The COVID-19 virus is a stark reminder of how China’s comprehensive integration into the world community can affect us all, whether or not we live in the mainland. This integration is seen not only in the central role China plays in complex global supply chains or as a major market for everything from soy beans and pork to luxury vehicles, but also in the human interaction that has enabled a virus originating in Wuhan to become a global pandemic. As we are now experiencing, what happens in China today has profound implications for the entire world.
Over the last couple of months ChinaSource has been sharing information about how Christians in China are responding to COVID-19. As the virus continues to worsen in severity outside China, these stories take on new significance. They are no longer merely interesting accounts of how the church in China is adapting in extreme circumstances; today they are instructive for believers everywhere who find themselves in the same situation. As such, these stories transcend our traditional China narratives. The story is no longer just about China; it’s about all of us.
The China church narratives of the past 40 years have tended to objectify China’s church. It is viewed from a distance, and, while we might be interested, concerned, or even inspired by China’s church, it is quite distinct from our own experience. To the extent we choose to engage, it is on our terms. Implicit in our narratives is our ability to do something for the church in China. They say little, if anything, about what believers in China might have to offer the global church.
Earlier this month a pastor in Southern California attended a local China prayer meeting in his community along with a couple dozen members from his church. Together they watched portions of an interview with a Wuhan pastor who described how his church of more than 500 people had moved their worship and other activities online and how they were creatively reaching out to their community. Challenged with the question, “What if your church suddenly had to go virtual?” the group prayed fervently for the believers in Wuhan and other Chinese cities. Little did they know that, within a matter of days, this question would no longer be hypothetical. Church life for them, as for the believers in Wuhan, would suddenly become very different.
Speaking to the congregation via YouTube the following Sunday, one elder prefaced their inaugural virtual service with these words:
Recently a number of our elders attended a prayer meeting for China. At that event a Chinese pastor explained how the Chinese church was forced to follow the exact model we are now employing, decentralizing into homes for livestream services. He expressed how God was using it to bring them closer to each other and affording them opportunities to minister right there in their own communities. We believe that God will use this change for our good as well.
For Christians inside and outside China the coronavirus provides, for the first time, a shared experience that has the potential to birth a new narrative, the story of how believers globally are working together to find God’s purposes in the midst of tragedy.
Here are some observations from this experience that might help to shape the new narrative going forward.
- We are not in charge. Our traditional China church narratives have been predicated on the assumption that we know what China needs and can thus decide when, where, and how best to engage. The coronavirus reminds us that we are all part of a much larger narrative in which God is working sovereignly to further his purposes in the lives of Christians both inside and outside China.
- We have much to learn. The current example of believers in China goes beyond the mechanics of moving ministry online or shepherding believers during a crisis. It speaks to a depth of faith and commitment that many churches outside China have yet to experience.
- We need each other. Just as churches and organizations outside China have served China’s church faithfully, so now the church in China has an opportunity to bless the global church out of its own unique experience.
- It’s not just about China, or about us. A truly global challenge such as the coronavirus transcends borders and nationalities. Similar challenges in the future will likewise summon China’s church and the global church to work together in ways that transcend their own identities, agendas, and biases.
- Truth matters. While some would seek to exploit the coronavirus crisis by promoting racial division or peddling conspiracy theories, believers inside and outside China are uniquely positioned to model a commitment to discovering and telling the truth.
The COVID-19 crisis and the response of China’s church shatter the comfortable categories of traditional Christian narratives about China. In doing so they create the opportunity for a new narrative based in the reality of China’s evolving role in the world community.
Image credit: Hello I'm Nik 🎞 on Unsplash.
Brent Fulton is the founder of ChinaSource. Prior to assuming his current position, 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 US director of China Ministries International, and from 1985 to... View Full Bio
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