Understanding and Serving in the “New China”

China’s Next Generation: New China, New Church, New World by Luis Bush, Brent Fulton, and a Christian Worker in China. China Source, 2014. Available in Kindle format only; file size: 2674 KB; $2.99 at Amazon.

Reviewed by Peter

I have spent most of the last 20 years living and ministering in China. On hearing this, the first comment that people usually make is, “You must have seen a lot of changes in that time!” This, of course, is true of any two-decade sojourn, but when I think back to the China I arrived in during the early 90s, then compare it to the present, I realize how unique this experience has been.

The year I arrived in China, Beijing was bidding for the 2000 Olympics. At that time, there were serious concerns about China’s ability to pull off a world-class event, and when China lost the bid, most Beijingers I knew sighed with relief. However, two Olympics later, Beijing hosted the 2008 Olympics in what has been described as China’s “coming out party.” The success of this event put China on the map, showing a country that had developed economically, socially, and culturally to the point where it can be taken seriously on the world stage. In less than three decades, China has changed from a needy, third world country to a nation that is influencing the world economically, politically, and culturally.

The church, too, has changed dramatically: from humble services in recently returned church buildings or clandestine meetings in homes during the 1980s to large established networks in rented or even purpose built buildings today; from hand-copied Bibles and hymnals to LCD projectors, professionally printed books, and online materials; from mostly rural peasants to educated, urban intellectuals. The church has grown and changed. Twenty years ago I was asked to help with basic discipleship, Bible reading, and prayer. Now I am being asked to provide training in church structure and leadership development as well as cross-cultural mission. One of my friends, a church leader, summed this up when he said to me: “It was much simpler when our focus was on facing persecution, taking up our cross and dying for Jesus; now we need to learn how to live for Jesus and serve him in our complicated world.” The church today “seeks to move from the fringes to the center of society, becoming salt and light in every sphere and joining the worldwide Christian community in fulfilling the Great Commission.”[1]

Those of us who minister to mainland Chinese need to understand the mindset of younger Chinese as the next generation of those who need to be reached with the gospel. The young people today are the future of China, the Chinese church and the impact it could potentially have on the world. It is not easy to understand this new generation which enjoys so much prosperity and opportunity and yet is searching for meaning and fulfillment. 

Why is this book important? This book outlines the “new China” and how it shapes the next generation. It outlines major changes in China in the last decade and shows the impact on Chinese society and the church. Both authors have extensive experience in China and draw on research as well as their own personal experiences. The book is short, easy to read and encourages the reader with the potential of Chinese church involvement in building the kingdom of God in our world.

The first part of the book unpacks the “new China” considering the impact of urbanization on China—from less than a quarter of the population living in cities in 1980 to more than half the population today. It is expected that eighty percent will move to the cities in the next 50 years. This massive migration brings instability as people leave their past and connections in their home town and seek to establish themselves in a city. From connectedness to home, ancestors, and land they become isolated, living in high-rise buildings with unknown neighbors and working in jobs that constantly change.

Urbanization, prosperity, and the government’s one-child policy have forever changed the way Chinese think about family. Large families of many children and grandchildren led by a father or grandfather have not been seen for more than a generation. The norm now is two parents and two sets of grandparents investing all their energy, hopes, and expectations into one child who is spoiled in his or her early years and then expected to bear the burden of care for all the seniors later in life. Divorce rates have risen rapidly and young people today have very low expectations of marriage and family life. The authors point out that previous generations of Chinese youth experienced struggles to survive in war and revolution that gave them shared meaning and purpose with their peers. Today’s youth find themselves distant from parents and teachers, pushed to extremes in a highly competitive world, and burdened with unrealistic expectations to perform and provide. Sadly, China’s high suicide rate for youth demonstrates that all is not well for young people.

Media and technology have changed the way Chinese communicate. When I first arrived in China, home phones were very rare, and even a newspaper subscription required approval from your work unit. Now, China has the largest population of Internet users in the world, and even with government restrictions, Chinese users are able to access news, information and entertainment instantly, comment on events around them and call each other from across the room or around the world. Churches and Christian organizations have been able to take advantage of this as they use the Internet to access resources and communicate with each other.

The second part of the book looks at the changes in the church and the way it relates to society. Urbanization has moved the church into the cities, and the urban church is made up of educated people, many of whom influence society and bring the church into public life. As communism is overtaken by materialism, Chinese are looking for meaning and comfort in traditional religions like Buddhism and Daoism as well as in Christianity and other religions and cults. Many of those seeking an answer to their questions find the gospel not only meaningful, but also powerful to change people’s lives for the better.

One area where the church has entered society is the business world. Wenzhou is a coastal city that is famous for two things. First, it has a network of astute business people that stretches throughout China and the world and, second, it is known as the Jerusalem of China because of its high percentage of Christians. In a country well known for dishonest and corrupt business practices, Christian business men support and encourage each other as they seek to honor Jesus in their everyday business dealings.

The book includes a helpful discussion on the size of the church and an explanation of why authorities allow some Christian activities and clamp down on others. Leadership has been a key issue for the Chinese church since the early 80s. The rapid growth of the church, and insufficient training opportunities have created a great shortage of leadership. The authors discuss the changing face of Christian leadership and look at the implications for leading the church in a changing world. 

In 2013, Xi Jin Ping became the Chinese president and began talking of the “China Dream.”  This concept embraces more than just prosperity for Chinese people; it includes China reclaiming a position of influence and power in the world. The final chapters consider Chinese involvement in Africa and the Middle East as well as the potential for China to be a major participant in the global church. 

Published in 2014, the book is now two years old, which in China terms means it is somewhat dated. At the time of writing, Xi Jin Ping had just become president. The anti-corruption campaigns, the removal of crosses and demolition of churches, and the dispute over islands in the South China Sea occurred after publishing and therefore are not included. In my opinion, these events probably do not influence the final analysis greatly, and the conclusions are fundamentally appropriate and sound for today.

If you are ministering to young people from mainland China, then I can recommend this book to you as a concise overview of key issues and influences. It is well written and easy to read. I hope it will inform your thinking and be a blessing to your service among Chinese people, for the glory of God.

Notes

  1. ^ Bush, Fulton, & Worker (2014), chapter 2, paragraph 4.