by Samuel Chiang
In China, over the past two decades or so, we have witnessed God’s work among people who have remained faithful throughout some of the toughest trials in the 20th century.
In China, over the past two decades or so, we have witnessed God’s work among people who have remained faithful throughout some of the toughest trials in the 20th century. We have seen the rapid growth of the Chinese mainland church under the guidance of the Holy Spirit.
With the economic opening of China, many outsiders with varying motives have rushed in to participate in the growth of this church. This has yielded a wide range of activities from individual work, to local church participation, to medical platforms, to multinational joint ventures. China and the churches in China are not lacking enthusiastic visits from overseas laymen who are wishing to assist, nor lacking zealots who believe their particular beliefs are the only way to live a Christian life.
With literally thousands of individuals, churches, organizations, and businesses working in China, we are bound to receive much information. While most of the reporting has been in earnest, much more has become blurry, conflicting, and sometimes outrageous. China is changing in a significant way, and there is a new set of realities in the church. What has the outside influence accomplished? What has the economic development accomplished? And how large really are the Chinese churches? Let us look at each one in turn.
The use of academic, medical, business, and technology platforms has given Christians from outside entrance into China. Already, a great deal of knowledge transfer has been cemented into the foundation of future generations. The benefit may appear to be one way. It is not. The benefit is mutual. While many Chinese Christians have grasped the transferred knowledge, outside investors and Christian leaders have come to admire the spirituality that exists among the Christians in China. Even among outside church groups who minister in China, some have said that they intentionally work in China to stimulate the spiritual growth of their own leadership.1
While many individuals and groups have entered China both covertly and blatantly open in converting flocks, their presence has often destroyed the natural order of an existing church or church network. Dangling of funds, promises of assistance, and sometimes force-feeding of theological positions have created a fragmented church.
Especially hurt are the house (or the home) churches. Already lacking formal structure, this grouping of churches has become a victim of winds of doctrine. Not too long ago, a local pastor-leader in Yunnan2 was visited by Western missionaries. They wanted to lay hands on him so he could speak in tongues, thus demonstrating that he was saved. This pastor found the experience curious. He decided to go along. The Westerners prayed. The pastor knelt. After half and hour, he was checked to see if he could speak in tongues. He could not, but had peace that he was already saved and told the visitors so. The visitors left in a huff and told him he was not saved. This man is still engaged in evangelism, but he no longer pastors. His flock could not accept him after that experience.
A number of places in windy, cold Inner Mongolia have already been inoculated with “cultish” teachings (as have other places in other provinces). Often the purveyors would carry the banner of Jesus on their lips, but refuse to communicate with other Christians. In fact, visitations3 to them sometimes will incur faces clothed in smiles, but iron tongues beating the visitors into retreat, accusing them of being “cults.”
Outside influence through funds has not only caused leaders to fall, but also, sometimes, endangered entire networks of churches. Money talks, not only to the home churches but also to the Three-Self churches. One group has gotten the pastors in a local Guangdong district to work on “pyramid” selling of products.4 The funding was so good that the pastor has pressed and pushed his flock into sales. This outside group, in turn, highly influences the events in church life.
But even more overt are some of the shenanigans practiced by some Asian missionaries. In one case, a lady missionary, working in Qinhai province,5 not only dangled tens of thousands of dollars, but also deliberately disrupted church life. In one meeting at her hotel, she arranged chairs at various heights, invited the local church leaders in, and demanded that they sit according to order, with the senior leader at the lowest chair level. Then, the ones she wished to elevate at the next levels. Then she sat at the highest level and explained how she wished to “donate” the money and how it was to be used.
These are not isolated incidents but are habitual patterns in church ministry in China. As a result, many thriving churches have divided, and natural church orders are disassembled. But the external forces exerted on the church are only a dimension of a larger force at work—the massive cultural shift that is taking place in China. A transformation is moving a dominant agrarian economy into an industrial, service, and, surprisingly, in some places, an informational economy.
Like the religious environment in China, there are at least two distinct economies, that of the countryside and that of the cities. China’s economic gains are deposited along the opulent coastal cities. It has spread somewhat westward, but poor infrastructure has discouraged economic growth.
Where the economic growth has taken place, new cities have sprung up over the last decade or so. Cozy hamlets, green villages, and sleepy districts have yielded to new towns, unfamiliar counties, and neon-flashing cities. In the mid-1980s there were fewer than 290 cities in China. After a decade of rapid economic reform there are now over 640 cities.6
Life is better in the cities and wages are higher. People know it, and many are migrating toward them. They can smell the mossy perfume of wealth. A decade ago, the gross domestic product per head was about $290. After 10 years of breakneck economic development, the 1997 GDP per person was approximately $790.7
Domestic newspapers talk about a migrating population from the countryside. Various sources indicate this is anywhere between 70 and 100 million people. In other words, the migration has ignited an urbanization trend. The church in the countryside is not immune. Many, including some in church leadership, have left the countryside and joined the migration. Those once parking themselves in the country pews are now queuing the city lines to find better wages.
