Given the prevailing "persecution" narrative perpetuated in media reports about China, one could easily conclude a hostile, repressive regime poses the biggest threat to China's church. But is government persecution really what keeps believers awake at night? Or is the answer found within the church itself?
I have been putting this question, or a variation of it, to urban church leaders for the past year or so. While my sample is by no means scientific, it does represent a diverse cross-section of pastors and other indigenous ministry leaders.
Of the many responses, only one had to do with external constraints on the church. Most centered on factors within, the most common being materialism. Church leaders consistently pointed to China's rampant consumerism including a trend toward "religious consumerism" and to the desire for wealth and status among young believers as presenting the most serious dangers to the future of the church. Unlike in past decades, when being a Christian in China carried a huge personal price, today it is relatively easy, even fashionable in some circles, these leaders said.
The contexts may be worlds apart, but the challenge facing China's church today brings to mind the words of 18th century British reformer William Wilberforce:
Christianity especially has always thriven under persecution. At such a season she has no lukewarm professors; no adherents concerning whom it is doubtful to what party they belong. The Christian is then reminded at every turn, that his Master's kingdom is not of this world. When all on earth wears a black and threatening aspect, he looks up to heaven for consolation; he learns practically to consider himself as a pilgrim and stranger. He then cleaves to fundamentals, and examines well his foundation, as at the hour of death. When Religion is in a state of external quiet and prosperity, the contrary of all this naturally takes place. The soldiers of the church militant then forget that they are in a state of warfare. Their ardor slackens, their zeal languishes. Like a colony long settled in a strange country, they are gradually assimilated in features, and demeanor, and language, to the native inhabitants, till at length almost every vestige of peculiarity dies away.
The greatest threat to Christianity in China today is perhaps not a lack of freedom, but the opposite.
Image credit: Coca-Cola Billboard in Sanlitun, by Ming Xia, via Flickr
Brent Fulton is the founder of ChinaSource. 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 China Ministries International, and from 1985 to... View Full Bio