Part of the impact of the pandemic in Yangzhou was felt among the elderly gathering in mahjong halls. This has prompted the Christian Times to consider the ways that the elderly are spending their free time and how the church might contribute positively to their well-being.
Facing an Aging Society: What Should the Church Do?
According to epidemiological investigations during the pandemic, nearly a third of the cases in Yangzhou were spread through mahjong halls. Most of the people gathering in mahjong halls are retired people—rarely are young people seen there. Why are cards and mahjong so popular among the ranks of the elderly?
China has become an aging society. The three most important things for elderly people are their material, physical, and spiritual lives. These days, food and health have been largely addressed through material and economic means, which leaves their spiritual life.
With little public cultural infrastructure in the cities, elderly people choose to spend their time on playing cards and mahjong, watching short videos, and dancing in the square.1
There is nothing wrong with choosing these forms of entertainment. This article, however, wants to explore why they have made these choices and what opportunities these phenomena provide for the Christian church.
First, before the reform and opening-up, everyone had their own work unit and their own organization, and the individual’s activities were often directed by the organization. However, these units are no longer functioning today. Now that the elders are retired, they get paid directly through the bank and no longer interact with the organization. How to spend their time and money has become a question. Therefore, card games, short videos, and square dancing are popular choices, since these activities can kill time and provide common topics of conversation.
Second, elderly people are facing a spiritual crisis. This is not only due to the disbanding of the organizations and work units, which means that individuals face a lot of time alone. More importantly, it is due to cultural problems. In the past, China did not have a high level of cultural education. Even today, a minority of people graduate from college. Therefore, people naturally choose simple cultural entertainments, which are easy to learn, easy to use, and easy to join. It is no wonder that card and mahjong games, short videos, and square dancing have become incredibly popular among the elderly.
Third, after the reform and opening-up, economic development, and the wave of urbanization have not only brought about the rise of migrant workers, but also anomie and the destruction of the traditional ethical order. In the past, people not only belonged to a work unit, but also to an ethical organization, to the traditional order of rural or urban areas. Each person was a member of a network.
However, the process of urbanization has disrupted everything. Neighbors on the same floor of a building may not be able to say a word to each other for an entire year, not to mention neighbors in a community. In the past, people built good relationships with each other even in different villages in rural areas. However, friends who once knew each other now live in communities or cities tens of kilometers or hundreds of kilometers away. Thus, the disorder of the traditional ethical network causes each individual to feel even more lonely, and yet unable to establish networks. Instead, they choose to find some comfort by playing cards, dancing, or even interacting with strangers online.
Regarding the issue of population aging in China, Christians seem to pretend not to see it. So far, they have not considered or produced any answers or suggestions on this issue, not mention to participate in dealing with it.
However, this is an opportunity for the church. The way to seize this opportunity is neither a closed-minded and boring doctrinal teaching, nor a binary thinking of either friend or foe. Why does the church not organize some cheerful activities? Why must we turn people away by weighty Bible studies and testimonies?
For the church, how to seize this opportunity to rebuild a network for the elderly is worthy of consideration. But first, how can we attract the elderly through our gates?
In addition to inviting them into church, we can also walk out to them.
If we regard the church as very small, limited to a few dozen square feet surrounded by walls, then the important thing for the church is to attract people to come in. But even this is limited in how many people it can attract, because the space is limited. Our missionary motivation is easily constrained, likely because of lacking space in the church. This applies to small churches.
As for large churches, we can go out. The whole world is under God’s grace, and therefore the whole world belongs to the church. When we put the church into the world, then the entire community of the elderly would be within the church.
Whether our view of the church is large or small, affects our attitude and way of evangelizing, participating in, and transforming society.
The intensification of an aging society will certainly provide opportunities for Christianity. So, can we seize these opportunities?
- Editor’s note: “Square dancing” in China refers to the “dancing grannies,” middle-aged and elderly women (and some men), who dance in public spaces in China early in the morning or in the evening as a social activity. For more information see, “How Square Dancing Grannies Became Capitalism’s Next Frontier,” by Teng Wei in Sixth Tone October 7, 2018, https://www.sixthtone.com/news/1003003/how-square-dancing-grannies-became-capitalisms-next-frontier (accessed October 11, 2021) and “China’s noisy ‘dancing grannies’ silenced by device that disables speakers,” by Chi Hui Lin and Helen Davidson in The Guardian¸ October 8, 2021 (accessed October 11, 2021).
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