Like parasitic worms, materialism feeds on the spirit—and kills it. While many are living better, the spiritual hearts of believers in the city and in the countrysides are dying. Many of the city churches, all over China, are packed out with multiple services on Sundays. There is conversion growth,8 but more biological growth comes from former “house” church members who are too “busy” during the week for house church meetings but do attend city church services on Sunday. The churches in the countryside are still burning with desire for God, but an exodus is occurring.
There are two very unsettling trends that often do not get reported. First, the church is not immune from the urbanization process. The country churches may have a large front door, but the process of migration has rammed open a back door that is equally as large, if not larger. Many people are leaving and have left the churches to live in the economic boom towns. Moreover, when they go to the new town, they may not find a fellowship or a church to attend. They are too busy making money. So how is it that we read reports of unabated growth in numbers of Christians in China, some reporting as high as 80 to 90 million? Are organizations as guilty as some denominations of counting the disappeared, wayward, and dead on their rolls?
For that matter, are the estimations of church growth close to accurate?9 Some time ago, a mainland church leader tried to teach other leaders the art of estimation.10 Initially, when other leaders were asked to estimate the size of a crowd from a picture, their estimates were always too large by 200 to 500 percent. I am mystified at how one group can claim, over the Internet, that its combined numbers exceed 8 million.11
On closer examination, there is probably psychological pressure to report and produce numbers. Much of the external funding requires reporting, and a “return for their God-given treasures.” Hence, there is a yearly growth of numbers. In turn, the numbers would guarantee future funding. The larger the numbers, the greater the assurance of further funding. For the external suppliers of funding, business goes on; fund raising goes on, whether this was intended by God or not.
The second trend is even more disconcerting and may have long-term consequences similar to those in Africa. If the GDP has grown over 250 percent in the last decade, and is forecasted to grow close to another 60 percent12 by A.D. 2001, where is the “tithing and giving”? Yes, comparatively, the Christians in China are still poor; but, one would expect a vibrant community of believers would, and should, self-support many projects. However, the numbers are not there.
Moreover, it is alarming just how many resources are raised outside China and poured into China. From a macro perspective, the combination of what is received from the outside and what should be raised from within, but is not evident, makes a potent fuel for massive dependency. At any given time, a check with the local churches in Hong Kong, the Philippines, Thailand, or elsewhere around the Pacific Rim indicates ongoing funding of church building projects in China. The Western and Asian churches and agencies are so eager to “buy” into the action that all wisdom on “self-support” evaporates when opportunities in China are presented.
Economic openness often sparks development in thoughts. In China, this has translated into various mutations of theological thoughts. This is fast becoming, and will become, one of the top matters occupying the attention of the churches (whether open, registered, or house) as they cross the millennium.
If outside influences have yielded fragmentation tools within the churches, and if fantastic times have produced a large back-door exodus, then what is happening to the theological underpinnings of the church? May I suggest that frantic training has resulted in fuzzy truths?
Many of the groups working in China are involved in theological training, some direct residential, some from a distance, some formal, some nonformal, some a combination of all.
It is good that many groups, individuals, and organizations outside China are listening carefully to what is being requested from inside China. However, the body of Christ is large, rich, and diverse. Attention to diverse requests has resulted in some factions in China, and there will be more to come. For example, the Three-Self church has generally been a reasonably conservative church. However, with tolerance toward various teachings, some Three-Self churches have split over theological differences. While this is natural throughout the history of church development, what is troublesome is that some Three-Self churches extend these differences into the house churches. Thus, some natural factions may translate into actual persecutions. What is worse is that the Western press or agencies get ahold of the stories and have a field day.
These actions have consequences. International attention to the plight of Xu Yongze made headline news in the second quarter of 1997. This coincided with a number of political matters. Now, with Western voices mute, China is taking a harder look at Christianity and house churches. Many older, respected in-country Christian leaders have been asked their views on Mr. Xu, and a furnace of silence has greeted the question of Mr. Xu’s theological position—whether he is a brother, a sect, or a cult.
In China, in many cases, people are not certain of their own positions. Are the charismatics all right? Do you have to speak in tongues to demonstrate you are saved? Or are the Methodists right? Once you are saved are you not always saved? Or are the Baptists right? They are always so organized and don’t scrimp on salvation issues, but what about good works? Or if we do good works, are we not biblical, nor evangelical? And what really is a cult? At what point does a deviation become heresy?
Therein lie the growing pains of a maturing church in China. The initiation has taken place, but frantic training and outside input have yielded confusion. This chasm will continue to grow. In Xingjiang province, not too long ago, there was a crackdown on the believers. But the situation was most peculiar.13 The authorities were looking for books and notes from a specific theological persuasion. The authorities basically said that certain books belong to this theological persuasion…and who gave them to you?
