Narratives have consequences. Whether it’s Washington politics, Brexit, unrest in Hong Kong, or melting icebergs in the Arctic, the stories we tell in order to make sense of our world invariably take on a life of their own. We gravitate toward certain ideas that move to the fore, becoming central tenets around which we arrange facts that support our narrative—and dismiss those that don’t.
Heroes become villains. Villains become heroes. Our narratives define what is desirable, what is possible, and what is off-limits. In our relationships with others they sensitize us to the cues—the rolling eyes or approving nods—that let us know whether we’re heading into polite conversation or a contentious debate. The stories we choose to believe have the power to unite or to bitterly divide.
So it is with China, and with the church in China. Our China narratives may not be as contentious as some of the hot-button issues mentioned above, but they serve much the same function. What we fundamentally believe about China’s church goes a long way toward determining how we will choose to engage, how we view what is desirable, and what is possible.
As I’ve written previously, foreign Christian views of the church in China over the past three decades have generally followed one of four prevailing narratives. Dominant throughout this period, and certainly in today’s climate, is the persecuted church narrative, which sees the church’s main struggle as a political one. Following on this paradigm is the needy church narrative, focused on assisting a struggling church that is still in survival mode. The Christian China narrative emphasizes the church’s numeric growth in the belief that a critical mass of believers will bring about cultural and political change. Finally, the missionary church narrative anticipates a massive movement of cross-cultural workers being sent from China to the unreached peoples of the world.
While these narratives all represent valid attempts to describe the reality of a church in a country very different from our own, each is still only an approximation of that reality. At best they provide useful frameworks for navigating complex relationships within a complex environment. At their worst they become caricatures, distorted pictures that would be largely unrecognizable to those whom they purport to describe. At the end of the day, they are still our narratives. As such, they say as much about us as they do about the church in China.
Perhaps this is where these narratives might actually prove most useful.
Reflections of Ourselves
Reformer John Calvin argued that it is not possible to know God without knowing oneself; nor is it possible to know oneself without knowing God. It is in recognizing our own hopeless depravity that we “begin to become displeased with ourselves” and see ourselves in need of a savior. Furthermore, it is important for believers to recognize factors in their culture and upbringing that have distorted their view of God, and so come to grips with aspects of their personality and behavior patterns that might otherwise short-circuit their relationship with him.
In the same way, those who take the gospel across cultures need to be willing to recognize institutional sin inherent in their own cultures, acknowledging how their cultures have shaped the image of God that they represent to others.
Our China narratives can contribute to this self-awareness by bringing us face to face with the biases and cultural assumptions that may be standing in the way of a more authentic relationship with Christians in China, as well as our own understanding of what it means to be Christ’s ambassadors in the world.
In a series of blog posts beginning next year I will explore how the dominant China church narratives have evolved over the past several decades and what we can learn from them. How have our conditioned understandings of China’s past and present shaped our expectations for the future? What have been the consequences? In what ways have we become victims of our own narratives? Understanding ourselves can go a long way toward deepening our relationships with brothers and sisters in China.
Image credit: JollyFotoz via Morguefile.
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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