Since Xi Jinping assumed the role of Chinese President in 2013, he has put forward the grand vision of the Chinese Dream, the historical mission and future realization of the “Two Centennial Goals”1 along with the strategic blueprint of the Belt and Road Initiative. Under this national vision and blueprint for development, the Chinese church has also been eager to go abroad and participate in global missions. However, in the past ten years, Chinese churches have experienced the shock of cross and church demolition incidents,2 the impact of the “Regulations on Religious Affairs” implemented in 2018,3 and the grid-based monitoring system brought about by the global COVID-19 pandemic. As Xi Jinping continues to lead China’s New Era, where is China’s church and missions movement headed? This article looks at the future of China’s missionary movement from three perspectives: the assimilation of ethnic groups with the state and the Party, the Sinicization of religion, and the increased use of grid-based management.
Ethnic Groups-Party-State Assimilation
In November 2012, at the First Plenum of the 18th Party Congress, Xi Jinping explicitly linked together the entirety of national progress, socialism, and national rejuvenation, saying:
Socialism with Chinese characteristics carries the weight of generations of Communist Party members’ ideals and explorations, has been sustained by the hopes and dreams of countless noble and selfless people, is the fruit of the struggle and sacrifice of tens of thousands of revolutionary martyrs, and embodies the struggles and application of people of all ethnic groups in the country. It is the inevitable choice of the development of Chinese society in modern times. It is the choice of history and the people.4
In 2013, Xi Jinping successively put forward the vision of the Chinese Dream and the Belt and Road Initiative. Internally, he said that the Chinese Dream is “realizing the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation, which is the greatest dream of the Chinese nation in modern times.”5 Externally, he proposed the Belt and Road Initiative strategy of great power diplomacy in order to exert greater influence internationally. Xi Jinping combined the state with the nation:
To promote the spirit of patriotism, we must respect and continue the legacy of the Chinese nation’s history and culture. The understanding and acceptance of the motherland’s long history and profound culture is an important condition for the cultivation and development of people’s patriotic feelings.6
To implement the above-mentioned grand vision, in the report of the 19th Party Congress, Xi Jinping proposed “upholding and strengthening the Party’s comprehensive leadership.”7 Chinese politics under the leadership of Xi Jinping, for the past ten years, has ended the separation of the Party and the state. This is a return to the “Party and state” system before the era of reform and opening up. Looking at the past ten years, the boundaries between the Party, the state, and the people have been blurred. As the people, the Party, and the state have been increasingly integrated, national identities are being constructed in an environment of political correctness and ideology.
Sinicization of Religions
Xi Jinping emphasized at the 2021 National Conference on Religious Work:
We must lead the various religions in China with core socialist values and immerse them in Chinese culture. We must support religious circles in interpreting religious thoughts, canons, and teachings in ways that meet the requirements of a time of progress. We must prevent the penetration of Western ideology, and consciously resist the influence of extremist ideological trends.8
From this, we can see the development of the Sinicization of religion which combines political ideology with the prevention of the intervention of external forces. Xi Jinping believes:
We must further promote the Sinicization of China’s religions, lead, and support our country’s religions to take the core socialist values as their guide and increase the awareness of religious people and believers towards identifying with the great motherland, the Chinese nation, Chinese culture, the Communist Party of China, and socialism with Chinese characteristics.9
This definition indicates the essence and connotations of the Sinicization of religion. The development of the Sinicization of religion will lead to greater pressure on Chinese churches. Ethnic minorities and ethnic religions will also face the influence of an overbearing Han culture and even face the crisis of assimilation.
Increased Grid-Based Management
Xi Jinping has expanded the entire understanding and practice of national security over the past decade. At the 19th Party Congress in 2017, he put forward a discussion on “a holistic view on national security.” He emphasized:
Hold fast to a holistic view on national security. Coordinating development and security, enhancing the awareness of danger, and being prepared for danger in times of peace are a major part of our Party’s important principles for governance of the country. We must adhere to the supremacy of national interests, take the people’s security as a prioritized mission and political security as a fundamental task, coordinate external security and internal security, homeland security and security of our citizens, traditional security and non-traditional security, individual security, and common security. We must perfect the national security system, strengthen national security capacity building, and resolutely safeguard national sovereignty, security, and developmental interests.10
Under such a view of national security, one of the ways to implement national security is through the combination of big data and grid-based management. The “Decision of the Third Plenary Session of the 18th CPC Central Committee on Several Major Issues Concerning Comprehensively Deepening the Reform” proposes to improve the social governance method, innovate the social governance system, and improve the grass-roots comprehensive service management platform along the lines of grid management and socialized services. The implementation of this gridded supervision falls to the district committees and the sub-district offices at local levels.11 This not only reduces criminal behavior in the community, but also affects the original forms of meeting of house churches. From the management of the COVID-19 pandemic to the restrictions on cross-border movement of personnel by using health codes, the impact of grid management is evident. These systems also bring many restrictions and troubles to local missionaries serving among ethnic minorities.
