Supporting Article

Social Change in the Church


There is no denying that since the opening of China in the 1980s, and its more recent entry into the World Trade Organization (WTO), China’s economic system and society are undergoing tremendous transformation. Unemployment, internal migration that contributes to urbanization, commercialization and changing values are all affecting Chinese society in both positive and negative ways. What are these changes and how are they impacting society as a whole? How are they affecting Chinese churches and how should the churches respond?

Results of Unemployment

State-owned enterprises (SOEs), which were supposed to supply lifelong employment for their workers, are being replaced by private enterprises. As their jobs disappear, SOE employees receive small monthly subsidies for a period of time as they transit into unemployment. These workers, known as xia-gong, are greatly limited by their educational levels and skills and few can be reemployed resulting in an increasing unemployment rate.

Unemployment is a greater problem in rural areas than in urban ones. While the China Daily reported the national unemployment rate at 3.6 percent in 2001, that same rate among the 800 million rural population is almost 20 percent. As unemployment rises, social problems such as robbery, prostitution, triad crime and others, increase. On the other hand, economic growth is raising the general standard of living throughout China. There is much improvement in government administration, finance, transportation, education and medical service within the country.

Changing Social Values

Prior to the 1980s, enforced policies restricted peasants from migrating to urbanized areas. They did not enjoy social welfare benefits as did the urban population. Now, however, they have greater freedom to move about and choose their occupation. In the past, peasants were generally dependent and obedient, meekly accepting misfortune and seldom striving for their own good; however, changes in government policy have allowed them to improve their lives. They now enjoy self-autonomy in land use and are free to look for work in the cities. Large labor forces have been released from villages and much light industry has sprung up in the countryside. This not only facilitates the growth of urbanization, but also greatly improves the living standard and life-style of the peasants. Traditional values such as dependence and obedience are gradually being replaced by modern values of high energy, aggressiveness and competition.

Chinese intellectuals have been traditionally allied with the government and the ruling political party. This is no longer the case in China. In the aftermath of the events of June 4, 1989, Chinese intellectuals have undergone an identity crisis. No longer enamored with the government, they have had to build up their own social status by other means. With the onset of economic reform and the development of urbanization, many intellectuals have become merchants. This is a radical development in China. Since ancient times in China, merchants were looked down upon, but now, as intellectuals involve themselves in commercial activities, their social status is built up through the improvement of their economic status. Thus more and more intellectuals are attracted to business as a viable alternative to a career in politics, government, or education.

As more and more people become enthusiastically involved in industrial and commercial activities in China, many of their traditional values are changing. Sociologist Xia Xue-luan has identified five changes in the social values system of China: (1) from traditional to modern values; (2) from group-oriented to self oriented; (3) from volunteer to utilitarian; (4) from collectivism to individualism; (5) from idealism to pragmatism.

As these changes take place, problematic attitudes such as severe materialism, apathy and hypocrisy are developing. According to Professor Xia, these negative attitudes are a negative repercussion of the planned economy and the collapse of communist idealism. Communist idealism was once the sole hope for getting away from severe poverty and war. However, to people’s dismay, their economic situation never improved, and instead was aggravated by the Cultural Revolution in the 1960s and 70s. People generally lost their faith in all philosophical idealism and consequently are turning to pragmatic materialism. Having experienced the disaster of collectivism as well as the Cultural Revolution, people no longer trust mass movements and instead have become self-absorbed.

Deteriorating Morality

A popular song in China goes,

Xia-gong men no worry, pick up knife and axe, travel around as robbers.

Xia-gong women no tears, step into nightclub, earn more as prostitutes.

Xia-gong soldiers no regret, join the triad society, have better livelihood as gangsters.

The song is a telling comment on the deteriorating morality of China. The Hong Kong newspaper Ming Pao reported that in a main street of Shenyang (a major city in China), prostitutes can easily be found along the street. More than 100 women are now earning their living there every night. Most are in their thirties and do not dress like prostitutes. According to local taxi drivers, some women go there alone, concealing their nighttime vocation from their families, others go accompanied by their husband or boyfriend! The police sometimes expel them, but seldom make any arrests. To the women, it is simply an economic necessity. One of the women was quoted as saying, “Who is willing to do such a thing if it’s not to make a living?”

Economic growth is not an unmixed blessing to society if it comes at the cost of deteriorating morality. It is believed that with the entry of China into the WTO, international triad forces and gangs will likely expand their influence in China. White collar crime including high tech, commercial and international, is also expected to increase.

Influence on the Churches

Churches, as a part of the society, are also inevitably influenced by the changes taking place in Chinese society.  This is especially true for the rural churches in China. As many rural people can no longer earn their own living by agriculture, they need to go to the cities to find work. Rural church leaders who in the past depended on agriculture for their own sustenance are being put in a difficult situation. On one hand, they have to sustain their family and leaving for the city seems to be the only way. On the other hand, being pillars in their churches, they know that their absence will surely affect the daily operation of the church. Some who choose to go to the city are condemned as being like Balaam, choosing profit over obedience to the will of God.

In addition, the changing social values are also affecting rural churches. Young people are no longer as obedient as before. They have their own ideas, and want to go their own way. Teaching them is not as easy as before. With the rapid development of information technology, internet access is common in the cities. People can easily access information which has both positive and negative potential. On the one hand, disciples may access valuable spiritual information to feed their souls; on the other, they can be drawn into viewing pornography or other polluting content. Church leaders must be aware of these realities, so they can give proper guidance to their disciples.

Challenges Facing the Churches

Perhaps we have painted too negative a view of the situation in China. However, it is clear that rapid changes in society have brought instability, and people are perplexed as they seek to sort out their own beliefs and values. The church must deal with these changes and issues and, while crisis are present for the people of China, at the same time, they may also be a golden opportunity for churches.

