Hardly a day goes by that China does not show up somewhere in the headlines, yet it seems the more we hear about China, the less we know about what is really happening inside the country. This is particularly true for Christians outside China who desire to understand the situation of Chinese believers.
During the past several weeks ChinaSource has featured a series of posts on how we hear from the church in China. Thomas Muller traced the steady decline of reportage on China’s Christians, a trend that predates the global pandemic. As Muller pointed out, a major factor in this decline has been the “walling off” of China due to its leaders’ desire to keep out foreign influence.
In her post on the myriad recent changes in China , E.F. Gregory emphasized one thing that hasn’t changed, namely, the importance of personal relationships in obtaining an accurate picture of the church in China today. Contrasting the formerly thriving online Christian community with the relative quiet he experienced on a recent trip to China, Jerry An drew an interesting parallel between the quieting of the church in China and the decreased noise level on Beijing city streets as more electric vehicles hit the road.
A common thread running through these posts is the impact of China’s heightened surveillance measures upon believers in China. In the past, journalists and foreign Christian leaders alike flocked to large, high-profile congregations in China’s cities. Several of these became proxies for the Chinese church at large. Their expanding outreach programs spoke of the church’s growing influence. Their well-equipped facilities were a measure of the comparatively higher standard of living enjoyed by an increasing number of Christians in China. Members traveling overseas for conferences or training provided firsthand accounts of life in their churches back home. Eventually shut down by authorities, these same churches became a symbol of growing religious repression.
Shut down, but not snuffed out, they now function as networks of small group gatherings. The journalists who had previously told their stories have left China, along with most of their foreign Christian friends. Their church websites have disappeared from the internet. Conversations in once vibrant chatrooms have been silenced or, as Jerry An tells it, become confusingly cryptic in an effort to stay one step ahead of the ever-present censors.
The measures that have caused the church to become less visible and less vocal are prompting Christians outside China to rethink how they hear from China’s church. Those who continue to rely on traditional sources of information risk becoming like the proverbial driver searching for their lost car keys under a lamppost because the light is better, while the keys sit undetected in a dark parking lot several meters away.
By forcing the global church to be less reliant on the press or on social media, these surveillance measures could potentially encourage more meaningful engagement with Chinese believers. As E.F. Gregory points out, there is no substitute for personal relationships. Rather than trying to gather more information on the church in China, outside observers can deepen their existing friendships in-country or, as Gregory suggests, they can engage with Christians who have recently joined the ranks of the growing Chinese diaspora. By emphasizing quality over quantity, Christians separated from a “walled off” church in China have an opportunity to build new channels, not only of information but, more importantly, relationship.
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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