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ss nucleus - summer 2008,  The China miracle

The China miracle

China is hitting the headlines as it flexes its economic and political muscles to become a super power. This year the tragic earthquake in Sichuan that has claimed over 60,000 lives galvanised the Chinese government and many local and foreign non-governmental organisations into immediate and effective action to relieve the immense suffering caused. Soon the eyes of the world will be focussed on Beijing as the Olympic Games open in August, and China takes its place on the world stage.

What about the gospel?

Just over 200 years ago in 1807 the first Protestant missionary, Robert Morrison, arrived in China. For years he laboured to translate the Bible into Chinese and for many years he saw not a single convert. Yet Morrison's work provided a firm foundation for nearly 150 years of missionary work to China that followed. Griffith John, Hudson Taylor and Timothy Richard were just a few of the thousands of faithful missionaries who gave their lives – often literally, especially at the time of the Boxer Rebellion massacre of Chinese and foreign Christians in 1900 - to plant the church on Chinese soil.

By 1949, the year the Communist party took control of the country, there were about one million Protestants in China out of the total population of 500 million. Yet Christians had an influence out of all proportion to their relatively small numbers. Their contribution in the fields of education, relief work and medicine were outstanding. Many of China's best known hospitals and university medical teaching centres had a Christian foundation.

All this was soon swept away as the new government expelled all foreign missionaries. It nationalised schools and hospitals, and tightened control on the native Chinese church. By 1958 most rural churches had been closed, and most in the city were amalgamated under the highly politicised 'Three Self Patriotic Movement' (TSPM). Many Chinese Christian leaders such as Wang Mingdao were sent to labour camps for over 20 years.

Derelict church buildings

In 1966 Chairman Mao's rampaging Red Guards closed down the last few city churches. Madame Mao boasted that Christianity had been put into a museum. Even TSPM pastors were imprisoned or sent to work in the factories or fields.

When I first visited China in 1973 there was no sign of Christian activity anywhere in this vast country – the most populated on earth (around one billion at that time). Church buildings were derelict or turned into factories or schools. It seemed to many that all the sacrificial missionary work undertaken by Robert Morrison, Hudson Taylor and countless others had failed. Mao's 'Little Red Book' was outselling the Bible and evangelical Christianity belonged to a long-dead colonial era.

I was also in China when Mao died in 1976 and I witnessed the way the country began to open up to the outside world over the next few years. The new regime of Deng Xiaoping recognised that Mao's left-wing utopianism had been a catastrophe. The stress was now on economic development, and over the last 30 years China has not looked back, so that today it is an economic superpower.

As part of the new 'open door' policy, a more moderate religious policy was introduced by the Communist party in 1979. Churches were reopened under state supervision through the TSPM. It was deeply moving to witness Christians returning to worship for the first time in 20 years – and every week the congregations grew. Churches were soon full to overflowing.

The church underground

It soon became plain that the true church of Jesus Christ had never died in China – it had been forced underground to meet secretly in homes and in remote country areas. The destruction of institutional religion had led to a remarkable, spontaneous grass-roots Christian movement. The gospel was lived out, shared first with family and close neighbours, before spreading like wildfire as political repression eased. Some parts of China that had been labelled 'atheistic zones' by the Communist party in the 1960s now became known as 'Jesus nests' or 'the Jerusalem of China' because of the vast increase in the number of believers.

Just 40 years after Mao supposedly totally eradicated Christianity from China, the gospel is flourishing in ways scarcely believable in the 'post-Christian' West. There are now 55,000 legally registered Protestant churches and meeting points across China. The number of Protestants has soared from about one million in the 1950s and 60s to about 20 million today (according to the government's own statistics). However, two recent polls of religious opinion in China demonstrated the figure of 40 million Protestants. [1]

In addition, hundreds of thousands of unregistered house churches prefer to risk continuing harassment and even persecution for upholding the biblical principle that Christ is head of his church (rather than the Communist party). Out of a total population today that exceeds 1.3 billion, it is quite possible that there are 50-70 million Protestants, while claims of over 100 million are overly speculative.

