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Nothing New under the Sun

From the series China and Me


At Moody Bible Institute, I had a professor who did not believe in plagiarism. Well, specifically, preventing plagiarism. More specifically, the ability to be original in the first place. He would often say, “There is nothing new under the sun; everything you write has probably been written or thought of before in some place and at some time.”

This past week in studying the history of China I was reminded of this wisdom (which by the way is not original either, proving the point). In Ecclesiastes 1:9, an anonymous writer (often believed to be King Solomon) states:

What has been is what will be,
and what has been done is what will be done,
and there is nothing new under the sun.

If ever this wisdom was true, it was of China’s history.

In the summer of 1900, a horrific massacre took place in China—the Boxer Rebellion. Hundreds, if not thousands of missionaries, their children, and Chinese believers were murdered. Yet despite the travesty, in the years after, missions to China did not decline. Rather the urgency to reach the Chinese was felt more than ever before!1 With stories of the martyrs reaching the West, hearts were inspired. Huge revivals taking place in Europe only widened the pool of possible recruits. The slogan “reaching the world for Christ in this generation” grabbed their imagination, propelling them forward. There was simply no lack of enthusiasm for missions. China missions multiplied. By 1930, more than 20,000 Protestant missionaries would be laboring for Christ on the Chinese mission field, making China the largest mission field.2

These missionaries immediately tackled the work, serving China through social, relief, and medical work as well as education.3 In this their work was greatly enabled by the political climate in China at that time. The Qing dynasty felt the pressure to reform. Their subsequent goals and projects were much in line with what the missionaries were already doing. This led not only to an appreciation of the missionaries, but also to the request to work together.4

In this positive and open atmosphere, missions in China were not just possible, they flourished. Building on the work of the pioneers before them, the missionaries would move to establish full-fledged institutions. At the same time, the Chinese church also started growing and faster than they had ever done before. Whereas in 1900 Chinese Protestants numbered around 100,000, by the 1920s this increased to 500,000.5

In contrast to the previous generation of believers, these Christians were increasingly well-educated and wealthy. An urban middle-class Christian community developed. Christians were employed in important leadership positions, placing believers in influential social and political functions. Also, within the Chinese church, Chinese believers increasingly stepped up to the plate, taking ownership.

These were the “glory days.” It was a season when anything and everything seemed possible in China. It was a time when the Western church even wondered: might the “Christian China” that multitudes of missionaries were working and longing for be attainable?

Then the Japanese invaded. Then there was civil war: the Nationalist and the Communist Parties were at odds. Life for foreigners in China became dangerous, and mission boards advised their people to retreat. Back in the West, the rise of the social gospel demotivated believers from going overseas. (Apparently fewer people were willing to suffer and die for social work than for a message of eternal salvation.) The Great Depression in America drained the budget for missions. All these factors played into missions declining and finally disappearing from China. As time went on and danger increased within China, the Chinese church would also “disappear,” going into hiding, existing but suppressed.

It was a time when everything seemed possible,
and then it was a time when nothing seemed possible.

I lived in China under the years of President Hu Jintao. Those were the good years (in many ways)—the years when everything seemed possible in China. I remember the stories I would share with people back home at the time.

  • Bible smuggling? No need. In China, you can buy Bibles at all the TSPM churches and even at some government-run bookstores or even just via websites and online shopping platforms! And if those are not accessible, then just download the free Bible app.
  • I went to Moody Bible Institute, simple and straightforward. But did you know that there are theological seminaries and institutions in China as well? We knew a young woman from our small village who went there to study theology. More followed to do so.
  • And did you know that there are professing Christians not only among the villagers in China, but even among scholars and national leaders?

So the list went on and on. Christians in China had more possibilities and freedoms than many people in the West realized. At times, they even had more liberties and opportunities in public places than believers in the West! As these stories started to spread (because I was definitely not the only one sharing this view of China), excitement grew.6 Numerous books were written and articles published about the amazing developments in China. More and more Western believers dared to ask, “Might a Christian China be possible?” After all, according to the numbers, the church in China was even outgrowing the Communist Party!7

In 2010, I left China. In 2013, I started writing about China. I began researching and interviewing Christian China experts. And I heard, “Winter is coming.”

