There’s no question about the importance of China. It is a nuclear power, it has one of the world’s biggest armies and the biggest economy, and one that could get considerably bigger. It is likely to be superpower of the 21st century. It is the world’s most populous nation, it’s 1.4 billion citizens are roughly one fifth of the total. As a result it has the world’s largest number of atheists (or religiously unaffiliated), but also Buddhists, Muslims and also Christians.
The story of the Chinese church is quite remarkable and it’s growth to somewhere around 100 million has surprised almost everyone. It has certainly surprised the ruling Chinese authorities who have tried ruthless persecution and indifference but continues to watch it grow and grow. It has surprised atheists who have predicted the demise of religion in general and Christianity in particular and it has surprised the western church because since 1950 it has been growing without them.
I am convinced that the church in the UK has been looking in the wrong place for answers to its general lack of forward progress. Certainly since the 1980s evangelicals have looked longingly across the Atlantic at churches of tens of thousands and have worked hard to import as much as possible. At the same time we have been slow to realise what is happening in the wider culture and realise that we are ill equipped to exist in a society that is increasingly indifferent, uncertain or outright hostile to faith communities. Instead of looking west, the church should have been looking east – to China.
There are a number of reasons why this hasn’t been easy to do – language, culture and the attitude of the Chinese government all make a difference but it’s not to late to learn. Which is where Paul Golf’s The Coming Chinese Church: How rising faith in China is spilling over its boundaries comes in. Paul Golf is a professional interpreter and translator of Mandarin and has had long connections with the church in China.
Golf gives the reader a brief history of the church in China (it’s older than you think) but focuses his attention on the growth of the church since 1949, when there were approximately 800,000 Christians in China. A number that has grown more than hundredfold in the past 65 years. Although there has been substantial growth within the official Three Self Patriotic Movement (the government approved church), Golf focuses his attention on the more significant growth of the house church movement. Golf identifies three distinct strands of house church: the traditional house church movement which has its roots in leaders who suffered intense persecution and often martyrdom from 1949-1979 (the most famous of these leaders in the west would have been Watchman Nee); from 1979-1999 saw the rise of the rural house church with an astonishing revival in the countryside that spread often as a result of healings and simple gospel preaching. From 1999 onwards both China and the church has been focused on the growth of cities and we see the rise of the contemporary urban house churches.
The birth of the Chinese church in a period of intense persecution both affected the shape and character of the church.
“The Chinese church continued to be centred around small groups of people seeking to live out their faith together in community. It was not possible for large-scale Sunday meetings, in which the ordained few minister to the many, to become the status quo. Spiritual passivity was not an option!” (p.65)
The current phase sees increasingly confident house church seeking to meet openly and challenge government restrictions and even dialogue with the government over their designation as illegal. The era of intense persecution seems to have ended and the government is working out how to deal with the church. It will be interesting to see how as China is increasingly affected by consumerism how the church reacts and how it engages with the Western church. the other key factor to watch will be how the Chinese church engages in missions. As the Islamic increasingly closes its doors to the West they are open ever wider to China and Christians are pouring through. There seems to be a clear determination on the part of the church in China to take the gospel ‘Back to Jerusalem’ and back along the old Silk Route. The key question is can the Chinese missionaries cross-cultural divides?
So why has the church grown? Firstly there was a commitment to preach the gospel, to personal evangelism. This commitment was forged in the fires of intense opposition but it relied upon listening to the Holy Spirit and being obedient. This simple obedience included praying for the sick and taking authority over evil spirits. Demonstrations of power coupled with the gospel message and a willingness to suffer for it was compelling evidence to millions! There seems to be a recognition that prayer is crucial and a commitment to prayer and fast to hear God. I think the fact that the church has spread from house to house in small networks has required genuine commitment – you had to want to go and when you joined it mattered, it had a cost and when you paid that cost you were then committed to the group, you would be active and not passive. I think it remains true in the west that joining a church rarely costs anything, you can come and go as you please and often requires too little of its members.
This is a personally challenging book, the commitment to spread the gospel, to devour the Scriptures and to simply believe and obey Jesus is a challenging. Golf although he writes from a charismatic perspective which I share generally avoids the hyperbole, triumphalism or exaggeration which is often evident and generally offers an even-handed take on developments. Yet the stories here reminded me again how much my world-view is shaped by the prevailing culture which breeds scepticism.
So to misquote Gandalf from the end of The Two Towers: ‘When the sunrises look east’