This year China Source marks its 20th anniversary as a clearinghouse of information and relationships for Christians engaged in China. As part of our celebration, Chinese Church Voices is taking a look back with Chinese Christians at what has changed in China over the past 20 years.
We have surveyed a range of people from around China and in various contexts who have been Christians for about 20 years or more. We have asked them to reflect on the same five questions related to changes in faith, life, and ministry in China. Over the coming months, we will dedicate one post per month to summarizong these interactions. This week we talk with four Chinese Christians from western China.
We trust this multi-layered tapestry of Christian experience in China will show just how diverse and yet overlapping the Chinese Christian experience can be.
Profiles of Four Christians from Western China
“Lucy”—Mid 40s, preacher in a small countryside house church.
“Linus”—Mid 50s, high school educated, unemployed, lay Christian in a medium-sized urban house church.
“Charlie”—Mid 50s, university graduate, clergy in a medium-large urban house church.
“Franklin”—Late 20s, university graduate, lay Christian in a rural house church.
1. In your opinion, what was the greatest challenge to Christianity 20 years ago? What is the greatest challenge now?
Twenty years ago government persecution and interference along with anti-Christian sentiment from the general public were the greatest challenges to Christianity in China. “We were unable to gather publicly,” said Charlie, “especially with numbers over 50 people. Normally we did things outside, for instance, in farmhouses, scenic spots, teahouses, etc. With smaller numbers you met in a home and generally didn’t exceed 50 people; you could not sing loudly and let it reach your neighbors. Going in and out from a living area would frequently draw the investigation of Public Security, and church activities were constantly monitored by the government.”
One of the greatest challenges today is the influence of secularization and materialism. Many churches can boast in more tithing, better meeting spaces, or the respectable job and social status of congregants. But, more Christians are “enticed” by material things. Preserving the holiness of the church is a growing challenge.
The church is also challenged, said Franklin, “by the emergence of rampant cults and sects of all sorts that make Christianity their scapegoat.” The new generation of believers must put down deep roots in the soil of true faith. Otherwise, “their future is sadly built on loose sand.”
2. From your perspective, how has the ministry and participation of foreign Christian workers changed in 20 years?
Linus and Franklin have had little to no interaction with foreign Christian workers over the last 20 years. But, Lucy and Charlie shared from their personal experiences.
Lucy notes that it was foreign missionaries who first shared the gospel with her. “What I’ve observed is that in the past foreign Christians . . . valued the gospel and discipleship. Today, I know many foreign Christians who are mainly engaged in cultural work, or establishing businesses such as psychological counseling, English training, marriage and family, etc. The gospel is more and more peripheral, to the point that many times it becomes social work.”
Charlie notes a decrease in foreign worker involvement in the church in his particular context: “Before, missionaries could evangelize openly and directly and participate directly in the church service. Then, they slowly withdrew, and now in many places they cannot evangelize. They are unable to evangelize openly in cities—basically they have withdrawn from church ministry.”
3. For your church or the ministry you participate in, what is available and vital now for ministry that was not available or not important 20 years ago?
Theological education, Bible knowledge, and church polity training are more available and vital today, respondents noted. “Twenty years ago,” shares Franklin, “only a few of the elder Christian brothers and sisters would share their understanding of the scriptures, and it was more of a sharing of personal experiences and testimonies with the messages being based on a limited number of books.”
“Adolescent discipleship,” says Lucy, “is extremely important now. But, many churches do not have this type of ministry, and the majority [of church goers] are still adults or college students.”
4. Were there any strengths in the church 20 years ago that are less prevalent today?
Lucy: “The most obvious strength was their prayer life. They suffered in life for the Lord; they served with great zeal; and they took reading the Bible seriously. I think the present church is weaker and weaker in prayer. It values plans and strategies more, and suffering for the Lord has become a thing of the past. Now it’s more that after you believe in the Lord you are blessed, marriage and children are under the protection of the church, and you enjoy many church resources.”
Charlie: “A pure heart of love for the Lord, seeking to experience God, praying fervently, zealously evangelizing and sharing the gospel, intimate fellowship of brothers and sisters—these have all weakened.”
5. How has your view of China’s place in the world changed over the past 20 years?
China’s place in the world is rising. “Thirteen years ago was my first time leaving the country,” says Lucy, “and at that time I felt that there were many things abroad that China didn’t have. I was very envious. But now China is more advanced than foreign countries in uses of cell phones, such as WeChat [phone] payment, and online shopping.”
Franklin shares his enthusiasm for China’s rise. “First China was ‘liberated,’ then found itself fighting poverty, then moving onto a well-off society with all the advances in science and technology. I have always been proud of my country, even today!” Yet, Franklin also highlights significant problems with China’s development, such as China’s educational system and ecological pollution.
As China’s economic and political strength develops, Charlie notes, there are more opportunities for the Chinese church to send missionaries abroad. “But,” he cautions, “missionaries are still relatively few and inexperienced, and they need more training in intercultural studies and on-the-job evangelism. Yet, we need to push churches to vigorously participate in ecumenical missions.”
Image credit: Gaylan Yeung
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