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Contextualizing the Christian Message in China

In 1995, Douglas Hayward wrote an article for the International Journal of Frontier Missions on the issue of contextualization.[1] In his article he holds out eleven indicators by which mission leadership should be evaluating whether their efforts are the local expression of faith. For the purposes of this article, I would like to highlight two of these indicators and use them as a basis to evaluate the situation in China today, not simply from the point of view of mission agencies (involvement of outsiders), but also from the standpoint of the local Chinese church (both official and unofficial).

First, however, it is useful to review what is meant by contextualization. In his book, Confucius, the Buddha, and Christ, Dr. Ralph Covell writes that “contextualization means that the gospel addresses itself to those broader issues of the social, economic, and political context within a receptor culture.”[2] Many missiologists speak of contextualization as making the gospel relevant within a particular culture. I prefer to think of it in terms of making the gospel accessible and understandable within a particular cultural context. In a world where “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God,” where all stand in need of redemption, the gospel is automatically, and by its very nature, relevant to all people in all cultures at all times.

This article is not a theological examination of the contextualization of the gospel, nor is it a historical overview. For an excellent treatment of those issues, I recommend Dr. Covell’s book, mentioned above. Rather, this article is a look at some things that are going on in China today that are making the gospel accessible and understandable.

When talking about the contextualization of the gospel in China today, we must make note of the fact that today’s context is different from the context of missions in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s when the concept was first popularized. Although there have been indiginization movements in missions down through the ages, the term contextualization came into vogue during the period of the 1970s and 1980s when much of the developing world was shaking itself free from centuries of colonialism.  At that time, one of the main issues facing the local churches was how the church in general, and believers in particular, should relate to foreigners.  In some ways, the Chinese Communist Party dispatched with this issue back in the early 1950s when it expelled the foreign missionaries and established the Three Self Patriotic Movement.  In effect, what it was saying to the church was, “This is how you will deal with foreigners.  You won’t!”  The TSPM did the defining on what it meant to “do church a Chinese way.”  Later on, in the 1960s and the 1970s, when the church in Africa and other parts of Asia was struggling with how to relate to foreigners, the church in China was struggling just to survive.

At the present time, the leadership of the TSPM is dealing with this issue of contextualization with its so-called “theological construction” campaign. What Bishop Ding, the leading proponent of (and authority behind) this campaign is trying to do is demonstrate Christianity’s compatibility with the nation’s goal (actually, the Party’s goal) of “building Socialism with Chinese Characteristics.”  Unfortunately, the theology side of the equation is an extremely liberal, universalist theology which blurs the distinction between belief and unbelief, and the campaign side of it is political—an attempt to force this theology onto the TSPM clergy. In other words, his answer to the question of how to make the gospel understandable is to water it down. There are many evangelicals within the TSPM who are resisting this campaign.

Ironically, while the TSPM is trying to define Christianity in terms of its relationship to Chinese socialism, Chinese believers are, in fact, wrestling with a much more pertinent question, namely, how does a believer participate as a member of Chinese society? Of course, this issue is not unique to the Chinese for it is an issue that all Christians must face—how to live as a Christian within a particular social, cultural, and political context whether it is totalitarian China, Islamic Pakistan or radically pluralistic America. We need to know when to stand within and embrace cultural norms and when to stand above them. Let’s return to the indicators put forth in Dr. Hayward’s article. The first indicator is that of the local language. “In order for the gospel to be truly at home in a culture,” he writes, “the people must be able to hear the Word of God, as well as expositions on it, and descriptions of appropriate responses to it, in their own language in which they feel the most comfortable.”[3] In other words, the primary means of the preaching and living out of the gospel must be in the heart language of the people.

The good news on this indicator is that because foreigners were out of the game for so many years in China, most of the work of the spread of the gospel has been, and continues to be, in Chinese. Foreign participation in the official church (and of course the unofficial church) is discouraged and, therefore, rare. As far as the church goes, this really is not an issue anymore.

The not-so-good news is that many (but certainly not all) ministries from the outside still rely on English as the primary language of both evangelism and discipleship. When China first opened in the early 1980s, one of the first areas the nation sought assistance in was English language learning. Consequently, the earliest bearers of the gospel (from the outside) into the new China were English teachers. In our zeal to take advantage of this new access that was being afforded, and given the fact that the vocational task was English teaching, we convinced ourselves that learning Chinese was not important, and that the gospel could be taught and received in English. This was (and continues to be) a major barrier to the contextualization of the gospel in China.

Dr. Hayward’s second indicator is “membership in society.”  He speaks of the need for the church to “demonstrate a capacity to serve as a responsible institution in meeting the well- being of the needs of the society” and to “function as salt, light, oil or in other ministrations that bind up the wounds or meet the needs for community and harmony development,” while at the same time serving the spiritual well-being of the believing community.[4]

This is a particularly tricky endeavor in China where the state views religion in general, and Christianity in particular, with a great deal of suspicion, and thus works to keep the church out on the margins of society. The good news is that (at least for the time being) the state is no longer seeking the eradication of the church as it did in the 1960s and 1970s. Rather, it seems to have settled on what a friend of mine calls “reluctant tolerance.” As the state in China gradually increases its tolerance of Christianity, the church is increasing its involvement in a variety of ministries of both evangelism and mercy.

A recent example of the church’s more visible participation in outreach is the performance of the Messiah in Beijing the past two Christmases. The first performance, in 2001, was organized and sponsored by the conductor, himself a Christian. Word of the performance in the Forbidden City Concert Hall was primarily by word of mouth. In 2002, the churches became involved, printing and distributing posters that could be seen around town. I asked an evangelical pastor friend how this was possible. Clearly it was being done with official blessing and permission, but I was curious as to how they had received it since the Religious Affairs Bureau is not known for approving such overt expressions of faith. “Simple,” she replied, “we sought and received permission from the Cultural Affairs Bureau.”

During the SARS epidemic this past spring, the churches also became involved in the support of health care workers dealing with the disease and patients afflicted by it. Even the Beijing International Christian Fellowship collected food and gifts to be distributed in the hardest hit hospitals, a fact that was reported in the party-run newspaper, The China Daily.

I know of groups of Christians, from both official and unofficial churches, who are involved in outreach and care ministries to the elderly and to children whose parents are in prison. As many of the societal safety nets break down in this era of change in China, Christians are stepping in to fill the void, becoming salt and light and meeting the needs of the community.

At the same time, outsiders are also increasingly involved in meeting the needs of society through ministries to orphans, street children and public health work. This gives the authorities a chance to see that foreign Christians are not a threat and have much to contribute towards the needs of society. In each of these situations, honest and sincere service to the people of China opens many doors to sharing the gospel.

The more visible the church becomes as a force for good in society, the less likely it is that it will continue to be viewed as a threat.  A change in perception on the part of the government on this score will unleash a church that is poised to engage itself in society.  It is to this end that we must continue to work and pray.


  1. ^ Douglas Hayward, “Measuring Contextualization in Church and Missions,” International Journal of Frontier Missions, (Jul-Sep. 1995).
  2. ^ Ralph Covell, Confucius, the Buddha, and Christ: A History of the Gospel in Chinese, Orbis Books (1986), p. 15.
  3. ^ Hayward, p. 10.
  4. ^ Hayward, p. 10.
Image credit: got to learn this one by Gabriel Jorby via Flickr
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Kay Danielson

Kay Danielson (pseudonym) has lived and worked in China for over 25 years. She currently works in the field of cross-cultural training and consulting.View Full Bio