This is part eight of the series “Know Thy Hui Neighbor” based on the Know Thy Hui Neighbor (KTHN) training. This course is to train local and overseas Christians to share Christ’s love with the Hui.
A decade or so ago I saw a video1 claiming “there are only 50 known believers” among the Hui. Since then, I have met almost that many in person. Joshua Project estimates there are now 1,400 (0.01% of 13,917,000) Hui who confess Christ, but some workers believe the real figure is at least double that. Whatever the case, we praise God for the growth. Yet the Hui are still, by all definitions, unreached. The Hui church is too small and scattered to be left with the task of reaching the entire people group unaided.
In this post I will outline three threats to Hui disciples and three paths they might take as they follow the Lord.
Three Threats: The State, the Community, and the Church
For a Muslim minority living in China, state-sponsored persecution is an obvious danger. It’s even more hazardous for anyone who disrupts the status quo by, for example, changing their religion. Many Christians in China are admirably brave and bold, but with that sometimes comes insensitivity to brothers and sisters who are less ready to embrace risk.2
Hui believers must expect suffering, but they can take steps to avoid being rejected or abused for the wrong reasons. Jesus says, “blessed are you who are persecuted because of me,”3 but he gives no promise for those who are persecuted for being jerks, disrespecting parents or endangering their communities. New believers need encouragement to weigh and balance scriptural commands. On one hand, believers must “honor your father and mother”4 remain married to unbelievers,5 submit to governments,6 and “live at peace with everyone.”7 On the other hand, Jesus calls us to forsake father and mother,8 take up our cross,9 and provides “not peace but a sword.”10 This artful balancing act is what missiologist call critical contextualization.
The Church and the Trappings of Fame
The third threat is Christ’s holy-yet-imperfect church. Some Hui converts lose their cultural distinctiveness as they are absorbed into a dominant Han church culture. This “extraction,” as missiologists call it, may (or may not) be healthy for the individual’s spiritual growth but is detrimental to efforts to take the gospel home.
Attention—specifically too much attention—is a lesser-known threat that comes from well-intentioned efforts to reach more Hui for Christ. Instead of extinguishing their Hui-ness, some of us idolize it. I’ve seen an immature new believer whisked away on speaking tours as a pin-up of success. Another was admitted to a mission organization with full financial support but without adequate background checks. Both situations stoked pride, and pride came before a fall.
Fame also happens on a smaller scale in the form of having too many spiritual mentors. For cross-cultural workers, discipling a Hui believer brings encouragement, sense of purpose, and deeper engagement with the culture—not to mention compelling newsletter content. For the Hui disciple, the wonders of learning about Jesus are enhanced by love and attention they may never have received before, along with free meals, gifts, and sometimes money.
In the best-case scenario, having too many mentors enables Hui to become “professional disciples” who live off multiple small gifts.11 Their schedules are packed with Bible studies, dinners, sharing testimonies, giving advice on mission strategy, and doing odd jobs for cross-cultural workers or church leaders. When the free meals, gifts, money, and recognition dry up from one source, they seek new ones. They may even play mentors off against each other.
In the worst-case scenario, betrayal by one so-called disciple can hurt everyone in their network. Therefore, wise Christians will think twice before getting too close to anyone with “a penchant for befriending foreigners.”
I do not believe these pitfalls derive from anything in Hui nature. Most Hui, even those with money, come from poor families. Their history is filled with competition and fighting just to survive. They’ve been ignored and rejected, so of course they gravitate towards anyone who shows them love and respect. But like anyone receiving a gift for the first time, grace is easy to take but hard to comprehend and even harder to pass on uncorrupted.
Despite the temptations, the Holy Spirit can and does grow Hui believers into mature, humble leaders. One such Hui person told me how strong the pull of fame is. He reports being asked multiple times, by mission leaders old and new, “What do you think is the key that will unlock the gospel for the Hui?” This was in his first term, when he was still learning the ropes. He has since started avoiding large gatherings and stopped telling people he is Hui. To protect his ministry and root out pride, he sees no other choice.
“No matter whether we speak of the Chinese church or the Western church, they both have a pathological addiction to the Christian celebrity effect,” he says.