This does not surprise me, because this particular theological grouping has caused major problems in China. However, it causes one to reflect. Suppose the open church authorities move more toward a specific mainline denominational posture. Would it be possible that they would deem any book or teaching other than theirs problematic?
The church, the body of Christ, is a diverse lot. Its teaching, similarly, can be sharply different. In China this has resulted in fuzzy truths. In the West, we tend to hold up seasoned, formerly jailed Chinese pastors in high esteem. While there is nothing wrong with that, we may unwittingly perpetuate fuzzy teachings.
Many people outside China have a high regard for famous pastors in Beijing, Guangzhou, and Shanghai; but if one sat down and listened to their teachings or read their books, some warning flags would zoom to the top of the mast. One of these famous pastors has lost many of his coworkers because of theological problems. One of his books says there are seven ways to salvation. Closely reading the book, one realizes that salvation and sanctification are mixed together.
God has moved amazingly in China through the last half of the 20th century. When the door of China closed to foreign missionaries, God went to work. He demonstrated once and for all in this generation that he is capable of growing the number of known Christians from 700,000 to a number in the tens of millions but known only to him.14
While many groups are listening and are providing training of sorts, there should be even more consideration of how not only to train, but how to produce “shepherds” for the flocks who are leaving because they are not being spiritually fed, and how to equip the “shepherds” who are witnessing the massive cultural shift in China that, most likely, will not end until A.D. 2020.
Moreover, we should examine the reporting critically. Are all house churches good and all Three-Self churches bad? Are the numbers of Christians reported really that large, or is there duplication in counting? Are we doing the Christians in China a favor by helping them to build so many church buildings when they should be doing that themselves? While churches in the West are moving toward multipurpose buildings for the church, why are we still so bent on passing on a tradition of buildings that can only be used for a single purpose? Finally, in providing systematic theological training to the young leaders in China, are we simply passing on knowledge, or are we helping them to become effective “shepherds”?
As we begin this new millennium, we can learn from mistakes in the modern era of missions. We have an opportunity to pass the torch to a growing and maturing church in China. A new set of realities demands a new set of approaches. Let us prayerfully strive to do the right things.
1. Private discussion with Taiwanese ministry leaders of a large denomination, 1994.
2. Personal interview with local pastor in Yunnan, 1995.
3. In discussion with Chinese Christian leaders, 1996.
4. As reported by congregational members in 1996.
5. Reported by local Christians, even local government media made mention of this, 1997.
6. China Statistical Yearbook 1996, page 319.
7. Data from The Economist Intelligence United Limited, EIU Country Forecast 2nd quarter 1997, page 30.
8. Discussion with leaders from the “open, registered, or Three-Self” churches indicate conversion growth of young people is rising fast. By counting numbers accurately through baptisms, young people (40 years and younger) make up to close to 60 percent of the baptisms (1996). This trend is similar in the “home” churches (1997). One general observation here is that the spiritual hunger is deep and Christianity is taking root in the younger generation.
9. There exist tremendous pressures to “under-report” the numbers in the “official, or open, or registered, or Three-Self churches.” There is a general fear that if actual growth was reported, the government will look at the local counties with disfavor. In fact, in one private discussion with one official, August 1994, he told this writer with embarrassment that he reported on only 15,000 believers, but in fact there were over 42,000 believers. Why? He indicated that the growth was just too fast from 9,000 (1990) to 42,000 (1994), so they had to inch up the numbers gradually.
10. This teaching process was done in 1992. Process confirmed in 1994, and was related to me by a church leader in China.
11. This number was first reported at a Chinese church in Boston in February, 1997, and subsequently, the number has swirled throughout the information highway.
12. EIU Country Forecast 2nd quarter 1997, page 30.
13. In conversation with local church leaders, 1997.
14. Many numbers have been reported. From the official number of around 10 million, to an indirectly acknowledged number of 24 million by Dr. George Carey, archbishop of Canterbury, when he visited China and commented that there are now enough Bibles for one in three believers (as reported in local newspapers, September 28, 1994), to furiously revised number of over 33 million by Tony Lambert (OMF), to some estimates of 63 million and 83 million by Jonathan Chao (CCRC), to some numbers estimated by charismatic groups numbering from 80 to 90 million. My personal conviction is that there are probably, at most, only around 40-odd million evangelical believers.
Samuel E. Chiang is area director, East Asia, with Partners International, San Jose, Calif. He was born in Taiwan.
EMQ, Vol. 36, No. 2, pp. 160-166. Copyright © 2000 Evangelism and Missions Information Service (EMIS). All rights reserved. Not to be reproduced or copied in any form without written permission from EMIS.