The present Chinese church’s lack of historical consciousness is longstanding. This is related to the form of the Chinese church. Organizationally, the Chinese church is fragmented; temperamentally, the church is complacent.
The rapid growth of the Chinese church was based on the situation in the previous century, when, following the loosening of the centralized system of state power and the granting of the economic freedoms of the bourgeois economy without corresponding political freedoms, everyone’s beliefs acted as a quick/convenient filler for their spiritual void. Accordingly, among the mass of believers there naturally was a limited interest in academic research and historical reflection—in some cases even a conscious opposition to systematic thought.
The church does not attach importance to the various types of historical research, including the history of the Chinese church, the history of the global church, and world history in general. In fact, these kinds of historical research have expanded extremely quickly within Chinese society and Chinese universities. Even Chinese official historical research has moved beyond its original exclusive adherence to the Marxist perspective on history, with now a variety of aspects as evidenced by the consistent calls from officials to resist “historical nihilism.” The Chinese church, ever underground or under control, remains unconscious of its need to use faith to respond to this current age, to send forth a conscious voice—indeed, to undertake a faith-based analysis and understanding of history and culture.
In fact, Chinese research on Christianity has already seen great development. From 1980 to 2000, Chinese Christian studies were primarily focused on philosophical and literary background research. In the past ten years, with the increasing participation of many historians, research on Chinese Protestantism has gradually produced a good deal of fruit. However, the church still does not know how to apply these results.
The Chinese church not only overlooks 2000 years of church history, even including the Reformation movement and the complicated apostolic age, but directly diving into the words of the Bible, the church cannot recognize that history has practical application. Because the church feels that having the Bible is enough, the church cannot see that historical reflection is an urgent matter. We recently undertook to translate The Shaping of Modern China: Hudson Taylor’s Life and Legacy by A. J. Broomhall, and it has been extremely hard to raise funds for this project. Perhaps it is because while the church likes the story of Hudson Taylor, they do not necessarily hope to do the hard work like he did, taking up his commission of suffering.
I believe that if the church were to engage in historical reflection, we would probably soon discover that we are “poor, blind, and naked” (Rev. 3:17). First, the early gospel workers who evangelized village by village have already become lead pastors, suggesting that the Chinese church is no longer growing. Many of the overseas students who have returned to become pastors, are absorbed in caring for their church members or denominationalizing their own church, suggesting that the knowledge and wisdom of the Chinese church is no longer developing: these are the believers who naturally would have the opportunity to raise the level of understanding of the Chinese church.
What kind of moment is the development of the Chinese church currently facing? From experiencing the previous century’s rapid growth we have already fallen to a standstill. The rural church, in accordance with the economic changes that are affecting the entire nation, increasingly resembles an empty shell. The urban church is busy with pastoral care and incorporating new believers, but these “new” believers either come from traditional, rural churches or they are returnees from overseas. The urban church has not planted seeds of its own but is doing the harvesting—and as a harvester, is the urban church demonstrating maturity? It does not look like it!
Also, the Chinese house church has been calling for mission. In the past we had the “Back to Jerusalem” BTJ slogan, now upgraded to “2030,” but nowhere in all this can be seen substantial reflection or criticism. Even a cursory look at the history of mission reveals that in order to understand just the last 100 years of mission theology and mission anthropology we cannot restrict our understanding of mission to the work and inspiration of missionaries to China of a hundred years ago (especially Hudson Taylor).
We know that before the disorderly image of the Chinese house church, the global church has always chosen to remain silent. Why? Perhaps they are painstakingly protecting and cultivating the growing maturity of the Chinese church. However, if we wish the Chinese church to mature, then we must allow the Chinese Church to think, to begin to develop her understanding/knowledge/wisdom, to begin to learn how to view history, to see God’s role in history and reality. To speak to the root of the issue, the Christian faith is not a faith of a historical vacuum: that is Buddhism.
Under these circumstances, because we ignore history, the Chinese church has become extremely fractured, composed of countless little churches. In significant ways, this has caused the Chinese church to become somewhat complacent, believing that each church can individually obtain all its knowledge straight from the Bible, with no need for common ground with other believers in matters of history.
It is our special wish that the Chinese church will have the ability to listen to the voice of God and to analyze the revelation of Jesus in history, all in order that the Chinese church might have some gifts to contribute to the world that are well-founded.
Translated from Chinese by Andrew T. Kaiser.