Three Identity Paths: The BMB, the Hanified, and the Escapist
The Believer from a Muslim Background
The allure of popularity is strongest for Hui who embrace a Believer from a Muslim Background (BMB)12 identity. Most can tell tantalizing tales of being shunned and called traitors. Their stories of suffering are highly attractive, especially to the Chinese Christian mindset. The stories are not the problem. Stories promote the mission cause, contribute to research, and move us to pray. The problem is how we handle them. Is it right that we allow Hui believers to essentially “sell” their tales of woe? Will the BMB base their identity solely in these stories? What will happen to the storyteller when the audience is gone?
The Hanified Hui
Hanified (汉化, hànhuà)13 Hui are those who have largely assimilated into Han culture. Some grew up in nominally Muslim families and others grew distant from Islam as adults. Any value they place on Islam and the Muslim way of life is less to do with religious devotion and more about family, tradition, and habit.
The Chinese church offers the kind of cultural contextualization needed for these Hui disciples. They fit in to church life and become leaders with relative ease. When I asked why, one Hui Christian leader told me plainly, “It’s because we have been doing religious things since childhood. This is not like the Han. We know how to play religion (我们会玩宗教, wǒmen huì wán zōngjiào.)”
The gospel itself is another reason Hui can make such good church leaders. Being saved “from religion” makes Hui believers especially sensitive to legalism in the church and keen to challenge it with the gospel of grace. One Hui seeker told me, “I’m not going to climb out of one hole [the religion of Islam] and into another hole [another religion]. This Christianity has to be real or I’m not doing it.”
For a third group, Christianity is an exit strategy from a traumatic past. Christian community provides the love their families lacked. Blending in with the majority Han (or with Koreans, Americans, or another “favorable” group) removes hurdles and opens all sorts of doors. On the surface, they seem Hanified, but there’s a difference. Deep down they harbor resentment, fear, even hatred toward their own culture. These Hui didn’t drift away from being Hui, they intentionally turned their backs.
The Holy Spirit seems to be working among this group of Hui. The Know Thy Hui Neighbor (KTHN) course is one of the tools he is using.
Since the pandemic, more Christians are attending KTHN classes online. Some of these are Hui believers who have kept their ethnic identity a secret to avoid trouble.
I asked my instructor what this course has done for the 20 or so Hui Christians who have shared their experiences with him. I will close with a summary of his response:
They see for the first time in their culture something beautiful, and it causes cognitive dissonance. They are torn between determination to resist everything in their culture and beginning to consider that they may have been wrong to hate it.
They start to realize that when they became new creations in Christ, they didn’t have to stop being Hui. There is plenty to appreciate in the Hui culture. What’s more, they develop empathy: even the parts they considered “ugly” start to make more sense when they learn how the events of history made them that way.Their eyes are opened. They start to search for the fine line between cultural allegiance and gospel faithfulness and walk that line as they take the gospel home.
- The Hui, A Journey of Hope by Create International, is slightly out of date, but full of relevant facts that still apply today. View the video (among others) on the Create International website or on Youtube.
- See Anna Hampton, “Myths and Truths of Risk in Mission,” Global Missions Podcast, episode 24, April 21, 2016, https://globalmissionspodcast.com/024/. Accessed May23, 2022 and Facing Danger: A Guide Through Risk, by Anna Hampton, Zendagi Press. 2016 available on Amazon.
- Matthew 5:11–13
- Exodus 20:12, Ephesians 6:2–4
- 1 Corinthians 7:10–16
- Matthew 22:21, Hebrews 13:17, 1 Peter 2:13
- Romans 12:18
- Luke 14:26
- Matthew 16:24
- Matthew 10:34
- A case study from another people group with strong parallels to cases I have encountered among the Hui can be found in Meydan, JR and Ramsay Harris. “Are We Nourishing or Choking Young Plants with Funds?” In From Seed to Fruit : Global Trends, Fruitful Practices, and Emerging Issues among Muslims, edited by John Dudley Woodberry. Pasadena, CA: William Carey Library, 2011.
- “Muslim Background Believer” (MBB) is used in much of the late 20th century literature but, more recently, many scholars prefer the term Believer from a Muslim Background (BMB).
- Because the Hui are Chinese but not Han, I follow the KTHN course materials in translating 汉化 here as Hanified (becoming more like the Han people) rather than Sinified (becoming more Chinese).
Image credit: Julie Ma. Image for illustrative purposes only.
Julie Ma (pseudonym) is an Australian who, with her Chinese husband, has been serving among Hui Chinese Muslims for almost ten years. She is a graduate of Sydney Missionary and Bible College (SMBC) and a member of the Angelina Noble Centre for women in cross-cultural missions research. You can reach Julie …View Full Bio
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