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The China Church Narrative, and Why It Matters

Dr. Kevin Xiyi Yao highlighted in a recent post the propensity of the Western media to view the church in China through sociological and political lenses.

Having recently authored a book in which I argue that the challenges currently facing China’s church are more practical than political, I strongly resonate with Yao’s observation.

Earlier this year I sat down for a two-hour interview with a journalist from a widely respected international news organization. The real story, I told her, is the transformation happening within the church as it makes the transition from a rural to an urban movement. With this transition come new challenges—theological, organizational, cultural. Yes, the church still faces political restrictions, but its relationship with the government is complex and should not be seen as the central issue.

Feeling confident that I had made my point, I left her with a copy of my book, along with suggestions of other sources that could help to fill out the picture of China’s church.

My hopes of encouraging a more nuanced view were dashed when the article on China’s “underground church” finally appeared, with the subtitle: “despite harassment by police, China’s house-church movement is growing.”

I do not doubt that the journalist, who spent considerable time gathering information for her story, had made an honest attempt to capture something of the subtleties of China’s church. Yet it seems the Western press has but one narrative for interpreting Christianity in China. Information that falls outside this narrative is generally discarded, as it does not fit neatly within the approved storyline.

By the time the article had left the editor’s desk, it had been “conformed” to the prevailing narrative.

As Yao points out, this intellectual pigeonholing of the church in China has implications not only for China but also for how we view the church globally. Looking at the Western church’s transition from minority to establishment status, Yao contrasts the view of many theologians, who see a concomitant decline in the “quality” of the faith, with that of sociologists who view the church’s move toward social dominance as a triumph.

The problem, according to Yao, arises when those in one discipline seek to exert their position as normative within another, as, for example, when the sociological interpretation is promoted as something to be replicated in places like China:

In my view, an overwhelmingly sociological reading, not adequately balanced by theological considerations, has contributed to the tendency of the Western press—secular as well as Christian—to over-emphasize Chinese Christianity’s numerical growth and cultural, social, and even political impact at the expense of the church’s theological and pastoral trends. As a result, such issues as religious freedom and church-state relations dominate the discourse about the church in China, and are often mistaken to be the essential agenda in Chinese church life. Even more ominously, a “Christianized society” is advocated as the goal for the church in China.

Yao advises: “one thing we can do as the interpreters of Christianity in China is to become fully mindful of the strengths and limitations of each discipline and perspective. A sense of humility is also needed in our reading of such a complex phenomenon like Christianity in contemporary China.”

Sound advice for sociologists and theologians, as well as journalists.  

Image credit: Gaylan Yeung
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Brent Fulton

Brent Fulton

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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