Christianity in rural China is heavily influenced by concepts of Chinese folk religion and functions in many ways like a folk religion. This is due to the influence of traditional religious concepts and the limited education among most rural people. Folk concepts observed in rural Christianity include predilection for the mysterious including evidence of supernatural power, obsession with objects (the evil of unspiritual objects as well as the benefit of spiritual objects like pictures of Jesus or crosses), an intuitive desire for ritual to express one's faith and other aspects to be discussed below.
This is not to question the legitimacy of the rural revival in China, for thirty years of momentum testifies to its true life. However, it should inform ministry strategies, especially how we think about discipling believers who are following Christ in this cultural/spiritual milieu.
Because of this "folk religion culture," the gospel does not spread through informed people considering the truth of the gospel and counting the cost; rather, it spreads along lines of power or personal benefit.
Power: China is now facing a values vacuum. People are seeking for a source of effective spiritual or personal power. The role of healing, and signs and wonders in the conversion experience of most believers testifies to this. The gospel is spreading through "power encounters." In fact, this is very similar to New Testament happenings, so it is something we should welcome. However, we should also be thoughtful and fully aware of the risk of cults and weak theology (also seen in the New Testament).
Personal benefit: The second issue is a lack of economics or access to medical services; thus, people are searching for where they can get personal benefit. Folk religion follows the principle of going to the place where material benefits are most substantial. My experience with evangelism in rural China is that it relies on pressure to overwhelm an individual with a sense of obligation to believe. It also calls into play China's tremendous group culture so that the love and support of a group of Christians also adds to the pressure to believe. Of course, we should applaud this evangelistic fervor, but we should also be thinking about whether these converts have grasped the truth of the gospel and are able to embrace the basics necessary to truly believe (1 Cor. 15:1 ff) or whether they are being hoodwinked.
Historically, true revival involved shame over sin, a sense of God's holiness, and joy at forgiveness of sinnot special power in one's life to perform signs and wonders. True Christianity seeks the truth, not just personal experience. As to the truth of Christianity versus the perspective of Chinese folk religion, we need to pay attention to a few distinctions.
- Christian truth is revelation (); folk religion is spiritual illumination ().Dwelling excessively on the latter results in heresies and cults without a strong basis in Biblical revelation. Furthermore, the subjectiveness of this so-called illumination makes it impossible to be challenged. (Read Rom. 12:2; 1Cor. 13:1-3.)
- Christian truth is based on facts and history; folk religion is based on fables with no historical base. Folk religion comes from fabricated tales like Sun Wukong and Guanyin Pusa. (Read John 1:14-18; 1 John 4:1-6; John 14:6; Rev. 1:8)
- Christian truth is free; Chinese folk religion is an intimidating and impossible process of rules and taboos. Folk religion is confusing and complex. Believers do not know what they believe; they simply wait for the lists of what to do and what not to do. We need to be careful not to promote the same attitude within the gospel. I am aware of Christian groups in China that teach you cannot eat jiaozi with unbelievers, you cannot wear new clothes during Spring Festival, and you cannot celebrate birthdays because these activities will defile you. Such legalistic and extremist teachings are a dire threat to the church in China. (Read Col. 2:8, 16-23; John 8:31-32, 36.)
People ministering in rural China should be aware of the background of Chinese folk religion and its influence on how the gospel takes root. Beware of the transfer of "folk religious concepts" into the gospel. For example, Buddhism requires self-torture, pilgrimage and denial. Does this then become the basis for fasting or all-night prayer meetings? We must be extremely wary of conversions tied to benefits that are obtained due to the conversion or to training programs and activities totally subsidized by outsiders. Hastily "leading people in the sinner's prayer" may be unhealthy, whereas encouraging seekers to first participate in fellowship and church activities for a time can help them truly understand the gospel and properly count the cost.
We need to conduct discipleship and training so as to build a strong basis on the truth of God's Word in a way that believers can grasp and understand. We need to use literacy programs and Bible reading clubs, not just preaching or group teaching. Believers need to grasp God's Word and not just build their faith on powerful experiences or on the charisma of a person whom they perceive to be powerful.
The rural church in China is growing daily. We rejoice in this work of the Holy Spirit. May we be diligent in how we pray and serve, sowing on good soil and not among rocks, faithfully pulling out weeds and thorns and nurturing the small shoots so that they will bring forth fruitten, forty and one hundred fold
[Note: This article was first published in China 20/20 ( Issue 24, April 2005) which we no longer produce. It's relevance, however, does remain.]
Image credit: Journey to the West, by Choo Yut Shing, via Flickr