Peoples of China

Wu’s Journey to Faith

After a sumptuous meal, we traveled by taxi to one of the many Western-styled coffeehouses in this bustling Chinese city to enjoy a latte and a talk about faith. Wu[1] is representative of others in his generation. He is university educated, has a job with a high-tech company that, even at the entry level, pays him well enough to be part of China’s emerging middle class. His father and mother expect him to continue to rise through the ranks at his work until he is wealthy enough to provide good care for them in their later years. Wu loves and respects his parents, his heritage and his country. Yet, he knows that he is in a vortex of change forcing him to decide what to hold on to and what to let go of, what is valuable for his future and what is best left behind.

I Know the Story

We drank foreign coffee and opened the Chinese Bible to the passage from Romans 10:9-11 about belief in the resurrection and making confession that “Jesus is Lord” for salvation. Wu responded to this passage by joyfully exclaiming, “I am saved.” To be sure that he grasped the implications of following Jesus, we looked at the story of the rich young man in Matthew 19. When Wu heard the first couple of verses, he sighed, lowered his voice and announced regretfully, “I know the story.”

I had known Wu for a couple of years, first meeting him in the home of a friend where he supplemented his income working as a tutor to the children. We talked about cooking, culture, and basketball. He knew more about the NBA than I did, especially Yao Ming and the Houston Rockets. Ten months earlier he had met me at the airport with the news, “I want to know more about God. So many people have been working on me.” From that visit on, I began relating to Wu as a spiritual son, but his journey of faith was not quick or easy.

Two Levels of Conflict

In each visit with Wu, his heart was open; he listened, questioned respectfully, responded honestly and step by step tried to work through his conflicts and difficulties. Wu had experienced the love of God through others; he had come to believe many of the tenets of Christianity and had developed a deep appreciation for biblical values. He acknowledged that his job, perhaps the best one awarded to anyone in his graduating class, was a result of answered prayer (not guanxi). This answer let him know that God was present and loving. While riding a bus to a weekend holiday, he confessed that his struggle with Christianity was on two levels. “The first,” he confided, “is the scientific level. The second is the social level.” In each of our subsequent discussions, Wu referred to processing Christianity with reference to these two levels.

The Scientific Level

The scientific level referred to the conflicting claims of Christianity based on the miraculous resurrection of Jesus from the dead and the mysterious application of the effect of that event to bring salvation and transformation to the believer—and the opposing claims of atheistic materialism. In his training as a scientist, he had heard the arguments for materialism over and over throughout the Chinese educational system. He had dutifully read a number of apologetic works given to him by Christians. He also had the opportunity to spend time with a foreign-based Chinese scientist who had come to faith in Jesus. Through the readings and the discussions, the scientific problem was “solved” for Wu.

The Social Level

The conflict on the social level was more difficult. Understanding Chinese society and culture requires a grasp, to some degree, of the relational identity of Chinese society in contrast to the individualism of the West. At the apex of Chinese relational identity is the respect for parents which for generations has been codified and ritualized in ancestor worship. Wu’s father owns a factory and is a member of the Party (an effort to prosper more than a devotion to political philosophy). In teaching Wu his personal business ethic, he chided his son to “cheat your suppliers, cheat your customers, cheat your partners.” Wu described business in China as something that is “very dirty.” Having been disciplined and smart enough to enter and graduate from the university, Wu’s father expected great financial success from his son and easier years later in life for himself and his wife. The pressure he put on Wu to do well on university entrance exams had caused Wu to become ill and consider suicide. Now Wu was set to have his part of the good life in China’s expanding economy.

On one visit back home he had presented his mother with a Bible, a gift she gladly received—that is, until his father made her give it back. It was on that visit, after Wu witnessed to his developing Christian faith, that his father told him to give it up. If Wu lived in Europe or America, and being a Christian could enhance business relationships, then it would be fine, but not in China. Christian faith would prevent Wu from making the “big money.” Christian ethics would prevent him from employing the deception, using bribes, and indulging in the immorality required for success in business in China. Wu said, “My father has never said, ‘No’ to me about anything before. He would give me advice. He would tell me what he would do. He wanted me to go into politics but I chose business. He never said, ‘No’ to me, until he said ‘No’ to becoming a Christian.”

