I sat across from a Chinese Christian in the lobby of a Beijing hotel as he rearranged the cups and plates on the coffee table between us. Having cleared a space at the center of the table, he pointed to a cup sitting at the edge, near one corner.
"The church is here," he said. "So concerned with its own internal problems, it doesn't recognize there is this growing empty space in the center of society."
This space, representing China's growing crisis of faith, was created by China's leaders following the death of Mao Zedong.
For 2,000 years, China's people had consistently had a shared belief system. Following Mao's death, one young woman, writing an anonymous letter to a Chinese youth magazine, famously made the statement, "There is no God in China anymore."
Mao's death signaled the end of shared spiritual belief in China the first time in two millennia that China's people had no official creed or object of worship. Whether Mao's successors consciously realized this is open to question. Faced with the impossibility of continuing down Mao's path, they instead took a sharp turn and embarked on a bold program of modernization. Deng Xiaoping, who emerged as China's strongman in 1979, refused to answer the question of correct belief, stating simply that "to get rich is glorious."
In the words of one observer, up until that time the Chinese people had belief, but they didn't have anything to eat. Now, thirty years later, most Chinese people have enough to eat, but they have nothing in which to believe. In a society riddled with corruption, Deng's glorious vision of a prosperous nation is quickly losing its shine.
Hence, the growing empty space at the center of the table.
Will the church be able to take its place at the table? According to a probing article, Two Transformations: The Future of Christianity in China, by Huo Shui, a Chinese scholar, the answer depends on the church's ability to address two fundamental challenges.
One is training up capable leaders within the church who can command the respect not only of their fellow believers but of the watching society at large. These leaders need to confront the feeling among many Christians that the church is simply a refuge from a hostile world or a means to personal happiness and fulfillment.
Secondly, the church needs to move intentionally from the fringes of society, where it has largely existed for the past 60 years, and into the center. Only by doing so will the church be able to provide a response to the crisis of faith left by a declining Communist Party and a lack of moral direction in society.
Not surprisingly, these two challenges mirror those faced by China as a nation. Whether the church's future development simply reflects the symptoms of the larger society's ills, or whether the church leads the way in addressing them, depends on how well the church meets its own internal challenges in this decade.
President of ChinaSource. Follow Brent on Twitter - @BrentSFulton.
Image credit: Set Up, by Suzie Y, via Flickr
Brent Fulton is the president of ChinaSource and the editor of the ChinaSource Quarterly. Prior to assuming his current position, 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 US director of... View Full Bio