Book Reviews

Campus Ministry in Pre-1949 China

A Book Review.

China: Christian Students Face the Revolution by David Adeney. InterVarsity Press, 1973, 130 pp. ISBN-13: 978-0877843542; ISBN-10: 0877843546. Limited availability on Amazon.

From 1937 until 1950, CIM missionary David Adeney witnessed the birth and early development of the modern Chinese student ministry against the backdrop of World War II and then civil war. In China: Christian Students Face the Revolution, Adeney recounts those turbulent years of ministry. This short book is a fascinating account of university campus ministry in pre-1949 China, but it is also a remarkably prescient analysis of Communist China that remains relevant today.

Chapter 1 begins with Adeney’s arrival in China in 1934. The reader can see that from an early stage, Adeney and his co-workers sought to relate closely with indigenous believers. The chaos of civil war between the Communists and Nationalists, and later the invasion of Japanese, presented many challenges to both foreign missionaries and Chinese believers. Adeney’s family left China for a furlough in 1941, but war prevented them from returning for more than four years. Upon his return in January 1946, Adeney joined the work of China InterVarsity on a full-time basis.

In chapter 2, Adeney describes a very active environment on campus from 1946 until 1949. Communist student groups and China InterVarsity groups were both growing in influence. As Adeney describes their activities, it is striking to see the evangelistic fervor of both groups, each one seeking to share their message with students on campus. While student ministry on campus remained relatively open during these years, Adeney’s narrative also describes the challenges that Christian groups faced. When the police raided their apartment one night and prepared to arrest a Chinese staff worker, he and Adeney knelt in prayer together as the police officers watched. The impulse of prayer recurs throughout this book as the staff workers and students involved with China InterVarsity continually committed the challenges of those years to the Lord.

Chapter 3 focuses on 1949–1950 as the Communist Party established the new government. Adeney describes the rapid change of atmosphere on campus where activity among the Christian students became severely restricted. Adeney does not mince words about communism and its requirement of total dedication and commitment. He aptly compares communism to a religion, noting that zealous students would often speak of their conversion to communism as a kind of salvation experience, where they came out of “the darkness of superstition into the light of Chairman Mao” (p. 46).

The zeal of communist students led to increasing pressure on Christians in the early 1950s, which Adeney describes in chapter 4. In the face of very active criticism and denunciation from communists and others on campus, Christians were forced to either defend or denounce their faith. Some students managed to endure the criticism, but others left the faith altogether. As Christian groups weathered these severe restrictions and attacks on their faith, they continually prayed for one another to have the courage to face their accusers and not recant their faith. Yet there was also grace present to restore those who recanted but then sought to return to Christian fellowship. Adeney tells a particularly poignant story of one student leader in Shanghai who tearfully rededicated his life to the Lord after he had neglected his faith (p. 69).

In chapter 5, we read about Adeney’s involvement in the publication of an apologetics book in 1950, “probably the only Christian apologetic published under the Communist regime” (p. 78). For a brief window of time, this book, by Wu Yung-chuen, was able to be distributed widely among Christian students. Unfortunately, the hoped-for “religious freedom” under the Communist regime quickly evaporated. The book was suppressed by the government, and the author, Wu, was arrested. In light of the challenges faced by Wu and other Chinese believers, Adeney issues a compelling challenge to Christians in the West. “Living in a free society, Christians may choose the intellectual and spiritual climate in which to live, but if political conditions change and they find themselves in a communist society, they will immediately be confronted by an inescapable challenge to their faith” (p. 83).

Chapter 6 describes how the continuing pressure on Christians led to a divided Chinese church. On one side were leaders such as Wu Yao-tsong and Yang Shao-tang who joined the Three-Self Church organized by the Communist Party. In the eyes of many Chinese Christians, these leaders compromised their Christian faith by participating in the formation of the Three-Self Church. On the other side were the leaders such as Wang Ming Dao who decided not to join the Three-Self Church, equating such a decision as a betrayal of God. Adeney’s personal relationships with these key leaders bring these stories to life. While he had compassion for Yang and the difficult decision he made for the sake of continuing his ministry, he also had admiration for Wang and his principled stand. In the end, we see that both sides suffered major consequences, leaving Yang a broken man and Wang a long-term prisoner.

Adeney concludes his book with a chapter commenting on the future of ministry in communist countries such as China. He describes the kind of commitment and discipline that it would take for a Chinese Christian to move back to mainland China and serve the Lord. He also asserts that outsiders should not dismiss the real achievements of the Communist Party in lifting the nation out of poverty (p. 115). Particularly striking is his assertion that, “A Christian message which only stresses individual salvation and shows little interest in the needs of the masses will have little attraction for communist youth. The Christian witness will have to be actively involved in ministering to the needs of the society in which he lives” (p. 119). This statement harkens back to a reflection earlier in the book where Adeney states that he and his fellow missionaries realized after leaving China that they had not been sufficiently sensitive to the needs of the masses of the people (p 38). In other words, Adeney asserts that a narrow gospel message focused simply on personal salvation would not be sufficient. A more holistic gospel message that connects with both the individual and the wider society can address the needs and interests of any society, including communist China.

Adeney closes by speaking of the presumed situation of the church in China with worship outside of the Three-Self Church strictly forbidden. It is fascinating to read this account now, knowing that the information available to Adeney and other China-watchers in 1973 was so limited. Particularly intriguing is one of his last assertions about China’s growing influence in Asia. He says, “Even now many different delegations from Southeast Asia are touring China, and in the future, we may expect to see businessmen, technical experts and educators from mainland China in the cities of Asia and Africa” (p. 129). What would Adeney think of the influence China has had in Asia, Africa, and the whole world less than 50 years later?

Adeney’s words from 1973 have much relevance and connection to what is happening in China today. His reflections on past ministry and the need for a more contextualized gospel still ring true.  As we consider today’s context, how much more do we need to heed Adeney’s words of “being sensitive to the needs of the masses of people”? As we see the Chinese Communist Party growing even more powerful than it was during Adeney’s lifetime, how much more do we need to consider the pressure that the Party places on Chinese Christians?

The restrictions on campus ministry today are remarkably similar to the restrictions and challenges that Christian students faced in 1950. After a period of relative openness and freedom to work, the space for campus ministry has shrunk in the face of the Communist Party’s reassertion of control. In today’s more restrictive atmosphere, much like the atmosphere of the 1950s, Chinese students and staff workers have had to adapt and find ways to continue the work.

China: Christian Students Face the Revolution serves as both a historical testimony and an insight into the current reality. We could do well to heed the words of this missionary of the 1930s and 1940s as we seek to continue participating in the work that God is doing through campus ministry in mainland China.   

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Tim Brookings

Tim Brookings (pseudonym) grew up in Massachusetts and went to university to study engineering, but soon felt God’s call into student ministry. He has lived in western China for most of the last 11 years, with a four-year gap from 2011 until May 2015 to study theology.  Beginning in August …View Full Bio