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American Evangelicalism and China: A Necessary Conversation

From the series Our China Stories

In his translator’s preface to the Chinese edition of Mark Noll’s The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind, Ren Xiaopeng acknowledges the deep influence of American fundamentalism upon Chinese Christianity. He then asks, “How should we interpret this spiritual history?”

The act of translating Noll’s classic critique of American evangelicalism is somewhat akin to opening up a dusty family photo album and peering inside to find clues about one’s identity. Curiosity gives way to surprise, perhaps confusion, and then concern as a connection emerges between the frayed and faded prints and the vivid reality of one’s own life.

“What are they doing?”

“Oh my, look at what they were wearing!”

“Is that your aunt?”

“I see. So that’s why we do what we do.”

“Oh…. Now I get it.”

There ensue the beginnings of an awkward conversation, perhaps with some of the people featured in those original images. This difficult though valuable exchange starts to fill in important details about where one has come from and how one has been formed.

“But… why?”

“We didn’t know….”

“What were you thinking?”

“It seemed good at the time.”

“Now what do we do?”

Difficult but Necessary

This conversation is difficult because it involves becoming mindful of things that have long been second nature. It requires bringing to light and critically examining culturally engrained beliefs and ways of doing things that, over the space of a lifetime, have woven the fabric of what was considered “normal.” Recognizing that one’s default assumptions about what is good and true may not make sense to those who have inherited them can be disorienting. For Christians, it can be threatening to discover that what we staunchly affirmed as biblical may have had more to do with nurturing cultural mores to support a particular lifestyle than with God’s eternal truth.

Those who have been the recipient of these values and assumptions may not want to offend. They wouldn’t want to appear ungrateful toward those whose love and sacrifice have helped make today possible. They struggle to fit this newly found knowledge about themselves into their own sense of identity and purpose. While feelings of disappointment and mistrust may surface in the process, this conversation can lead to a new shared understanding of how to relate to one another going forward.

In his preface to Noll’s book, Ren Xiaopeng suggests the need for such a conversation. On the one hand, he acknowledges the central role of American evangelicalism in providing theological resources for China’s church, a role he says will likely continue. “However,” Ren writes,

Without a thorough understanding of American evangelicalism and how it was conceived within a specific historical context, Chinese Christianity could be prone to “imitating blindly,” which could lead to “maladjustment” and malnutrition,” hindering its healthy growth and development in the future.

American evangelicalism is a strand of American Christianity that emerged as a response to modernism in the mid-twentieth century. While it carries an admirable vitality, it is also temporal and circumstantial, and thus, limited. Therefore, as Chinese Christians, we need to understand its strengths and weaknesses to critically integrate its theology.

Uncomfortable Questions

As Ren suggests, viewing the church in contemporary China through the lens of Noll’s Scandal raises some uncomfortable questions. These include how denominational distinctives born out of historical events that took place far from China have contributed to disunity within China’s church, how notions of American exceptionalism have animated visions of a “Christian China,” and how a massive influx of outside theological resources can disrupt the local faith “ecology.”

We might also ask:

  • How has a Cold War mentality molded evangelical attitudes toward China and its church, and how has this affected Chinese Christians?
  • What has been the impact of American capitalist values on the current ministry mindset in China?
  • How will American pragmatism and individualism shape China’s emerging mission movement?

For those of us who call the Beautiful Country home, all these questions deserve sober reflection.

Yet they are ultimately not ours to answer.

Addressing his readers in China, Ren Xiaopeng asks, “If American evangelicalism is in such an intellectually vacant state, where would Chinese Christianity, deeply influenced by American evangelicalism and fundamentalism, go next?”

Their answer will be critical for the future of the Chinese church—and, if we are willing to listen, for the church in America as well.

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Image credit: Sylvain Brison via UnSplash.
Brent Fulton

Brent Fulton

Brent Fulton is the founder of ChinaSource. Dr. Fulton served as the first president of ChinaSource until 2019. Prior to his service with ChinaSource, he served from 1995 to 2000 as the managing director of the Institute for Chinese Studies at Wheaton College. From 1987 to 1995 he served as founding …View Full Bio

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