China’s Church at the Threshold

Over the course of 2016, as I have had the opportunity to participate in various gatherings of Chinese Christians, I have heard two conversations going on simultaneously.

One conversation is filled with vision. These believers dream together about their country’s future. They talk of the church’s central role in being a blessing as it impacts the culture at home. And they make plans for how they will join with the global Christian community in fulfilling the Great Commission.

To prepare the church for this moment of great opportunity, these Christians envision equipping believers throughout society to play their God-given role as salt and light. They give serious thought to the kind of theological education required to ensure that the church leaders of today and tomorrow are up to the task.

These visionary believers, most of them first-generation Christians who now serve in an urban setting, speak urgently of raising up the next generation by providing Christian alternatives to China’s state-run educational system. They are keenly aware that they and their peers are just as much affected by the breakdown of the Chinese family as are those outside the church. Thus they see the preservation of healthy marriages and the equipping of parents as a priority.

Their conversation is about a church in China that is on the threshold of unprecedented possibilities.

“Unfinished business”

The other conversation is tinged with apprehension, as Christian leaders evaluate their government’s newly aggressive stance toward religion, in particular Christianity. As 2016 played out there was increasing evidence of what might lie ahead. Yet the government’s moves were in many ways inconclusive, leaving considerable “unfinished business” to be sorted out in 2017.

While the new legislation on foreign NGOs in China is a fait accompli, its effect upon longstanding partnerships between Christians in China and those from outside who serve with them remains a huge question mark. As several recent posts on this site have emphasized, these partnerships will likely need to take on a different form as foreign entities come to grips with the need to expedite localization of their work. The reasons for this transition are not all negative; indeed, this step should be seen as an important milestone in the development of China’s church. Yet how the process will unfold, and its impact upon partnerships with the global church, remain very unclear.

The draft regulations on religion released last September prompted much concern and a considerable public response from urban church leaders in China. While containing a number of provisions that could potentially curtail significantly the activities of China’s unregistered church, the draft raised many more questions than it provided answers. No one knows exactly what form it will take when it reappears in 2017, nor how it will eventually be implemented.

Against the backdrop of increased tightening throughout society, this conversation ponders the possibility of new restrictions. It is fraught with difficult questions about how the church should relate to the government should such restrictions materialize.

The church in China is at the threshold of many new possibilities, some very promising, others disturbing. Holding these two conversations in tension is a daily fact of life for Christians in China as we enter the new year.