Following this visit home, Wu’s faith started to waver. He convinced himself that if he gave up being a Christian and eventually made the “big money” he could help more people in the long run. He refused to go to church services with his Christian co-workers and eschewed baptism.

The Phenomenology of Spiritual Formation

My relationship with Wu was not that of a dispassionate observer but as a loving spiritual father, entering deeper into the experience of Paul when he made reference to his “dear children.”[2] How is Christian spiritual formation experienced and fostered in the Chinese context, and particularly in the context of China’s emerging urban middle class? My personal experience has been that there are rational and non-rational components to the process. There are concepts grasped intellectually that combine with transformational experiences resulting in spiritual growth. I asked Wu about how he perceived his own spiritual growth. He did not understand the question. Even after I rephrased it, taking a run at it from other directions, it never clicked with him. Later, I explained my perspective that there are aspects of faith that are apprehended logically and processed intellectually. There are also nonrational, experiential aspects that serve at transformational moments. I assumed that Chinese culture (like Latin American and African cultures) would have a greater capacity (than Western cultures) to experience the nonrational aspects of faith. His response was that it might be true of someone who was uneducated, but for an educated Chinese person, only the logical aspects of Christianity were pertinent to spiritual growth. I believed him—until my next visit to China.

Grandmother’s Death

The first night we were together, after enjoying a tasty feast disguised as an evening meal, we returned to my apartment for coffee and another deep, passionate discussion about his faith. Wu’s latest story began to unfold. His grandmother was dying and Wu traveled back home, anxious to see his beloved grandmother one more time before her life ended. He made it and was with her in her final moments. “I never believed the part in the Bible about hell before, but when I saw my grandmother dying and saw the terror in her eyes, I knew that there really is a hell.” A few days later when Wu was looking at the box that contained his grandmother’s ashes he asked himself, “Is this what life is all about? Will it all be over when I end up as a box of ashes?”

It was this critical event and the perception that his grandmother was entering hell that reconnected Wu with the process of his own faith journey. Something happened deep within Wu’s psyche or soul that brought him to believe something he did not believe before and to choose a path (following Jesus) that he had found difficult to choose before. Still, Wu continued to waver for some time between the call of Christ and the lure of “big money.”


How much of Wu’s story is similar to the stories of other young urban professionals who are the faces of leadership in the coming decades? How much of his struggle is shared by his peers? Can the Third Church continue to reach these men and women for the gospel and equip them as agents of change in Chinese society? The answers to these pertinent questions can provide valuable help in the structure and implementation of leadership development in China. Wu’s perception of the church in China is that it is populated with uneducated peasants, mostly older women, who have little in common with him. Wu has allowed my wife and me to build relationships of mutual trust and respect with him, relationships that the Lord has used for shared spiritual growth.

The nature of the call of Christ is unchanging, the love of the heavenly father and the work of the Holy Spirit are unabated, even as they move through flawed human vessels. The life of Jesus moves life to life, heart to heart like the love of parents for their children. Cross-cultural ministry requires the utmost of respect and humility following the example of the one who washed feet. It is my humble thought that those in the West can be useful to developing leaders in China by loving, respecting and imparting who we are in Jesus, with utmost reliance upon the Holy Spirit for the miracle of transformation into the image of Jesus. Paul expressed this dynamic of parental love to the church in Thessalonica: “We loved you so much that we were delighted to share with you not only the gospel of God but our lives as well, because you had become so dear to us” (1 Th. 2:8).

The Story So Far

The story of Wu (so far) has a good conclusion. He has made the decision to follow Jesus, risking the loss of his job and his chances for the “big money.” In an email, he made this report. “I evangelized one of my co-workers, we talked about God and Jesus for almost two hours one night, and I gave him a Bible which can inspire him further. He is very interested. I hope one day he can know him totally. I think this can show how I feel about him, I trust so I spread.”

Image credit: 上海国际礼拜堂内景THE SHANGHAI COMMUNITY CHURCH by DvYang, on Flickr


  1. ^ Not his real name.
  2. ^ 1 Cor. 4:14, Gal. 4:19
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Jim Pennington

Dr. Jim Pennington is President of Firefall International Inc. He and his wife, Nancy, are involved in spiritual formation and leadership development in several Asian nations.View Full Bio