Winter is today. Winter has made recent years in China challenging, and not just for religious life but on all levels. Under the new president, new regulations were adopted. Visa requirements became stricter, making it harder for anyone to keep their visas or residence permits. Establishing or simply keeping a non-profit organization running became more difficult, resulting in many being closed. Campaigns to stop corruption impacted all levels of society. The liberties that had been given under Hu were now reined in again and everyone felt it.

It was a time when everything seemed possible,
and then it was a time when nothing seemed possible.

This past week I was considering the Cultural Revolution and the years preceding it. The similarities between those decades and my years in China were overwhelming. There really is nothing new under the sun. Should we be surprised therefore by this current season? Not really. There have been seasons in China’s history when the sky seemed the limit. The possibilities for believers seemed endless to the point that the Western church dared to wonder, “Is there a possibility of a Christian China?” Yet, there have also been seasons when China was closed, seasons when nothing seemed possible. And usually these followed a very open season, such as was not too long ago.

We should not be surprised but neither should we be too depressed. As Solomon said:  

What has been is what will be,
and what has been done is what will be done,
and there is nothing new under the sun.

Works Cited

Aikman, David. Jesus in Beijing: How Christianity Is Transforming China and Changing the Global Balance of Power. Washington, D.C: Salem Books, 2006.

Bays, Daniel H. A New History of Christianity in China. West Sussex, United Kingdom: Wiley-Blackwell, 2012.

Chan, Kim-kwong. Understanding World Christianity: China. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2019.

Doyle, G. Wright. Builders of the Chinese Church: Pioneer Protestant Missionaries and Chinese Church Leaders. Eugene, Oregon: Pickwick Publications, 2015.

Falkenstine, Mike. The Chinese Puzzle: Putting the Pieces Together for a Deeper Understanding of China and Her Church. 2nd ed., China Resource Center Press, 2012.

Kaiser, Andrew. T. The Rushing on of the Purposes of God: Christian Missions in             Shanxi Since 1876. Eugene, Oregon: Pickwick Publications, 2016.

Parks, S. Kent. “Preparing a Mission Agency.” In Sorrow & Blood: Christian Mission in Contexts of Suffering, Persecution, and Martyrdom, 363-367. Pasadena, CA: William Carey Library, 2012.

Stark, Rodney and Wang, Xiuhua. A Star in the East: The Rise of Christianity in China. West Conshohocken, PA: Templeton Press, 2016.

Endnotes

  1. Parks, “Preparing a Mission Agency”, 366.
  2. Chan, Understanding World Christianity: China, 15–16; Kaiser, The Rushing on of the Purposes of God: Christian Missions in Shanxi Since 1876, 136, 146; Doyle, Builders of the Chinese Church: Pioneer Protestant Missionaries and Chinese Church Leaders, 7.
  3. Stark and Wang, A Star in the East: The Rise of Christianity in China, 19; Kaiser, The Rushing on of the Purposes of God: Christian Missions in Shanxi Since 1876, 134.
  4. Bays, A New History of Christianity in China, 93–94.
  5. Bays, A New History of Christianity in China, 94.
  6. See David Aikman’s Jesus in Beijing and Mike Falkenstine’s The Chinese Puzzle, both stemming from these years.
  7. Stark and Wang, A Star in the East: The Rise of Christianity in China, 113.
Laura de Ruiter

Laura de Ruiter

Laura de Ruiter grew up in China (1997–2010). She completed her BA in Biblical exposition at Moody Bible Institute in Spokane, US in 2016, then earned her master’s degree in strategic leadership and change management in 2017. From 2018 to 2019 she worked as a pastor in Frankfurt with a …View Full Bio


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