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What is Chinese Christianity?

This week a friend informed me that the unregistered church she attends had been closed by the authorities. This church is a local branch of Zion City Church from Beijing, and while the church has been stopped from meeting as a large group on Sundays in our city, they continue to meet in their small group fellowships throughout the week. My friend was particularly upset because her unbelieving husband liked this church and had just recently begun attending.

Like many urbanites, my friend came to faith in one of the city’s large registered China Christian Council churches. After her marriage and the birth of their child, however, she switched to this smaller urban professional church. She especially likes how much cleaner and neater the facilities are, compared to the large registered church. It was also hard to get her husband to join her at the registered church; he did not enjoy listening to the lists of dos and don’ts that he heard each time he attended. The sermons at the urban house church seemed to relate more closely to his daily life.

To demonstrate how much she was losing with the closing of her church, my friend showed me a video of the dedication of their young child a few months previous. She and her husband stood in front of the congregation holding their child while the pastor stood next to them. A choir sang softly in the background as the pastor handed them a certificate and then prayed over their family.

That video was a touching demonstration of Christian commitment and the pathos of denied freedom to worship. My attention, however, was quickly drawn in another direction; I could not shake the impression that I was looking at a scene from a North American church.

The images in the video were strikingly familiar. Professional lighting highlighted the large wooden cross mounted on the stone accent wall at the front of the space. The blue-carpeted floor of the front platform was elevated two or three steps from the main sanctuary floor, and a Plexiglas podium stood in the middle, engraved with a stylized Christian cross. The pastor was dressed in a stylish western suit with necktie, while the choir in white robes with red accents stood behind and to the side singing the classic hymn of commitment “Just as I Am” softly in Chinese.

The entire scene could have occurred in any suburban Chinese diaspora church throughout North America—in fact, change the language and it could have been any mid-sized suburban church in North America.

This troubled me. Why would these urban Christians in a second-tier Chinese city choose to imitate the design of 1980s western churches? And where did they get this idea of what church “looks like”?

Certainly, the proliferation of sermon videos on various Chinese online and social media platforms has allowed many Chinese Christians to vicariously visit church sanctuaries throughout the world. To the degree that haigui (“sea turtles,” Chinese returnees) are present in my friend’s congregation, they may have brought back expectations of what churches look like shaped by their worship experiences in North America or elsewhere.

Moreover, Zion City Church has extensive connections with the global church, particularly in North America, which may also flavor their ideas of what is appropriate for worship spaces. Perhaps their choices reflect a desire on the part of the pastor or many in the congregation to emulate North American Christianity—a “worshipping of the West” that has led them to reject more traditionally Chinese forms and themes in their church.

Is this Chinese Christianity? It sure doesn’t seem like it. But there are different ways to understand what we mean by the words “Chinese Christianity.”

We tend to think of this term as simply referring to an expression of Christianity that is distinctly Chinese. In this sense, a truly Chinese Christian church viewed by an outsider would be expected to have some outward expressions of Chinese culture that give the whole thing a slightly different look or feel than, say, French or Scottish Christianity.

But Chinese Christianity can also be understood to mean whatever expression of Christianity Chinese believers choose to embrace. This second understanding of the term emphasizes the autonomy of Chinese believers to choose for themselves how they wish to worship—a choice that is free to include the rejection of whatever external (or internal?) cultural accouterments they wish, and the adoption of practices and ideas from anywhere in the world, as they see fit.

Significantly, this second understanding of Chinese Christianity also rejects the authority of outsiders to judge whether or not a particular Christian expression is “Chinese.” This is particularly important for the Chinese church today, as fellowships all across the country are confronting questions of theological and ecclesiastical identity. The authenticity of an expression of Christianity that is truly Chinese—in the sense that it has been chosen and embraced by Chinese believers rather than imposed upon them by expatriate cross-cultural workers or government religious affairs apparatchiks—should not be not measured by whether or not it “looks Chinese” to expatriate Christians.

Who gets to decide what is or isn’t authentic “Chinese Christianity”? For those outsiders who remain committed to serving the Chinese church during this time of great transition, humility—once again—is called for. The growing interest in denominations and church constitutions across China is a necessary phase for a church grappling with how to integrate with and adapt to the global Christian community. As mainland Chinese Christianity goes through this process of “glocalization,” expatriates need to find ways to support and encourage the Chinese church’s search for its theological and cultural identity without dictating the direction (or result) of its explorations. Even if the end result doesn’t look Chinese to me.

For an in-depth look at denominations in China, written by mainland Chinese believers, watch for the summer issue of ChinaSource Quarterly, “Denominationalism in China,” coming out next week. Subscribe here to receive the issue directly into your inbox. 

Image credit: Hannah Lau via Flickr.

Swells in the Middle Kingdom

"Swells in the Middle Kingdom" began his life in China as a student back in 1990 and still, to this day, is fascinated by the challenges and blessings of living and working in China.View Full Bio

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