Ezra Jin: Christianity in China has an unprecedented golden opportunity. The major ideology which dominated China for over ninety years has gradually lost its hold; however, all other ideologies and religions are not yet ready to influence the nation. Thus, Christianity currently has a great opportunity. While there are many obstacles which we must face, there are two particular issues we need to deal with. First of all, the Chinese church should try to be a major force in society. Secondly, to be able to do this, the Chinese church must reform itself. Critical to this happening will be the role of the local church. If we can build local churches that are able to bring life and healing to people, then the future of Chinese society will be in the hands of the church. Recently we have seen churches like Shouwang and Zion beginning to be noticed and playing a visible role in Chinese society. This is the reality of the church today.
Daniel Li: I don’t think the government will totally change its religious policy in the short term. However, in the long term it will have to change. As society continues to modernize, it will have to face the church and religious issues. A big problem in China is the lack of society. Since the state has the power to open and close doors, there is no public arena for the church to operate in. Everything, including the family, is the prerogative of the state.
However, Chinese society has the potential to change family and societal life. Since 2005, Chinese society has become increasingly urbanized. The Chinese government has tried very hard to convert Chinese churches into mere charity organizations, but the churches want to be independent social organizations. Thus, there is tension between the government and church. This has been displayed in the conflict between the government and the Shouwang Church in Beijing. The government can no longer deny the existence of the Chinese house church; it also understands the function of the churches. The core issue is the question of whether the church should be under the control of the government or should be independent. We need to see both the existence and the government of the city churches. First we need to focus on our own local churches. They need strong theological education and more full-time ministersmany of whom can meet the needs of the middle-class population. We need more material written by Chinese from inside China. Finally, we need to mold Christian ideas into Chinese culture.
Nowadays the Chinese church cannot stand due to two reasons. First, there is no discipleship training so the family altar does not exist; so, the family cannot have a credible witness in society. Second, our faith does not have the interface to connect with the mainstream culture. We hope that the overseas church can help us in these areas. The rise of nationalism in China also deserves our close attention. It may become a major force against Christianity as it did 100 years ago. So, the main means of developing the church is to promote the family altar and the church’s molding of culture.
The Chinese church is significant in the future development of the world. In Europe, from 2001 to 2010, the Muslim population increased by 24.5 times. The whole of Europe and the UK are becoming Islamized. The Chinese church has not begun mission to Muslim nations, but the Muslims have already come to China. This is a huge spiritual war.
Man De: There are five mechanisms for change in the Chinese church. The Chinese policy, after the economic reform, gradually changed, but this change did not favor the church. The government did not destroy the house churches, but neither rural nor urban house churches are officially recognized; the government simply admits their existence. The situation in China will never become like that in American society. The character of Chinese government religious policy can be summarized as follows. The first mechanism for the government to deal with the church is to keep it hidden. They do not want the church to be seen in public. The Lausanne conference is one example; you can exist underground, but you cannot openly show yourself in public. The second mechanism is to deny them legal status. Shouwang church in Beijing wanted legal status, but the government refused to grant it. The third mechanism is to disperse the church. The government does not want the house church to become too large; if the numbers become too great they are forced to disperse. The All Nations Church in Shanghai is an example of this.* The fourth mechanism is control. No matter whether big or small, the government tries to control unregistered churches if they can find the opportunity. The fifth mechanism is to try to put all the churches under the TSPM by requiring them to register. In Beijing, Shouwang church members have been brought to police stations where they are confronted by TSPM pastors who ask them to join their churches.
In the face of this fivefold mechanism for dealing with the unregistered church, the house church likewise, has a fivefold response. The first is to try to come out into the public. The term “house church” is self-contradictory. A house is private; the church is public. A public identity put under a private entity is self-contradictory, just like the idea of a “socialist market economy.” Traditionally, Christians felt that worshipping at home by themselves was fine. Today, a new generation of believers desires legal social status, which is the second form of response. The third response is integration; Christians from different house churches come together to worship in large numbers. Fourth, the house churches seek to be self-governing in response to the government’s attempt to control them. Finally, they seek independence apart from the TSPM. While it is not possible to immediately realize complete freedom for the spread of the Gospel, it is possible to push for more space. We believe that under God’s guidance, the degree of freedom and the space in which to practice our faith will increase. Thus, we seek to be open, to gain legal status, to be integrated, self-governing and independent as a means of getting there.
