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You Can’t Do That in China!

From the series Our China Stories

Looking at the evolution of narratives about the church in China over the past 40 years, one might reasonably conclude that we have come full circle. The persecuted church narrative that seemed to aptly describe the situation in the 1980s is again the most common narrative today.

Yet the church itself is at a very different place. Whereas the struggling church in the 1980s could legitimately be described as being in survival mode, the church today is much better equipped to respond to the increased tightening being felt throughout Chinese society. Yes, the persecution is a reality, but this is a different era. The church is doing different things, and doing things very differently, compared to 40 years ago.

A weakness of our dominant China church narratives is that they tend to provoke quick judgments about events as they unfold while preventing us from perceiving deeper realities of what may be happening beneath the surface. By limiting our vision of what is possible, our narratives keep us from recognizing when the church may be in fact doing something entirely new. 

This was brought home to me in the mid 2000s, when, during frequent trips to the mainland, I began to see believers doing things that I simply did not think were possible.

Sitting down for a conversation with a brother who ran a newly opened Christian counseling center in one of China‘s major cities, I remember thinking to myself, “You can’t do that in China!"

Walking by a table heaping with newly printed Christian books that had been set up outside a hotel ballroom, I glanced around nervously while repeating under my breath, “You can’t do that in China!” 

The plainclothes policeman seated strategically across from the table was evidently thinking the same thing. But after a while he simply scratched his head and left, unsure of what his role was in this era of relative openness, when popular expressions of the gospel had gotten far out ahead of laws that were meant to contain the church’s influence. 

Later that week, reading the verses printed on placemats at a restaurant called “Love Feast, “ I listened as Christian background music wafted from speakers above and thought again, “You can’t do this in China!“

I had the same reaction while walking to an “undisclosed location” for a meeting with an unregistered church pastor, when suddenly I was stopped by two young ladies who shouted in Chinese, “Jesus loves you!” One of them thrust a tract into my hand. Stunned, I asked them where they were from. They told me the name of their church and nonchalantly pointed down the street to the storefront where I was headed for my afternoon meeting.

Stuck in a persecuted church narrative, I was unable to comprehend that things were changing dramatically all around me. My careful study of religious policy had convinced me that the government’s firmly drawn lines excluded the kind of activities that my eyes and ears now found hard to believe.  Religious policy had not changed one bit, but the church’s reality had. My narrow narrative was unable to account for this new reality of a church operating outside the envelope, crossing the lines, and creating a new narrative that foreigners like myself found hard to accept.

Some years later as foreign and local believers met to discuss the future of missions sending from China, a longtime Christian China observer seemed to dismiss out of hand the possibility that the church in China was in any way ready to send out its own cross-cultural workers. His perception of the church as still struggling theologically, lacking leadership and maturity, and limited by repressive policies precluded his even imagining that, despite all these obstacles, the church's pioneering mission efforts were in fact a reality. The new narrative was beginning to take shape, but he was not willing to accept it, much less be part of it.

“You can’t do this in China!”

Except they were. And they still are. 

Which brings us back to today.

Earlier this year an American parachurch leader told Christianity Today, “The Chinese government is committing unparalleled human rights crimes against Christian citizens and seeking to wipe religious sentiment from its country…. Yet, [as Chinese Christians will testify], the persecution Christians face—including extensive surveillance, raids on churches, and imprisonment—have not succeeded in eliminating Christianity.”

While this assessment may be accurate, it is nonetheless an oversimplification of the church’s complex reality, one that too easily brings to mind visions of believers whose hands are tied and whose options severely limited, victims of an oppressive state who need somehow to be rescued out of their dire circumstances. In doing so it overlooks the vast richness of what Christians in China are still doing, even today, not to mention the breadth of their vision for the future. 

By setting limits on what is possible, our China church narratives do a disservice to our brothers and sisters in China by discounting their ingenuity, their perseverance, and their faith. Our narratives can cause us to lose sight of a greater work of God that may be unfolding in ways we are yet unable to comprehend. And our narratives can keep those in the global church from fully appreciating all that is happening, perpetuating views of the church in China that are incomplete and thus inaccurate.

Image credit: Stop Sign Shanghai China Geof Wilson via Flickr.
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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