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What if Christianity Is No Longer Successful?

From the series Our China Stories

Thirty years ago, I produced a promotional video for the organization I was working with at the time. The theme was “God’s hour for China.”

Coming out from underneath the shadow of Tiananmen, China was resuming its cautious, yet courageous, passage into a new era of reform and openness to the outside world.

The urban church phenomenon so familiar today was still a long way off. Most of China’s Christians remained in the countryside. Yet two decades of revival had fueled extraordinary church growth. Young people on college campuses in China and abroad were coming to faith in significant numbers. Neither the newly installed Amity Press nor the human “donkeys” streaming across the border from Hong Kong and elsewhere could satisfy the insatiable demand for God’s word. Clearly it was a new day. God was up to something in China.

Implicit in the phrase “God’s hour for China,” was the sense of opportunity. Not only was God doing something amazing in China, he was inviting Christians everywhere to get involved. In a way, it was this sense of opportunity that told the outside world that God’s time for China had finally arrived. Our ability to do something for China was an indicator that God was at work.

But what about the decades when China was closed to all outside involvement? What about today, when many foreign workers have had to leave and new restrictions are making life increasingly difficult for those who stay? Is “God’s hour” limited only to those snippets of history when foreign believers have free and unfettered access to China?

Our China stories are exactly that—accounts of how we as outsiders have been able to engage China in some way. Arising out of our limited frame of reference, they often leave no room for a larger and longer and much more complicated story that includes periods when it appeared as if God were absent.

Describing the circular reasoning prevalent in the early 1900s, which took the apparent success of Christianity as proof of its superiority, missiologist David Bosch noted that the Christian faith by the late twentieth century was still a minority religion. Contrary to the expectations of many, it had not succeeded in silencing the world’s other major faith traditions. Much good work had been accomplished; it was clear that God’s blessing was upon those doing the work. Yet the successful undertakings of myriad mission agencies around the world had not produced the anticipated results.

“And if Christianity is no longer successful,” Bosch asked, “is it still unique and true?”1

China again finds itself in a time of transition. For those whose China experience has been characterized by increasing opportunities and quantifiable successes, the current trajectory looks a lot less hopeful. The stories told during this decade will be different from those we have become familiar with in the past 30 years. We are reminded that God’s hour for China is not measured in terms of human accomplishments, nor is our ability to do something for China an indicator that God is at work.

The only direct instructions from God found in the Bible concerning success appear in Joshua 1:7-8.

Only be strong and very courageous, being careful to do according to all the law that Moses my servant commanded you. Do not turn from it to the right hand or to the left, that you may have good success wherever you go. This Book of the Law shall not depart from your mouth, but you shall meditate on it day and night, so that you may be careful to do according to all that is written in it. For then you will make your way prosperous, and then you will have good success.

Proverbs 2:7 says that God holds success in store for the upright. In God’s economy, success ultimately has more to do with character than accomplishments. It is a matter of obedience, not performance.

May the stories we tell in this new era be stories of God’s faithfulness and the faithfulness of his people. The gospel is still unique and true, even when it is not clothed in the outward signs of success. It is again a new day in China, and God is still very much at work.


  1. David J. Bosch, Transforming Mission: Paradigm Shifts in Theology of Mission (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books), 6.
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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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