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Change, Stasis and Opportunity

Exploring Chinas Developmental Trajectory


I first moved to China 28 years ago and have lived there most of the intervening years. During that time external changes have been so substantial that photos from my early days bear no resemblance to the China of today, and as I speak with young Chinese people they find some of my categories odd. Having said that, while the pace of development has been frenetic and the economic growth historic, there have been few substantive changes in China. Basic inequalities, limited educational opportunities, rural-urban disparities and political sensitivities remain, and yet the Chinese people remain hopeful and industrious in the face of these challenges. It reminds one that China's developmental trajectory will not follow Western patterns. As a firm believer in the sovereign ways of God over the affairs of humans, it gives me pause to consider what opportunities this contradiction creates for the people of China and its church and for friends around the world committed to the Chinese church.

The purpose of this essay is to help long-term expatriate workers in China understand the social and spiritual context of China and ways to respond to it. The notion of rapid development in the context of limited change will be entertained, followed by analyses of present trends and future opportunities in several areas of social importance to the nation and concluding with comments on prospects for the Chinese church.

For expatriates working in China, it can appear to be getting more difficult to do ministry there. In fact, the overall context seems to remain rather the same year after year. However, the roles we play or the needs around us change so that we need to be alert, diligent and wise as we strive to maintain our spiritual vitality and relevance as we minister the gospel. For those currently in China, one must neither long for the "good old days" nor wait for some time when China is "wide open" for ministry. As long as I have been in the country, the present has always been sufficiently challenging to keep me vigilant, trusting fully in Christ and open to give me steady spiritual fruitfulness. With that in mind, attention will now be turned to addressing the current trends in China with reflection on what they mean for Chinese society and the Chinese church with implications for ministry by expatriate Christians living there.

Health and Education

The World Health Organization has a road map describing health and education as the essential elements in economic development. Although an extreme market approach to health care in the 1990s nearly sank the country, the SARS epidemic in 2003 was the clarion call that led to righting the ship, leading in 2007 to health care reform designed to bring primary health care to all urban residents. Although there have been hiccups, a functional system has been created that provides preventive medicine and chronic disease management to many urban residents who previously had to pay out-of-pocket for expensive hospital-based health care. Developing the same system for rural residents is in process.

Health care reform has created the opportunity for expatriate ministries to become involved in helping China build this primary health care system through the introduction of Family Medicine and community health services.

Rapid urbanization is an opportunity for the church to develop health services to meet a social need and witness to society in tangible ways. China already has 185 million people over the age of 60 (13.7% of the population) and this will only increase in the next twenty years, creating the need for health care services and nursing home care. The call to care for widows in distress should be grounds for innovation in this arena.

There is a lot of room for the development of the service sector in China, but few Chinese consumers recognize the value of services, so the service market is not very robust. For ministries hoping to use the service sector to create financially sustainable ministry models, the lack of strong demand will be a headwind for the indefinite future.

Although the number of spots for college students has grown remarkably, those students are not receiving a good education and are not finding jobs upon graduation, except for those coming out of the premier universities. One would hope that increased demand would create the opportunity to develop genuinely Christian schools for Chinese citizens, but a chokehold on education in China has largely prevented such a development.

Civil Society

While political reforms have lagged, there is no denying that the social space within which Chinese people are free to live and express themselves has grown steadily over the years, contributing to improved quality of life for most people.

The most significant growing space in China is the virtual space of the Internet. China is experiencing information mobility like never before. Internet users, banking, movie watching and music have all gone mobile. While Weibo, Youku and Baidu are exploiting this increasing social space, it is unclear whether it is enhancing civil society or not. While the space increases, the topics acceptable in that space are rather limited to benign ones such as environmental safety, changing family dynamics, sexual freedom and others. The world of the mind and all it creates has not been given free play, particularly on political, ethnic and religious topics.

However, Chinese people have learned how to exploit even the smallest opportunity. The church has been as innovative as any social entity and is currently equipped with a diversity of people able to provide the resources they need to grow and meet the needs around them. The Internet provides sermon feeds, biblical resources, books and all manner of resources free or nearly so. The quality is uneven, making it difficult for young Christians to discern what to listen to. This is an opportunity for expatriate Christians to provide guidance and technical support to access such resources and determine which ones are reliable.

There is now general recognition that mentoring Christian leaders is the most important contribution expatriate Christians can make to the global church. This is the call to do ministry by supporting others rather than focusing on doing it all oneself. This will increase as the Chinese church grows in strength and maturity, and the expatriate's role is less central. Nevertheless, less central does not mean less important, and expatriate Christians would do well to prepare themselves to fill this role well.

Government Attitude toward Expatriates

There appears to be no intention to begin political reform in China, so I will repeat what I have been saying since I went to China in 1985adapt to the current reality and take advantage of each available opportunity to develop locally appropriate ministries. It is unlikely that China will become politically inhospitable to foreign Christians, but neither will they officially sanction the activities of expatriate Christians in China. Thus, Christians should settle in, learn the language and begin to make contributions to the church and to Chinese society in-line with their vision. Although fear of being kicked out remains for some, the fears of air pollution or inflation are more likely to drive out expatriate Christian workers than the Chinese government.

Global Position

The Red River of the north is notorious for spring flooding. Unlike flooding in other regions, with flash floods, hurricanes and a terrain that worsens the outcome, the northern plains are flat. China's rise has been like the Red River floodwatersforceful, sure and silent.

