The Gospel Times recently published an article written by a pastor in Xiamen on what he considers to be some of the key challenges facing the church in China today. Here is a translation of the article.
Since the Reform and Opening policy increased the space for religion in Chinese society, new religious policies and the growing spiritual needs of the public have triggered the revival of [Protestant] Christianity. According to a Blue Paper on religion published by the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences on August 11, 2010, the number of Chinese Christians has increased dramatically over the past years, amounting to almost 23.5 million. As this number only includes the number of registered Protestants in the country, some scholars estimate that there are at least 70 million Christians in China. This is the highest number since Protestantism was introduced to China in 1807. Although things look good for Christianity in China, churches still face certain challenges that may hinder the growth of the church in the future.
I. Anti-religious prejudice
In mainland China, atheism is still taught in the schools. Although many Chinese people are not real materialists, they hold certain preconceived notions. These include the non-existence of God and the belief that man evolved from apes. In their minds, religion is opposed to rationality and science and is synonymous with ignorance and childishness. Moreover, the anti-intellectualism that is common in some churches makes people think that Christianity is silly. As a result, the existing prejudice against Christianity is strong and many want nothing to do with it.
Some people have told me that they appreciate the good deeds carried out by the church, but they cannot accept its teaching that the world was created by God. They think Christianity is incompatible with science and out of step with modern civilization. In the future, atheism will likely continue to influence most Chinese people. This will be a big challenge for the growth of the church. In order to achieve further growth, it is necessary for churches in China to encourage believers to gain scientific and cultural knowledge. This will help eliminate the common view that Christianity is opposed to science, and gradually cause people to be open to belief in the existence of God.
II. Mistrust of “alien religions" brought by the revival of Sinology
In the past decade, there has been something of a revival of “Sinology” in China. The media have done extensive reporting on this trend. The revival of Sinology is of significant interest because it has educated people about and popularized traditional Chinese culture. However, with a strong nationalist tinge, the revival of Sinology is actually aimed at stemming the invasion of Western culture; this includes religion.
Since Christianity and western culture are so closely linked, it has naturally become a target for supporters of the so-called New Confucianism. There are extremists who hate this “alien religion” and are itching to expel it from China. The tension between both sides is evident. The New Confucianists oppose Christmas celebrations and have objected to the construction of a church in Qufu, their “holy land.” On the other hand, some Chinese Christians lack knowledge of traditional Chinese culture. When the share the gospel, they attack traditional culture and hurt the feelings of those who love it. This only reinforces the notion that Christianity and Chinese culture are incompatible.
Based on the growing enthusiasm for nationalism, it is likely that interest in Sinology will also continue to grow. Churches need to counter the impression that that Christianity is an “alien religion” and look for ways to contextualize Christianity within Chinese culture. This issue has actually been around for several hundred years. It is up to us, and future generations, to find solutions.
III. The shock of modern entertainment
After the implementation of the Reform and Opening policy, Western culture was introduced into China. This included the entertainment culture and its accompanying post-modern ideology. Entertainment culture spreads throughout the country via highly efficient media platforms such as the Internet, movies, and television, enabling it to become popular among the masses very quickly.
Postmodernism generally advocates individual liberation, opposes traditions, and expresses contempt for authority. It also encourages people to deconstruct and ridicule the classics, including religions such as Christianity. For example, The Da Vinci Code was a popular novel worldwide several years ago. However, it was shocking to traditional churches because it led to many serious misunderstandings about Christianity. Another example is the phrase, "He who believes Brother Chun has everlasting life" (a riff on "he who believes Jesus has everlasting life"), an Internet meme popular among young people in China. This is just a product of the entertainment culture, which reflects its capacity to silently influence the younger generations.
Obviously, it is impossible for churches to suppress the culture of entertainment. However, we can use these ideas to initiate discussions and offer correct explanations. For example, a sister became interested in Christianity after watching the movie The Da Vinci Code and eventually became a Christian with the guidance of other church members.
IV. Alienation from religions due to liberal social morality
As China's society has become more open, attitudes toward sex have gradually shifted. In the 1980s, people generally agreed that cohabitation, extramarital affairs, and homosexuality were shameful, but today, people think these are normal.
Christianity emphasizes family harmony and morality, opposing all immoral sexual behaviors. These beliefs cause others to see Christians as being stubborn and intolerant hypocrites. There are even those who attack the conservative teachings of the church and exaggerate the actual positions in order to damage the church and drive more people away from Christianity. Churches must keep the Lord's teachings and never compromise on sexual morality. Only when we undertake social responsibilities and make people realize the harm that sexual immorality brings to individuals, families, and society can more and more people understand their responsibilities to their families and thus lead a self-disciplined life.
V. The pursuit of beliefs being hampered by materialism
Over the past thirty years, the economy has greatly improved and many have accumulated great wealth. However, there has not been a corresponding improvement in the spiritual life of Chinese people. On the contrary, values such as materialism and worship of money have taken root. Many people indulge themselves in pursuing wealth and enjoying material life, never thinking about spiritual matters or beliefs. Many brothers and sisters have told me that when evangelizing, people often respond to the gospel with indifference. They only care about their work and daily life, never regarding beliefs as a necessity; rather they consider them to be useless.
Even many workers in churches are pessimistic about the growth of churches because it is so easy for people to drift away from the Lord in a society full of material desires. However, there is an old saying in China: "A thing turns into its opposite if pushed too far." Although materialism is a big challenge for the church, a challenge may also afford opportunities. A person who pursues material happiness will become empty, and may even suffer psychological distress. Churches can speak into the lives of these people, sharing the Lord’s teaching with them. This will bring more people into the church.
Image credit: Thomas H. Hahn Docu-Images, used with permission.
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