by Ralph Covell
Now that Eastern Europe is being flooded with American missionaries, the expectation is that China will be the next country to open. China is top priority on my daily prayer agenda, but I do not pray for her to open.
Now that Eastern Europe is being flooded with American missionaries, the expectation is that China will be the next country to open. China is top priority on my daily prayer agenda, but I do not pray for her to open. I pray for the open churches of the China Christian Council; for the house churches and thousands of itinerant evangelists; for students and faculties of the Protestant and Catholic seminaries, and for the many who are being trained through other formal and informal methods, whether on the spot or through radio broadcasts.
I pray that church leaders may be “wise as serpents and harmless as doves” in their relations with government officials. I pray that every Christian may have a copy of the Bible; that there may be more Christian literature for children, young people, and adults. I pray that new regulations for foreigners in China and for the churches may not be enforced rigidly. I pray for the welfare of China — for economic stability, for more political openness, for millions of poor people, for success in combating many developing socials evils. I pray that the gospel of Christ may penetrate all portions of China — both among the Han and the 55 minority nationalities. China cries out for my intercession.
Why then do I not pray for China to open? In short, because I think God has his harvesters in China to reach the harvest field there. Also, I’m not sure what “open” means to the many people who use it so glibly. The Roman Empire during the time of the dictatorial caesars was always open to the gospel. God has never been limited in what he can do in China. Because of this, China has more churches and more Christians than ever before.
If by “open” we mean that outside Christians will have unhindered access to China, then the present situation is far better than it was 15 years ago. Hundreds of Christian organizations have developed avenues to enter China to serve its needs. This includes teaching English (or other languages) and many other subjects of practical value. Christian merchants, industrialists, scientists, medical doctors, and technicians work in China at their occupations and convey the love of Christ. Some of them make short-term trips into China to share their expertise and their faith.
Throughout the year various organizations promote programs in language learning, cultural awareness, and friendship. Radio broadcasts beam in messages of evangelism, nurture, and even theological education. Christian literature in ever greater amounts continues to be brought in from Hong Kong. Christian educators and teachers, mostly Chinese, carry out covert short-term training programs, although the government is aware of most of what they do. Private schools have developed on several levels, and some are Christian. The Amity Foundation runs the Amity Press, which prints and publishes 1.6 million Bibles in China each year. It also encourages outside groups to do beneficial social projects.
Of course, entering China for purely religious purposes is prohibited, but this does not mean the country is closed to the gospel. However, when people speak of China being “open,” they mean more than this. They want China to open its doors completely to all purveyors of religion, particularly, of course, to Protestant evangelicals. They yearn for the “good old days,” when missionaries traveled back and forth across the land with hardly any restrictions.
Here are some reasons why I would prefer China to remain as it is right now, rather than to be totally open.
1. A “closed” China forces us to pray more earnestly, rather than to depend on our own activities. As many as 8,000 American missionaries, to say nothing of those from other countries, were working in China in the 1920s and 1930s. They laid a foundation, but their fruit pales by comparison with what God has done without them in the last 45 years. When most missionaries left China in the 1949-51 period, there were no more than 750,000 Protestant adherents. From then until now there have been long periods with no churches open, few pastors,insufficient Bibles, little Christian literature, no Sunday schools, no seminaries, and no missionaries. Yet the number of Christians has escalated spectacularly to at least 20-30 million. (Some China specialists put the number at 50-60 million.) God did this by our prayers—not by our presence.
Why do we now think that missionaries, very effective in introducing the gospel in the past, are now so desperately needed? The same God is still there. Even as he has brought many to faith, so he will provide for their nurture.
2. If China were to open as widely as many wish, it would produce a missionary stampede that would far surpass what has happened in the former U.S.S.R and in Eastern Europe. I have had two one-month teaching opportunities through local institutions in both Ukraine and Romania. The local Christians, with some few exceptions, are not happy about the hordes of Christians who have come with their money, their video cameras, their presumed “know how,” and their condescending attitudes.
3. For many non-Chinese to enter China again would destroy the “Chineseness” of both the open and house churches. Until 1949 the Chinese church and the missionary enterprise labored under the label of “made in the West.” Non-Christians gleefully referred to it as “foreign,” and when a new convert was made, they often scornfully remarked, “One more Christian—one less Chinese.” Do we want to recreate this situation—to undo what God has been doing over these years? The church in China may not be purely indigenous in all of its life, but it has no foreign connections that condemn it to irrelevance.
4. For China to be as open would reintroduce all of our denominational divisions, to say nothing of the heresies and cultic groups. To be sure, older Christians in China still remember the old denominational distinctives. House churches separate from one another over some of these older issues. Even within the China Christian Council, some old denominational divisions have appeared along the south China coast. Within the house churches many divisions, often of a cultic nature, have reared their ugly heads. But for China to “reopen” would be an invitation for every denomination to reestablish its own work and witness. This would not solve the present problem, it would only exacerbate it. Every group would be forced to get on the promotional bandwagon and compete for limited dollars, francs, and marks in the mission-constituency market.
The China Christian Council has welcomed some short-term assistance from experts in particular fields. It has resisted any return to the past. It wants to establish its own Chinese identity more firmly. Even house churches in certain areas of China have recently let it be known that they want to cut off all outside help. Such help has sometimes brought confusion and chaos. If foreigners are apprehended in their covert activities, as happened last February, it can only reconfirm the government’s opposition to the house churches.
5. God does not need an influx of Western-style educational and training programs to establish his church in China in the faith. Do the multitudes of new Christians need to be nurtured? Yes, of course. Many “people movements” to Christ have occurred. Some who have been swept along by the tide know very little—their conversion has not been as cognitive as much as it has been experiential. Their faith may be true and valid, but shallow. Of course, they need discipling. But we must not assume that we Westerners have the answer to their needs. What makes us feel qualified to help them? Our gadgets, elaborate lesson plans, and sophisticated methods barely work for us.
I think of Jude’s remark to those who received his epistle, “Build yourselves up in your most holy faith and pray in the Holy Spirit . . .” (Jude 20). I have already mentioned some low-profile training efforts by Chinese from outside the country. Within the country a number of small training programs have emerged. The China Christian Council has also developed a correspondence school and has madethe same materials available to churches for informal use. Are these enough to disciple new converts? How much does a person need to know to be established in the faith? How much do they need to know to pray in the Holy Spirit?
I worked for many years in the aftermath of a people movement among the Sediq minority nationality in Taiwan. I constantly marveled at two things: how little the people knew cognitively (probably less than an American 10-year old with some Sunday school training); how firm and deep was their commitment and devotion to Jesus Christ and the work of his kingdom. I had not given them this foundation. God did it through his Spirit and by his word, even though the few copies they had of the Bible were not in a language they knew that well.
If it were possible to have some kind of controlled entrance into China, with the churches there—China Christian Council and house churches—determining the need, extending the invitations, and controlling the activities, then an “open” China might indeed be helpful. However, I don’t think evangelicals are sufficiently disciplined to pull this off. Therefore would it not be best to pray that God in his own time, by his own methods, and with laborers that he largely raises up in China continue to build his church there? Protestant Christians were faced with a similar dilemma toward China in the late 1830s. Missionaries had built a “wall of light” around China, touching the lives of Chinese here and there in Canton, Macao, Singapore, Malaya, and Djakarta. Their concern to penetrate China was more valid than ours is now. At that time there were no Protestant churches in China proper.
But the situation is quite different today. Our renewed massive entrance, possibly under some questionable “opportunity,” may start us on another weary round of “made in the West” Christianity.
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