China's recent decades of success coupled with rising nationalism have created a younger generation of rather self-assured people. On a recent trip to the U.S., I sought out the daughter of a Chinese medical colleague from China to check up on her. While having lunch together, she began to complain about the American university she was attending, arguing, "This school can't compare to my university in China. It is too easy, and the teachers are not good. I'm just here to saunter through classes and basically buy a masters degree." Her pomposity and lack of curiosity were extremely off-putting to me, but her attitude can be found among an increasing number of young Chinese people. This attitude is also reflected in decreasing interest in the gospel among young people compared to ten years ago.

This beaming confidence they have picked up from the certainty heard back home and for good reason. Whether it is the economy, athletics, technological innovation or lavish personal spending, China is on a roll. However, the Chinese government's confident appearances bluff deeper ambivalence about their true global role. They are desperate for acceptance on the global stage, but their inability to consistently occupy an appropriate position makes that acceptance elusive. It will take time, and it is our job to pray for and support the process in ways appropriate to our guest status in China and with a view to the kingdom of God.

The Church

As mentioned earlier, the government will not change its religious policy in the short term. At the same time, the government can no longer deny the existence of the Chinese house church and is beginning to understand the function of the church. This is good for the church and for society. Therefore, one of the opportunities for ministries in China is to help Chinese church leaders learn to occupy an appropriate position in the social space being afforded them. For example, when sharing the public square, the church needs to demonstrate obedience to the gospel first through conveying values such as faith, humility and hope, and then to proclaim the gospel in ways that are appropriate to the setting and the opportunity.

In a recent issue of ChinaSource, there was an interview with several Chinese church leaders entitled "The Future of Christianity in China: A Panel Discussion" (Spring 2012). Each of the participants spoke of the need for the Chinese church to "impact society," reflecting the current weakness of this manifestation of the gospel. This is precisely the point of the book Dual Impact published by Evergreen.*

Christianity will exist in Chinathat much is clear. The question is, "What kind of Christianity?" Over the last ten years, the Chinese church has matured significantly from the fundamentalist ways of the house church movement of the 1980s and 90s. However, the church remains rather reductionist, focusing on saving souls more than full gospel obedience as outlined above. Therefore, the church in China is stable but vulnerable.

The church is externally vulnerable. The government is fickle and intimidating, so the church is unable to feel clarity and certainty in their status. This is a reminder to expatriate Christians to use their unique status in China to publicly vouch for the validity and quality of the Chinese church. We should bring the gospel to officials and people of influence through our obedience to the gospel in their very presence.

Despite this vulnerability, the Chinese church has adapted to its political environment and grown both numerically and spiritually in that context. Other than those churches that depend upon it, the Chinese church in general would rather leave the "persecuted church" label behind. This stigmatizes it and devalues the ingenuity along with the spiritual and theological resources it has developed in response to its sociopolitical reality. Rather than calling it the persecuted church, we should look to it as a teacher of how to grow a healthy church in a politically repressive context.

The church is also internally vulnerable. Materialism, thirst for power and factionalism threaten the integrity of its witness among Christians themselves. Compromise and corruption from within could threaten its unity. Such problems would frustrate the government, resulting in a return to repressive ways. Unhealthy church leadership would also disillusion the Christians themselves, resulting in a drift away from the church. This is a very real concern today and a reminder to pick up the pace on discipleship and sound theological training for Chinese Christians. Expatriate Christian workers should also serve church leaders to the end of increasing their capacity and depth of service.

Finally, the church is socially vulnerable. The wider society around them is saturated with materialism, intense secularism, relativistic philosophy and indifference to convictions. These factors are creating a spiritually dull populace who will have decreasing interest in the proclaimed gospel. The church is now numerically large (5-10% in most areas) and well resourced. This is the time to proclaim the gospel in word and deed with integrity and boldness. It is also time to serve society so that the gospel continues to come with breadth and power in unexpected ways.

Over the years, thousands of Christians from around the world have entered China short- or long-term for the purpose of ministering the gospel to its people. God has used this movement to bless both the Chinese church and those who have had the privilege of serving there. It is hoped that this essay will encourage people newer to the China scene to take time to learn the Chinese language and culture, to be steady in the face of constant flux, to remain focused when real change seems slow to come and to grasp firmly the opportunity of serving the Chinese church today.

I just finished reading the book Factory Girls which describes life for rural women in China who have migrated to southern cities to work in factories. What struck me most was the pace of change in these girls' lives. For example, one young girl was able to finagle a job as a Human Resources person in one of the factories. She did it for a mere 24 days, but that was enough for her to move to another factory as a self-proclaimed "HR Expert" getting better pay and a better working environment. Twenty-four days!

We in China feel this pace of life and occasionally find it vertiginous. Nevertheless, God is our strength. He will give us wisdom to understand the times and to be wise so as to take full advantage of every opportunity. Each one has a talent and a calling, and it should be utilized to the fullest (Romans 12:3-8). The jocular Yogi Berra once said, "If you come to a fork in the road, take it." There are many opportunities in China today, as many as the gifts and callings of people choosing to seize them.

* Mark A. Strand, editor. Dual Impact, Shanxi Evergreen Services, 2012, p. 163. This book is available by contacting Denise Haeffner at Evergreen.

Image Credit: rudenoon via Compfight cc

Mark A. Strand

Mark A. Strand

Mark A. Strand, PhD, professor in public health at North Dakota State University, lived in China with his wife and three children for nearly twenty years. While in China he was involved in medical research and development with a non-profit organization in collaboration with the Chinese government. View Full Bio