Franklin Wang: I would like to speak as someone who is trying to see Christianity truly rooted in China. Christianity first came to China in 635AD, earlier than when it came to Western Germany, all the Scandinavian countries, and Eastern Europe. From then until now the biggest question, for all who came to China to do ministry, was whether or not they could establish Christianity in China. How many missionaries should we send to be able to really root Christianity in China? After 1949, missionaries asked whether Christianity would be in China anymore and would they need to re-evangelize China. But after thirty years, we see that God has answered the prayers of the previous 1500 years and has done a miracle. By the sheer number of Christians in China, no government would be able to take Christianity out of China. Christianity will exist in China; that is clear. The question is, “What kind of Christianity?” Will we have superficial, nominal Christianity combined with the prosperity gospela weak Christianity that cannot really change people? Or will we have Christianity that is deeply rooted in the Bible and redefines our identity as a Chinese nation and people? If we define our position in God’s kingdom as the latter, then perhaps China could become the major missionary force of the future.
The metaphor I would like to use for the Chinese church right now is that it is like a teenager. It has great potential but is not stable. Teenagers might imitate what their parents do, but sometimes they do not know why. Just as teenagers must form their own identities, the Chinese church must form its own identity. Chinese Christians, individually and collectively, should understand who we are. The biggest questions I encounter when I try to translate academic theological papers from English into Chinese is that we don’t even have the vocabulary to deal with the theological terms. To be able to have the language, we need a group of scholars who devote themselves to study and develop it. We have a long way to go. For me, as someone studying in seminary, I believe God has given a unique blessing to the Chinese church by raising it up, isolating it for several decades and then opening the door. Now Chinese Christianity has access to the Western church. God blessed the Chinese church with a great tradition and great heritage, but God has also blessed the Western church for over 2,000 years, and it has thought through all those problems that we face over and over again. If we can bring these traditions together to grow this community, this young plant in China, we can grow much stronger for God’s kingdom.
What kind of reform is needed for the Chinese church? Format, management, visibility, accountability?
Daniel Li: We need all four. Jesus said very clearly, we should not put the light under the bed. In the church we need management and we need truth. In the urban church these problems are becoming clearer. In one church, before 1980, they had more than 200 people. After 1998 they had more than 2,400 people, but today they have only 1,600. Although there are many reasons for this, one problem is management. Today the problem exists among our city churches. These churches, for example, are currently debating whether to follow reform theology or something else.
Man De: Now the situation is different from that of years ago. Previously the church was simply trying to survive; today the house church’s existence is an indisputable fact. So, our needs are different. In the first stage, evangelism and discipleship were core needs. Today, the Chinese church can do these things themselves. The Chinese church needs more systematic training and deep theological training, including church management, seminary training, Christianization of Chinese culture and impacting society. We are pursuing this second stage of development, so foreign resources need to focus on the needs of this stage. Then, the Chinese church can be more formalized in its management, establishment of theological seminaries, pastoral training, and its public position and legal status. Evangelism and mission are almost an “automatic” process; they can go ahead by themselves.
With 287,000 suicides a year in China, what is the church doing to give hope to those without hope?
Daniel Li: In Shanghai we have encouraged overseas Chinese Christians to start counseling centers. There are no more than 100 such centers. The suicide rate in China is increasing at an alarming rate. Between 2005 and 2010 more than 20 professors in China took their lives. The Education Bureau has issued regulations allowing universities to convert their political education courses into counseling classes. It is very difficult to bring a pastor into the classroom to lecture, but to bring him in as a counselor is quite possible. In the course of doing this it is possible to talk about faith.
Pastor Jin: The spirit of hopelessness all over China, no matter if rich or poor, is related to spiritual warfare. A few months ago a survey of middle school students in China revealed twenty-three percent had suicidal thoughts within the past three months. This is the highest in the world. The Gospel is the most powerful means to address this. The church has the resources, but just talking about our hope in Christ is not sufficient. The most effective solution is for the church to bring its spiritual life into partnership with counseling organizations.
How can the church reach out to society but avoid being so visible that the government responds in a negative way?
Man De: That’s what I’m doing in China. We provide professional training in order to change culture within the economic system and the family. Publishing materials, counseling, mercy ministriesall are means of Christianizing Chinese culture. The government appreciates these efforts. In this process we lay the foundation for missions. The church needs to have an impact in the family and society.
Pastor Jin: At the personal level or on a small scale we have a lot of opportunities, but when the church gets involved sometimes it’s dangerous because of the church’s lack of legal status. When “illegal” organizations do good things it upsets the Party because it puts the government in an awkward situation. So the best approach is for the church to earn legal status and in this way be positioned to be able to impact society. This is inevitable. My prayer is also that government leaders will come to see that allowing the church to function openly will benefit society.
*In November 2009, Shanghai’s All Nations Mission Church, China’s largest urban house church, was sealed off by the government. By December it was officially declared “illegal.” It has since disbanded into small-group home meetings. Dr. David Wang. “How Do We Pray for China?” Gospel Herald (April 21, 2010) http://www.gospelherald.net/article/opinion/46266/how-do-we-pray-for-china.htm.
Image Credit: Church of TianJin City by 廷 温, on Flickr