for our salvation from sin, death, and the wrath of God, and not on social change or ethical teachings.
As even evangelicals in the West seem to be turning away from the “simple gospel” in order to emphasize the duty of Christians to society, we may see a continued declension from true faith and dedication to Christ. This is not to deny the need to teach Christians the “whole counsel of God,” including the necessity of being “salt and light” in society, but only to insist that when Paul said he decided to know nothing among the Corinthians than “Jesus Christ, and him crucified,” he was declaring that the “main thing must remain the main thing” in our preaching.
- On the other hand, a great deal of “chaff” can be found in Chinese Christian churches. Influenced both by traditional Chinese religions and, increasingly, by the “Prosperity” message emanating from America, Korea, and elsewhere, untold numbers of Chinese have professed faith in Christ in order to gain some worldly benefit. As a result, far too many fall away when God disappoints them by not answering some prayer or by allowing hard things into their lives. They do not evince genuine repentance, heartfelt trust in Christ for reconciliation with God, a hunger for the Word of God, or lives transformed by the power of the indwelling Holy Spirit.
The popularity of Joel Osteen and his tribe proves that the Chinese are not alone in following the siren voice of false prophets.
- The Chinese church grew largely through home meetings, which multiplied into extensive networks. In recent years, urban churches – and even some rural ones – have tended to congregate in large meeting spaces, where a single preacher can minister to a lot of people at once and resources can be gathered for various programs, such as children’s education, modern music, evangelism, and even care for the needy.
The predictable results have included problems with which the Western church is all too familiar: high costs of procuring and maintaining buildings, thus diverting funds from basic church functions; concentration of ministry in a few, rather than dispersed among many; accumulation of power, prestige, and even wealth by prominent, charismatic leaders; corruption; arrogance; power struggles; loss of intimacy in fellowship; decrease in zeal for God. Chinese government hostility to organized religion has brought unwelcome attention to these building-based congregations. Some structures have been demolished, while other meeting places have been shut down. The same could happen in the West.
Perhaps we all need to re-examine the New Testament to see what is said about “normal” Christian gatherings, and what kind of meeting has fueled solid church growth since apostolic days. (For a tentative exploration of this topic, see "A Theology for House Churches.")
We certainly must not assume that our way of “doing church” will work well for the Chinese.
- Any connection with Western, especially American, Christians is now suspect more than ever. Foreign Christians who wish to serve the church in China need to be extraordinarily careful not to compromise the integrity and independence of Chinese believers. We must also be on guard against appearing to promote either American foreign policy or our ideas of the ideal political arrangement as if they were part of the gospel.
Chinese Christians have many more things to teach us, but these already constitute a daunting enough challenge!
-G. Wright Doyle