The challenge to preach.

People are hurting and puzzled by the rapid changes in China today. They need comfort and hope. It is important that Christians take advantage of this opportunity to bring the gospel of Christ to people who may be more receptive than they have ever been. Rural church leaders may feel that they are forced to leave their home churches, but looking at this situation from another perspective, they could also regard themselves as missionaries, sent voluntarily by the rural church to the city. In addition, since transportation and communication are much improved through urbanization, the development of missionary activities throughout the nation is much easier.

Rural preachers will likely not find themselves very effective in reaching urban intellectuals, but they should find a ready and appreciative audience among migrants from the rural areas. Expatriate Christians can help rural pastors who migrate to the cities form churches among the people God has equipped them to reach, and perhaps even help urban churches see and respond to the challenge of cross-cultural missionary work among these migrants.

Intellectuals and other educated individuals form another challenge for the church. While expatriates may presently be involved in helping to reach and disciple them, the Chinese church must recognize their responsibility to them and begin to consider how they can reach and encourage them.

The challenge to teach.

Biblical education is essential to every Christian. It helps to develop correct values and attitudes which Chinese society urgently needs at this time. In the recent past, Chinese society has undergone dramatic ideological changes, and a new value system is now under formation. This is a time of golden opportunity for Christian values to be implanted into Chinese culture. The Christianization of Chinese culture has always been the dream of Chinese Christian scholars. Perhaps now this dream may come true—If churches will seize the opportunity.  Churches should never neglect the importance of Sunday school and biblical education, as through these means Christian values can be rooted in young people who will one day be the pillars of society.  Expatriate Christians can help by providing appropriately contextualized materials and training, or better, by providing funds and assistance in the reproduction and distribution of indigenous materials and training programs.

Perspectives on WTO Entry and the Church

A China Researcher—China has taken a huge gamble in joining the WTO and opening her markets to fair competition. Agriculture is already in a dire way in many areas with poor peasants streaming into the cities in search of work. Those who fail to find it are often drawn into crime and prostitution. AIDS and drug-taking are now common. Unemployed and unpaid workers are increasingly restive, taking part in demonstrations and strikes. The gap between a small, wealthy elite and hundreds of millions of impoverished workers and peasants is growing. The Communist Party is corrupt and its reputation at an all-time low. The Chinese church and ministries from overseas have increasing opportunities to engage in mercy ministries to the poor—to orphans, widows, the blind, the mentally and physically handicapped and the unemployed. Only the Gospel and a church empowered by the love of Christ can bring spiritual and material liberation to these millions. The church of Jesus Christ shines as a beacon in the growing darkness of a materialistic society—a beacon of truth, integrity, hope and love.

A Businessman in China—WTO from a legal point of view is having little direct effect on the church; however, when going to third and fourth-tier cities in China (500,000-2,000,000), it has proven helpful to remind them of China’s entry into the international world via WTO and how they must act according to international practices for religious tolerance, etc. Another indirect effect is that being made by the telecommunications and information market in China.  Studies show that TV transmission will be available to 95 percent of the PRC’s population by 2005.

A Cross-cultural Trainer Living in China—Let me highlight one challenge and one opportunity that I see WTO membership poses for the church and ministry in China. WTO membership means integration with the world economic system, which is driven by the engine of consumerism. As China continues to integrate and open up, the values that accompany consumerism are planting their roots deeply, and this is something that the church in particular is trying to face. I worship in a Three-Self Church in Beijing and in recent months have heard many sermons that speak to this, urging people to resist materialism and the desire to get rich that absolutely saturates Chinese society today. The sway of Maoism and Marxism is definitely waning, particularly among urban adults, but materialism is alive and well. This is a challenge.

One opportunity that comes with membership is a possibility that as China continues to open, the state/party will continue to relax their grip over religion, albeit it slowly. There is, in my mind, a likelihood that the churches may be given more leeway for outreach and evangelism and even, perhaps, training. China is not suddenly going to establish the principle of religious freedom, but I believe the grip will slowly be loosened.

An Asia Director for an Organization Involved in China—With the incoming of foreign businesses one hopes there will be a greater openness to foreign workers. However, well-trained people will be required to serve in China. The “opening” may give greater access, but it seems that the controls of communism and socialism are not going to abate in the near future. There may be more turning of the eye as far as foreigners are concerned, but things will still be controlled as far as the population is concerned. Some may feel that WTO accession means that China will have to completely open to the outside and almost adopt Western values. That is a dream—China is a country with eons of history, government’s control is tight, and I do not see them relinquishing it. We need to be wise, pray and look for creative and innovative ways we can use the changes for the Gospel’s sake. I believe the reaching of China and beyond is in the hands of the Chinese, not the foreigner. However, as expatriates we need to discern what our part is and fulfill it for the building up and encouragement, nurturing and facilitating of our brothers and sisters in China.

An Expatriate Working in North Central China—Most people in China are unaware of the new reality that WTO accession brings to China. Farmers in rural China will suddenly be in competition with American agri-business. Workers in China’s massive SOEs will face even more direct competition from overseas. While 20 years down the line this will produce a China more integrated with the global community, the intervening period may prove tremendously destabilizing. Our task as Christians working in China is to point to a sure foundation and true hope in the midst of all the coming chaos.

Image credit: Church by felibrilu via Flickr

Janet Chan

Janet Chan, B.Soc.Sc., M.Div., is currently studying for her Th.M. and is a research assistant at the Chinese Mission Seminary with a concentration in the study of Chinese society and churches. View Full Bio