This year ChinaSource marks our 20th anniversary. 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.
This multi-layered tapestry of Christian experience in China shows just how diverse and yet overlapping the Chinese Christian experience can be.
Our first installment of “Chinese Christians Look Back” came from western China. This week we talk with four Chinese Christians from two southeastern Chinese cities, one especially known for its Christian presence and the other a bustling metropolis.
Profiles: Four Christians from Southeastern China
“Billy”—50s, middle-school graduate, pastor in a medium-sized, rural house church.
“Mel”—50s, advanced degree, clergy in a medium-sized, urban/rural house church.
“William”—late 30s with an advanced degree, pastor in a medium-sized house church in an urban metropolis.
“Lillian”—late 30s, university-educated, video producer, lay Christian in a small house church in an urban metropolis.
1. In your opinion, what was the greatest challenge to Christianity 20 years ago? What is the greatest challenge now?
“Twenty years ago,” says Lillian, “the challenge was a misunderstanding of Christianity: many people thought [Christianity] was a tool of imperialism. Brothers and sisters were not sufficiently equipped and there were many erroneous ideas. Christianity mostly spread through things like medical treatment [or healing] and economic aid.”
Twenty years ago, Billy and William note, the church’s greatest challenge was government persecution and atheist ideology. Billy also says the lack of sufficient theological materials was a challenge.
Mel sees spiritual maturity as the greatest challenge both 20 years ago and today. “It has not been successfully addressed by the churches in the past twenty years,” he argues.
William, Billy, and Mel all specifically point to secularism as one of the greatest challenges today. “Secularism today is exerting influence [on] the church with more power than twenty years ago,” Mel warns. Billy also notes that worship of money in particular is a concern today.
Along the same lines, Lillian targets the core issue saying, “Today what we need to face are people’s hearts. There is economic abundance, but people are indifferent to faith. They have no moral baseline and they have extremely inflated egos; or they have not found the meaning of existence.”
2. From your perspective, how has the ministry and participation of foreign Christian workers changed in 20 years?
“Twenty years ago they participated directly in gospel work,” says William, “like campus evangelism or bringing Bibles and spiritual literature. Today, more are doing theological training and equipping.”
Lillian also notes how foreigners used to be more involved in campus ministry: “When I was at university, many foreign Christians shared the gospel at school and helped start churches. I feel that now many foreign Christians serve through social welfare work. The former had a problem, namely that when the foreign Christians left, the entire fellowship would fall into chaos.”
Mel notes that more theological works are being translated into Chinese and that there is a growing influence in Reformed theology. Billy said he has not seen a big change in foreign Christian ministry and participation in his context.
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?
Billy and Mel touch on similar themes within their shared context: church organizational structures. “Twenty years ago the gospel made a big bang, many people repented and believed in the Lord, came to church, and were extremely fervent,” says Billy. “The congregation was simple and unsophisticated, and at the outset they overlooked church organizational structure and a membership system; in fact they did not understand it at that time.” Mel sees this as the “by-product of the penetration of Reformed theology in China.” He adds, “I believe that an enlightenment in the doctrine of church is happening in China’s house churches. This is something new.”
Lillian sees the spread of internet culture as making a big impact. There are both positive and negative influences to internet culture, she says, but the church needs to articulate its own voice to influence this generation.
4. Were there any strengths in the church 20 years ago that are less prevalent today?
William: The spirit to work hard and endure hardship.
Lillian: Patriarchal leaders, the special works of the Holy Spirit (casting out demons, healing sickness), teaching creeds and doctrine.
Mel: The old generation Christian of leaders is passing away and their spirit of carrying the cross for the Lord is weakening among the younger generation of leaders, even though their theological knowledge is getting stronger than the [older generation].
Billy: Spiritual practices. Even though at that time there wasn’t much Bible knowledge and spiritual literature, in the midst of persecution the church was all the more devout and loved the Lord—this was inseparable from prayer. Today, however, there is theological and biblical knowledge, but the church is gradually praying less. In fact this reveals that people rely more and more on knowledge, but not God.
5. How has your view of China’s place in the world changed over the past 20 years?
William and Lillian both point out how China’s economic development has changed its place in the world. “Twenty years ago,” says William, “China was still a poor country and its international influence was limited. Today China is the world’s second largest economy, and although there are problems of unequal development and poverty, it has great international influence.”
Lillian describes further how China’s modernization has brought dramatic change on an individual level. “China has developed very quickly—too quickly—and the gap between rich and poor is very big. People are rash and impatient, and very few people do things calmly because the benefit of doing so is too small.”
“China will be either a blessing to the world, or a curse, depending on which direction it moves toward,” says Mel. “Christianity can play more important roles in pushing the country in the right direction.”
Image credit: Beijing Church 1997 B by Brian Kelley via Flickr.
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