Scanning the headlines on any given day, one cannot but take note of the vastly different portraits of China which emerge.
Is China an economic powerhouse? An emerging superpower? A confident player on the world scene? A rapidly growing consumer market that will soon dwarf those of many developed nations combined?
A similar phenomenon is at play in how observers outside China view China's church. Current perceptions seem to follow one of these four narratives:
The Persecuted Church
By far the most common, this narrative views China's Christians as victims of a godless state that is bent on their destruction. While it may have been accurate 30 years ago, this narrative overlooks evidence of a growing number of Christians in both the registered and unregistered church who are practicing their faith openly on a consistent basisfor example, sharing the Gospel with friends and coworkers, engaging their society through good works, and conducting a variety of Christian activities in cyberspace. If such activities are acknowledged, they are assumed to be the exception rather than the rule.
The Needy Church
This narrative follows on the first, and portrays the church as sorely lacking Bibles, training for leaders, and other resources. The obvious implication is that Christians outside China must come to the aid of Chinese believers, who are too weak and under-resourced to meet their own needs.
The Missionary Church
Seizing upon the "Back to Jerusalem" vision which animated Chinese missionary activity in the 1940s and which has since been revived, this narrative exalts the Chinese church as the solution to bringing the Gospel into areas of the world where the church has yet to penetrate, particularly in the Middle East. The narrative paints the compelling picture of an army of up to one million Chinese missionaries moving out across the globe, while calling on Western Christians to support this movement financially.
A Christian China
This final narrative looks to the day when the Chinese church will have reached critical mass and so penetrated the culture that China will be transformed as a nation. Not too far below the surface lies the assumption that the triumph of Christianity will be accompanied by the demise of the Communist Party, opening the way for a free and democratic society.
All of these narratives contain a measure of truth. China's government is officially atheist, and Christian activities are restricted in many ways. The rapidly growing church is struggling to make up for lost ground following decades during which all Bibles were destroyed and no new leaders were trained. On the positive side, the Chinese church has begun (in small numbers) to send workers beyond China's borders, and the growing impact of the Gospel upon Chinese culture and society, particularly with the emergence of a vibrant urban church, is a hopeful sign for the future.
Nonetheless, any one of these narratives is incomplete in and of itself and masks the complexity of China's church. Taken to the extreme, any of these narratives could become a caricature of the church, over emphasizing one aspect but ignoring many others. In many ways these narratives tell us as much about our own fears and biases as they do about the church in China.
Last year Martin Jacques, a BBC commentator, put it well when he said, "The great task facing the West over the next century will be to make sense of China - not in our terms but in theirs. We have to understand China as it is and as it has been, not project our own history, culture, institutions and values onto it. It will always fail that test. In truth such a mentality tells us more about our own arrogance and lack of curiosity than anything about China."
Image credit: Reminisce, by Rishi Bandopadhay, via Flickr
Brent Fulton is the founder of ChinaSource. Prior to assuming his current position, 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 US director of China Ministries International, and from 1985 to... View Full Bio