The church is overwhelmingly evangelical in character in both the registered TSPM churches and in the house churches. The preaching of the Cross, the uniqueness of Christ, his virgin birth and bodily resurrection are central to Chinese Christians who take their faith very seriously indeed. Bible studies and prayer meetings are well attended and every Christian is expected to share the gospel – not just the pastor.

Persecution taking place

Bishop Ding and some leading political appointees in the State-run church have sought to impose a politicised 'theological construction' campaign on the church, but this has been resolutely resisted or ignored in most cases. Persecution is sporadic and can still be vicious – in 2006 one large house-church was demolished by the authorities in Hangzhou and eight local house-church leaders were imprisoned in January 2007.

In early 2008, 20 house-church leaders were sentenced to between one and three years of imprisonment in 're-education through labour' camps. This was the largest number of Christians imprisoned in China at one time in over 20 years. Nevertheless, the overall situation has slowly improved over the last 20 years so that many churches engage in open evangelism and children's work, such as Sunday school, which is still technically forbidden to those less than 18 years of age.

Rapid growth

Chinese Christianity is dynamic and evangelistic, based on a hunger and love for the Word of God. Sermons in most churches last for an hour on average. It is common for the large city churches to baptise several hundred new converts annually. Pastor Lin Xiangao in Guangzhou (far south), and Pastor Allen Yuan (recently called home to the Lord) in Beijing (the north), each baptise some 400 new converts every year in their flourishing house-churches. The church is no longer growing just among the peasants; many students and well educated city people are flocking to churches too. An internal Communist party document in 2006 admitted that 20 million Communist party members, supposedly atheistic, had joined various religions, including Christianity.[2]

The Chinese church has the problems of rapid growth. A lack of biblical teaching means that new converts can fall into extremism or one of the many cults springing up. The Eastern Lightning sect preaches that Jesus has already returned to China as a woman! Not every 'Christian' influence from overseas is necessarily healthy either. Well meaning westerners can corrupt the Christ centred faith of simple Chinese believers with their offers of financial support.

Over 50 million Bibles have been legally printed within China. Some Christian books are now published in small print runs, although many theological books still have to be brought in from Hong Kong or overseas to satisfy the ever growing demand. Over 200 Christian bookshops now exist in cities all over China, usually run by concerned Christians, often from house churches.

Chinese roots and 'foreign' contributions

Whereas Christianity was once a foreign implant, the gospel, now being spread by Chinese evangelists, is growing vigorously in Chinese soil. Chinese evangelists are taking the gospel to the Tibetans, Uygur Muslims and other minority peoples within China. Some are preparing to take the gospel overseas. The Back to Jerusalem Movement has sometimes given the false impression there are 100,000 Chinese evangelists poised to go overseas. However, there are certainly several hundred zealous young house church Christians in basic missionary training both within China and overseas.

Missionary work is still outlawed by the authorities, but qualified Christian professionals are welcomed for their contribution to China's development. OMF is able to place many committed Christians as medical workers, teachers and development workers particularly in the poverty stricken areas of western China most in need of their skills.

Qualified Christian medical personnel from the UK and other countries overseas are presently serving the Chinese people in many fields. Some are bringing care to HIV/AIDS sufferers and drug addicts. Others are helping the many people who are physically or mentally handicapped. Chinese Christians have opened a centre to help autistic children and overseas specialists are invited to give lectures. Western Christians are now able to help those afflicted by leprosy in remote tribal areas of south-west China. Short and long term placements are available in both urban and rural situations.

Miracle is often a word used too glibly by Christians – but in the case of the revival of the gospel in China over the last 40 years, it is no exaggeration. Chinese Christians themselves have told me that the revival is none of their doing, but all of God's doing. To him be all the glory.

Recommended reading

Fairbank J. China: a new history. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1994

Hattaway P. Operation China: introducing all the peoples of China. Carlise: Piquant, 2000

Lambert T. China's Christian Millions. Oxford: Monarch, 2006

Aikman D. Jesus in Beijing. Washington, DC: Regnery, 2003

References
  1. 1Turner H. The gospel truth about China's Christian millions. Times 2007; 20 December
  2. 2 AsiaNews 2006; 7 March
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