As I’ve written earlier, the narratives we use to talk about the church in China are more than just descriptive. They influence how we seek to relate to Chinese believers and the things we choose to do or not to do in the process.
Although these are very much our stories about China, each of the four dominant narratives is based in reality.
Looking at the development of the church over the past four decades we can identify two significant dynamics. One is the level of political persecution upon the church. The other is the church’s own internal capacity—its ability to train its leaders, to resource its own ministries, to self-theologize, to have a witness in society. The interaction of these two dynamics has created different scenarios, and out of these scenarios have arisen the dominant narratives that are often used to make sense of the church in China.
Coming out of the Cultural Revolution and into the reform era in the 1980s, the church faced significant persecution. Tensions between the newly resurrected Three Self Patriotic Movement and the house churches were evident. There were restrictions on young people attending church and on relationships with foreign organizations. Many house church leaders were repeatedly detained and spent time in prison.
In terms of internal capacity, the church was in many ways underdeveloped and struggling. Most of the believers were still in the countryside. There was a dearth of pastors, and Bibles were scarce. Given the terrible suffering it had experienced during the Cultural Revolution as well as the continued restrictions into the 1980s, the church in China was, not surprisingly, often referred to as the persecuted church.
Following the Tiananmen Massacre of 1989, Deng Xiaoping’s much heralded tour of the Shenzhen Economic Zone in 1992 reaffirmed the Party’s commitment to economic reform, which took off with a vengeance. As China set its sights on eventually joining the World Trade Organization, which it did in the year 2000, the persecution lessened. There were more opportunities for outside organizations to help meet the very real needs that the church was facing. Foreign workers congregated in major cities, where they served on university campuses, or in the Southwest, where they focused on reaching ethnic minorities. New platforms for medical and social service where developed. Myriad leadership training programs emerged, serving both the registered and unregistered church. In this context the needy church narrative provided the language with which foreign organizations communicated to their supporters, who were eager to play a significant role in resourcing China’s growing church.
The Sichuan earthquake in 2008 signaled a turning point in the church’s relationship to society. For the first time believers turned out in large numbers to help their fellow Chinese in need and were recognized by the government for the role that they played. As the Christian China narrative gained currency, the emphasis shifted from simple survival and church growth to playing a role in shaping China’s cultural and even political future. With increasing openness came a sense that the government was perhaps prepared to create more space for Christians in society. Believers in business, education, media, and even government discussed how they could have greater influence.
Following Xi Jinping’s ascension to power in 2012, pressure upon the church began to increase. In the ensuing years new national security legislation, including regulations on foreign NGOs and new religious regulations, would result in significant social tightening. Meanwhile the Belt and Road Initiative, inaugurated in 2013, signaled China’s move outward in an attempt to enhance its economic, diplomatic, and military influence around the globe. As more and more Chinese went abroad to work, Christians championed the notion that God was opening the door for them to take the gospel beyond China’s borders. The missionary church narrative, which had first emerged with the revived “Back to Jerusalem” movement in the early 2000s, was not new, but this time the church was better equipped to train and send out its own cross-cultural workers. Even as pressure on the church continued to increase, new training entities, sending bases, and cooperative relationships with international organizations came into being as the Chinese missions thrust gained momentum.
Today the persecuted church narrative has once again become dominant, particularly in media reporting on China. Although many have commented that the situation now is very similar to that of the 1980s, the church of today is in a very different place in terms of its own internal capacity. It is not nearly as reliant upon foreign resources and personnel. As more and more foreign workers have to leave China, the missionary church narrative says they can continue to be engaged by working with Chinese believers who are going overseas to join the international mission force. Organizations that once provided much-needed help in country are now reorienting their China strategies around a new generation of workers from within China.
Changes in the political situation and within the church over the past 40 years have given rise to these four dominant narratives. Understanding the dynamics behind the narratives can help us to know where our portrayals of the church in China might be accurate and recognize what we might be missing.
Brent Fulton will be discussing these four narratives in a ChinaSource webinar on February 10. You can register for “Our China Stories: Unpacking Contemporary Narratives about the Church in China” here.
Image credit: Church in the Wild by Yoann Gauthier via Flickr.
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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