This year ChinaSource marks our 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.
This multi-layered tapestry of Christian experience in China shows just how diverse and yet overlapping the Chinese Christian experience can be.
The past few months, we have dedicated one post per month to summarizing these interactions. This week we talk with three Chinese Christians from the Three-Self Church (TSPM) who minister in three separate contexts.
Profiles: Three Christians from the Three-Self Church in China
“Bruce”—50s, middle-school educated, lay person active in church worship who rotates from church to church each week, lives in a medium-sized southern port city.
“Diana”—40s, advanced degree, clergy serving both urban and rural churches, working among both Three-Self and unregistered churches, based in a large northern city.
“Robin”—Clergy in Three-Self church, lives in a large northern city (withheld other personal information because of security concerns).
1. In your opinion, what was the greatest challenge to Christianity 20 years ago? What is the greatest challenge now?
Each person notes somewhat different but related challenges to Christianity 20 years ago. Robin remarks that there was a lack of Bibles and that believers lacked an overall knowledge of Scripture. Diana shares that back then people saw Christianity as an ignorant and low-class superstition imported from the West. It was very difficult to do evangelism. There was also a clear lack of biblical instruction. Bruce shares that when the churches in his city reopened their doors in the early 1980s, there was a serious shortage of preachers who could preach the “pure” gospel. He questions if many of these preachers in the 1980s were actually believers, even though they had graduated from Three-Self seminaries.
As for the greatest challenge today, Bruce stresses that today’s Chinese church also needs faithful preachers more than ever. “Secularism is everywhere,” he warns. “Who is willing to go . . . to preach that everyday Christians need to repent of their sins . . . and to teach how to discern how to walk the path of holiness?”
In fact, all three respondents touch on the results of China’s rapid development as the greatest challenge to the church today. Robin cites commercialization, consumerism, and materialism as the greatest challenges for today’s church. Interestingly, Robin also cites the gap between the registered church (TSPM) and the unregistered churches and says there needs to be increased communication between the two and deeper partnership.
Diana says the challenge for Christianity today is still to share the gospel and lead people to spiritual maturity within the church. But, Chinese society today has raised the bar for the church. Many people do not have time to meet [for discipleship] because the pressures of life are so heavy. Young people leave the countryside for the cities, leaving children and the elderly behind. The rural church is left with an aging congregation, many of whom have a lower level of education and may even be illiterate. For the rural church, discipling people to grow in faith and spiritual maturity is an enormous challenge.
2. From your perspective, how has the ministry and participation of foreign Christian workers changed in 20 years?
Robin warns that foreign Christian worker participation has come under increased scrutiny over the past 20 years. The government is more strict about interaction between foreign Christians and Chinese Christians. For example, if a foreign Christian today was to teach or preach in a church, the church must report it to the government and provide the person’s passport and visa information, as well as their ministry credentials.
Bruce similarly notes that foreign Christians must apply with the local TSPM body (i.e. Religious Affairs Bureau) in order to preach or teach. In order to receive permission, they must promise not to criticize the TSPM.
He also shares that unregistered house churches are thriving as well. Some of these house churches have unofficial ties to the TSPM or are at least known by the TSPM. But, the TSPM does not allow foreign workers to preach there, he says. Supposedly, he remarks, if the TSPM finds out a house church allowed a foreigner to preach, they will shut down the house church.
In her experience, Diana says foreign workers have been involved in many ways including: evangelism efforts among the rural population, publishing gospel tracts and materials, using online resources and social media to share the gospel, providing various theological training courses. Unlike the past, she says, Chinese Christians mostly manage the church activities while foreign Christians only come to play a support role.
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?
Diana: Sunday school, ministry to Muslims, senior ministry and palliative care, ministry to disabled people and ministry to the deaf community, music ministry, online gospel ministry, gospel broadcasts, and seminary training.
Robin: the Internet, abundant resources, all kinds of ministry training, and increased Bible knowledge.
Bruce: Choirs and hymn singing—better singing, better hymn selection. There are also larger numbers of volunteers today.
4. Were there any strengths in the church 20 years ago that are less prevalent today?
“Twenty years ago,” Diana shares, “the Chinese church was gradually coming back to life after the ten years of unrest from 1966-1976 and after the Reform and Opening Up movement [in the 1980s]. Church resources were scare in many respects then, but people were hungry for the Bible. Those seasoned veteran believers in particular yearned for the Bible after the persecution and hardship they experienced, especially given purges in the early period after the Communist Revolution [in the 1950s] and the “Cultural Revolution” [from 1966-1976]; they still held onto the faith. The small gatherings of believers were especially on fire for the Word. Nowadays, people have several copies of their own Bible and there are different versions of the Bible. People have the Bible on their phones and there are plentiful resources on the Internet. They should be able give a lot of time to studying the Bible now, but unfamiliarity with the Bible is actually more common among believers today.”
Lack of passion for the Bible is also a concern for Bruce, who notes that twenty years ago Bible study was a strength of their church. “Most churches in the city at the time would have Old and New Testament Bible studies. They would alternate studies between Old and New Testament. . . . Nowadays fewer and fewer people attend these studies.”
Diana also notes the loss of prayer in the life of the church: “In times of persecution, there was steadfast prayer. Many people fasted and attended prayer meetings, even overnight prayer meetings. We are gradually losing our fire now.”
To sum it up, Robin simply states, “The thirst for God and deeply rooted faith” is less prevalent today than it was twenty years go.
5. How has your view of China’s place in the world changed over the past 20 years?
Both Robin and Bruce declined to comment on this question.
However, Diana shared how she saw China’s place in the world improve over the past twenty years. “Twenty years ago, China was like a lion that had not woken up yet. It was seen as a poor country with a low international status. Personally, I think China and the Chinese were often looked down upon by Westerners at that time. Chinese products were also considered as low-cost, shoddy knock-offs. Twenty years later, however, China has developed in every aspect and the economy has taken off, gradually raising China's international status. Along with the spread of knowledge, Chinese have become more culturally sophisticated and refined. The level of civil etiquette in society has improved, yet people’s faith is drying up more and more. Because they lack the restraint and guidance that comes from faith, people's souls are increasingly empty and their spirits are growing restless.”
Image Credit: Beijing Church 1997 by Brian Kelley via Flickr.
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