Recently a colleague called our attention to an item on a popular Christian news site that made it sound as if China’s church was on its last legs. Thousands of pastors had suddenly “disappeared,” the article stated with alarm, and the government was in the final stages of its campaign to wipe out Christianity in China.
Referring to the agency newsletter from which this report had been drawn, it became clear that what had been originally stated and what ended up in print were quite different. Upon contacting the head of the agency, we learned that the situation, while concerning, was not nearly as dire as had been portrayed in the newsletter, not to mention the Christian news site where it finally appeared for millions of potential readers under an attention-grabbing headline. Fed through the grid of the persecuted church narrative, the facts on the ground had emerged to support a storyline that, although widely accepted in the Christian community, was not entirely true.
Many similar examples could be given of how the narratives commonly employed to describe the church in China can end up distorting reality, producing a picture of China and its church that may seem familiar, even comfortable, yet is at best incomplete and, at worst, deceptive.
These narratives can also have a distorting effect upon those who employ them, for our China stories speak to more than simply what we think about China; they also reveal what we desire.
In his book You Are What You Love, James. K. A. Smith gives examples of cultural practices that serve as what he calls secular liturgies. Smith defines these as “those rituals that that are loaded with an ultimate Story about who we are and what we’re here for.”1 These liturgies serve to train the desires of people who believe they are engaging in activities that are good and normal to the culture. They do not recognize how the liturgies are actually forming their hearts.
Our China stories function in this way when they become an internal “operating system,” directing our priorities, shaping our attitudes, defining the criteria by which we judge ourselves and others. How we may have been formed by our own narratives becomes evident when our desires are not realized.
Returning to the story above, when a desire to secure justice for the persecuted is frustrated by increasingly repressive policies, the result will likely be resentment toward the Chinese state. This can often manifest in a propensity to fit the truth to our narrative, consciously or unconsciously, in order to defame China. Righteous anger becomes disingenuous and cynical. All things “China” are fair game in a narrative that assumes the worst about China in any situation. What began as a genuine love for Chinese who face persecution can inadvertently result in a harmful disdain for Chinese people in general, who come to symbolize the oppressive Chinese regime.
The antidote to the malformation of these China narratives is to recognize Christ’s formative work in the very obstacles that frustrate our best intentions. If the history of China’s church teaches us anything, it is that what often appear as setbacks often become the very means by which God advances his kingdom purposes in China. Rather than holding stubbornly to our narratives about what ought to happen in China, we need to face what is happening, believing that it is part of the process by which Christ is forming us—along with our brothers and sisters in China—into his image. Humility, compassion, gratitude, and wonder will be the result when we turn from our own rigid storylines and invite him to reveal the larger story unfolding in our lives and in China.
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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