Every aspect of the missions movement in modern China—from the Back to Jerusalem movement started in the 1990s,12 the development of local cross-cultural missions brought about by the Wenchuan earthquake in Sichuan in 2008, the Mission China 2030 movement mainly promoted by Chinese urban churches in 2013,13 the missions education movement that seized opportunities and a new perspective on missions, to the recent acceleration of Mission China and the altar of joint prayer meetings due to the pandemic—reflects that the Chinese church has gained momentum and is on the verge of bursting forth. However, under the special circumstances of the greater era, where should the missionary movement of the Chinese church go? In response to the above three trends of forceful change, I have the following three suggestions for the missionary movement of Chinese churches.
The Construction of National Identity
In the face of the trend and influence of the amalgamation of people, Party, and state, more attention needs to be paid to the construction of a Christian identity. Under the influence of media, education, film, and television, the identity of the common people is being constructed subtly and unconsciously. Thus, self-identification with patriotism and nationalism is being molded by unnoticed control. This also affects the religious identity of Christian disciples and the church. From past encounters with Chinese missionaries who serve overseas, I have noticed how ethnocentrism affects the distance and tension between them and the groups they serve. Based on this, the issue of identity must be embedded in the process of disciple formation, biblical teaching, theological education, and missionary formation. Let the kingdom identity of the Triune God be the foremost identity of every child and the people of God. Only when the self and another meet, are we able to understand our own sense of identity more deeply. And only when connecting and communicating with another will kingdom identity be expanded. The training of missionaries today begins with understanding the language, culture, and worldview of others, which are all very necessary. However, if missionaries do not have greater awareness and understanding of their own sense of identity, it is difficult to truly reach across to others. The first step in missions may not be to reach across to where others are right away, but rather to reach beyond oneself!
Development of the Local Situation
For the Chinese government today, the Sinicization of religion is a response to the memory of humiliating history and the threat of Western culture. The difference between the two is the historical harm that religion has brought, and the threat that religion poses to national territory today. What they have in common is the weak adaptation of religion to the Chinese culture and system. This can be an opportunity for the Chinese church to reflect: How can the church be more capable of local communication, using the language that local people can understand to communicate the gospel? How can the church do theology in these special circumstances of Chinese politics, culture, and society? On the topic of cross-cultural mission, how can missionaries respect the nationality, culture, and living habits of people in different cultural situations, rather than dominating others with their own culture, ideology, and values? These basic attitudes and values may be different from the Sinicization of religions implemented by the current government, but just as “the Word became flesh,” Christ’s church ought to imitate him and enter different cultural groups with an attitude of humility, ministering to others with a servant identity.
Creative and Flexible Connections
In the post-pandemic era and the escalation of grid management, we are increasingly aware that the concepts and models that we were familiar with in the past are now being challenged and broken one by one. Our conception of the church in the past was as a center for gathering. Today, churches are beginning to share the gospel, worship, and fellowship through more flexible and creative small groups and networks. Originally centered on a certain region or location, today’s missions are being implemented in a decentralized or polycentric and localized way. Today people often use the acronym “VUCA” to describe today’s world: volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous. This also shows that in the future missions will have to face a new normal, and we need wisdom, grace, and creativity from God to face it. If missions is the grand narrative of God’s redemption, it means that this narrative connects the many small stories of you and me to the history of missions, continuing to write and proclaim the missionary story of God’s love for the world by imagining the promise and ultimate fulfillment of God’s kingdom.
Although the missionary movement of the Chinese church is experiencing great restrictions and challenges, just as Paul was bold to preach the word of the kingdom of God and teach the things of the Lord Jesus Christ in a restricted and imprisoned environment, no one forbade him to do so (Acts 28:31). I deeply believe that the more the church is in difficult circumstances, the more it experiences the grace and power of God.
Translated by ChinaSource. Original Chinese versions available for download below.
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