Are we beginning anew the weary round of stereotyped evangelism?

Since president Carter’s electrifying announcement on December 15, 1978, that the United States would normalize relations with the People’s Republic of China, evangelical Christians have been praying for an “open door” to help meet the spiritual needs of that vast country. If anything, they have been more euphoric than even commercial and industrial interests; the expression of their zeal lacks only an equivalent of the Canton Trade Fair, the annual mecca of business groups.

What kinds of things have evangelicals been doing during the past year to prepare for potential new openings in the Middle Kingdom? Of prime importance are accelerated efforts to get Christian literature to house church gatherings. Many Bibles and copies of the devotional book Streams in the Desert have been carried in by Chinese and foreign tourists, whose supply—sometimes sizeable—has been undetected or simply not taken by Chinese customs officials. Professional couriers who, by their many trips across the border are familiar with search procedures, make regular trips and turn Bibles over to contacts in Canton; these then pass them on to church groups far in the interior by a kind of “underground railroad.” Less frequently, actual smuggling occurs along borders between China and its neighbors to the southeast. Some Bibles have been mailed to those requesting them, but this has not proven to be very productive. One bizarre distribution effort was made in late December 1978, using balloons launched from an offshore island near Taiwan to airlift Christian literature into China.

While such efforts continue, the United Bible Societies have met with leaders of the “Three-Self Movement,” the government-sponsored religious agency for dealing with Protestant churches, and offered to print in the new simplified script in the People’s Republic of China either the traditional Chinese version of the Bible or the recently completed Today’s Chinese Version. While seeming to welcome such overtures, these leaders have indicated they are beginning to plan their own new translation of the Bible for Christians in China.

Some Chinese and foreign visitors are trying to reestablish informal contact with former friends. These liaisons are intended to elicit news of the past 30 years and to encourage fellow believers, and have been carried on clandestinely by several church groups. Where tours have not been closely regimented, members have been able to “break away” to view former church and mission properties, to visit old friends and make new ones, and to carry on successful witnessing activities in parks or even in homes.

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A group of 20 pastors traveled to China in April 1979 under the auspices of the “Three-Self Movement” and were briefed on the general policy of the People’s Republic of China. A report was circulated in mid-March that a few medical personnel of the Society of Jesus were being invited back to man their former hospital in the environs of Shanghai. Although subsequently denied by the Jesuits, this rumor refuses to die, and some Roman Catholic missiologists feel the denial may be a ploy to maintain the low profile of this project.

Evangelical groups engaged in broadcasting from Hong Kong and Manila have reported a tremendous increase in the mail response to their programs. Special correspondence courses using radio English are being prepared to capitalize on the current interest in learning English. Some programs present biblical content in a relevant fashion with emphases, illustrations, and applications that focus on the particular needs of listeners in the People’s Republic of China. Popular made-in-America broadcasts are frequently beamed toward China under the assumption that they have universal appeal.

Several mission groups that had registered financial claims with the U.S. State Department in the late 1960s received payment for the confiscation of their former properties when settlement was made in mid-February. Whether or not this was a wise tactic, it hardly is to be viewed with the same distaste as the reparations demanded by mission agencies for property loss following antimissionary riots in the nineteenth century.

A few religious organizations have engaged in promotional overkill. For only a very few dollars, we are told, areas may be saturated with literature and Christians strengthened in the faith. Everyone seems to know that the People’s Republic of China desires 50,000 teachers of English—but no one is too sure where this rumor started, what agency desires the teachers, what the qualifications are, or where one can obtain further information. Even now, as in the tragic past of missions in China, Christian organizations seem more interested in promoting their own glory than in working together for the kingdom of God. Meanwhile, the gullible Christian public, pulled this way and that by competing claims, hardly knows what to believe. Do not we evangelicals have sufficient Spirit-motivated discipline to cease such activities? God may not allow us to exercise lasting spiritual influence on China until we do.

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The new possibilities in China have created a frantic desire for information. Research centers are being strengthened and up-to-date facts are being cranked out; mission agencies have deputized key personnel to listening-post ministries in Hong Kong. Some mission societies are preparing China “position papers” that spell out alternatives for developing possibilities for ministry.

An unusual amount of emphasis has been placed on matching Christians with skills in such areas as science, engineering, agriculture, and education with companies that have contracted for special projects in the People’s Republic of China.

All of these various activities probably have produced some short-range benefit. Imagine the thrill a Chinese Christian experiences when he receives a nicely printed edition of the Bible after years with none or only a poorly handwritten copy. Those with wavering faith may have been encouraged to continue to walk with Christ despite all the disadvantages of “second-class” citizenship. To realize that their plight is recognized and that Christians worldwide are praying for them has surely been of help and comfort.

Further, many American Christians in their safe, suburban church havens have had their vision expanded, their “play-it-safe” mentality challenged, and their own commitment deepened by the courage of their Chinese Christian brothers and sisters. China once again is on the prayer list of many American Christians. Many personnel with technical expertise are being challenged and mobilized to face the needs of that land.

