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Variations on a Theme

From the series Our China Stories


The dominant evangelical China narratives examined in this series represent different perspectives—political, economic, cultural, and missiological—on developments within China’s church. Depending on one’s role, worldview, and where and how one relates to Christians in China, it is possible to experience the same events, yet assign very different meanings to the experience.

Despite their obvious differences, however, there is a common thread. These various narratives can be traced back to an overarching metanarrative about what happens when the gospel takes root in a particular culture, in this case, China’s. In a recent Global Missiology article I explored what historian Chandra Mallampalli refers to as the covenantal narrative, which assumes that the Christian influence within a culture will inevitably lead to change trending toward political modernization:

Chandra Mallampalli points to the tension between two historical narratives, the incarnational, as developed in the work of Andrew Walls and Lamin Sanneh, and the covenantal. The latter, being central to early Puritan faith in America, formed the basis for the country’s commitment to democracy and rule of law, embedding in the consciousness of American Christianity a mythology that assumes the gospel “will necessarily produce in other cultures a progression from chaos or tyranny to, ultimately, prosperity and democracy.” Although this perspective appears to be incarnational in that it recognizes cultural symbols of other nations, the indigenous Christian experience is validated “only if it catalyzes movement toward political modernity

Our China stories are not merely descriptions of an objective reality manifesting itself in the Chinese church; they speak to where we believe China’s church is (or should be) going. Projecting our particular view of progress upon China, we identify a struggling political movement, the birth pangs of cultural rejuvenation, or the world’s next missionary movement. In the eyes of some observers, China’s standalone urban churches represent the seeds of civil society. A hunger for leadership training from the West hints that a new kind of Christian leader is being formed in China. Our narratives envision a linear relationship between our China involvement and the church’s—and the nation’s—trajectory toward progress.

But what if things don’t turn out as expected?

Under Xi Jinping, China is going through yet another cycle of social tightening, political violence, and xenophobic rejection of foreign ideas. For those who had gotten used to the progressive relaxation of restrictions on Christian activity, the unsettling events of recent years have been a rude awakening. As I wrote in my article:

Following decades of progressive openness, the foreign mission community understandably viewed the imposition of Xi Jinping’s new normal as a violent disruption to what had been the status quo. Viewed within the context of the past 30 years, China’s detour away from greater religious tolerance was clearly an aberration. In the context of the past 3,000 years, however, the past three decades constituted the aberration. For most of China’s history the state has kept a strong hand on religion, and foreign involvement has not been welcome.

Our limited narratives fail to account for events that don’t fit our preconceived notions of progress but which may serve to advance the gospel in ways we have yet to fully understand.

You can read the whole article here.

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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