But what about the long-range value? Have the rather impulsive contacts between some Christian tourists and Chinese friends contributed to the announcement in June—apparently not being enforced at present—that banned all further contact between Chinese and foreign visitors? Or was this sparked only by disco dancing, late parties, and sex? Have Chinese Christians suffered by having foreign visitors or by receiving supplies of literature? Has this impact only been local or will there be a type of cumulative adverse effect that will hinder the Christian faith nationwide?

Are we beginning to perpetuate anew the weary round of stereotyped evangelism? While granting that use of the Four Spiritual Laws does produce fruit where the listener is ready to receive Christ, is this really the best instrument we can devise in training Chinese Christians to do pre-evangelistic witnessing in an area that has been blanketed by Marxism over the past 30 years? Is our concern for China’s spiritual welfare sufficiently deep, as well as urgent, that we can use our research to construct creative witnessing models for a new day in that land? Have we really grasped the fact that Jesus always adjusted his message to his audience?

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More significantly, has this flurry of activity, accompanied in some circles by many gimmicks and considerable hoopla, led to the conclusion that very soon normal missionary activities can be resumed in China?

We seem to have changed very few of our attitudes. For example, it seems impossible for American Christians, even missiologists, to accept the premise that leaders of the People’s Republic of China, altogether apart from their Communist predilections, have legitimate reasons for being angry at mission and church activities. The 150 years of identification of American missions with the power of cultural, military, and economic imperialism is not whisked away with the wave of a spiritual wand. God may have forgiven us, but the consequences remain. We Americans are bothered by Hare Krishna devotees distributing literature in our airports. But what would our feelings be if we had experienced a century or more of shame and oppression at the hands of the country this religion calls its home?

What is most dangerous is that, in many of these activities, we are operating on the premise that we must play “cat and mouse” with the government of the People’s Republic of China. Obviously, we are faced with a difficult problem. Within the past several months the Religious Affairs Bureau of the People’s Republic of China has resurrected the “Three-Self Movement” as their formal channel to deal with Protestant Christians. The very unofficial, beleaguered house churches that have been quietly meeting over the past 20 years feel they were spiritually betrayed by the “Three-Self Movement.” They would frankly classify it as traitorous, liberal, Christ-denying, and unfit to bear the name of Christian.

An analysis of the past 30 years would indicate that leaders of the “Three-Self Movement” were often unwise in their actions, that they were willing at times to compromise their faith, and that possibly they were not as bold in their Christian witness as we think they should have been. But many were very sincere and have tried to relate their faith to their totalitarian environment, seeking to follow the injunction of Jesus to be wise as serpents and harmless as doves.

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Unfortunately, many adherents of the house churches were “our” converts and reflected only too accurately the legacy we bequeathed to them of an overly personalized faith that eschewed any social dimensions of the gospel. They, like we, were not basically interested in dealing with those social, political, and economic ills that plagued Chinese society. They overreacted then, even as they may now, to any proposals of the “Three-Self Movement” and its relation to the People’s Republic of China. I say this with deep reluctance, even as I admire their courage through suffering and recognize my own lack of qualifications to sit in judgment upon them.

These few words will not untangle the past. But our premise, as we face the future, seems to be that the days of this government are numbered and we should resolutely refuse all official religious contacts with the properly designated agencies of the People’s Republic of China. We should be clandestine in what we do and never seek to employ government channels. How closely this parallels the nineteenth-century missionary who was forever blaming the “officials and the gentry” and using every imaginable strategem to make end runs to get at the “common people” who would gladly welcome the gospel message! The problem with officials then was their Confucian ideology; now it is Marxism.

Do we really believe that such an approach is going to be productive? Is this the course of action we should initially take without at least tipping our hat to Romans 13? In the last analysis, our only recourse may be to use underground methods; but is this our best first approach? Is this the only method the minds of our best missiologists can devise?

The People’s Republic of China has some very obvious felt needs. Most of them relate to their goal of modernization, and embrace economics, agriculture, industry, science, and education. Religion has no priority at all. The stage is set for critical miscommunication—they on their wavelength and we on ours. Can we give more creative thought to how we—individually and institutionally—might help to meet some of China’s pressing needs? As we engage honestly in such a ministry, we can pray that efforts expended possibly over many long years will lead to a quality of communication that may forgive our past imperialism. Then we can have the opportunity to work with Chinese churches to deal with the deeper, transcendental, and spiritual levels of the country’s felt needs. Then Jesus Christ will not be seen as a stranger—an intruder whom they do not presently want or need—but as one who sees their plight and waits patiently to show how only he can deal with it at the deepest level.

Carl F. H. Henry, first editor of Christianity Today, is lecturer at large for World Vision International. An author of many books, he lives in Arlington, Virginia.

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