Tom Frakes and Erik Burklin love law and order. They represent a new generation of evangelicals who believe it is better to operate openly and legally rather than underground in China.
Frakes's Training Evangelistic Leadership (TEL)-China educates non-Christian university students about Christianity. While in China, Frakes worships at a state-licensed church in Guangzhou, a city in southern China near Hong Kong. His congregation, associated with the government's Three Self Patriotic Movement, is evangelical in theology and outreach.
Burklin runs China Partner, a ministry founded by his father, Werner. The organization provides teachers and resources to Three Self seminaries and Bible institutes. Six months ago, China Partner helped launch a new Bible institute in Nanchang, Jiangxi, in central China. The Nanchang Bible Institute expects to triple its current enrollment to 240 by 2007.
More Western missions groups are looking for ways to work legally in China. There are 51 American Protestant missions agencies working inside China, according to the Evangelism and Missions Information Service. These agencies provide a wide range of officially permitted services, from Bible publishing and English-language instruction to health care and adoption.
For years the National Council of Churches has brokered relationships between American mainline Protestants and China's official church. The ncc also generated controversy by disputing reports of persecution of Christians in China. Andrew Young, future ncc president and former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, said he found "no evidence" of persecution of Christians on his travels in China in 1998.
On the other hand, since the 1949 communist revolution, evangelicals have smuggled Bibles and provided other support, working extensively with the persecuted, underground church. But that's no longer the case exclusively.
Brent Fulton watches China mission trends from the ChinaSource think tank in Fullerton, California. He told Christianity Today, "In the last ten years, there has been a shift from painting the [Three Self] church as colluding with the government toward seeing valid opportunities of working with the open church."
Erik Burklin believes China Partner fulfills a dual role. In addition to helping China's churches, he says, "We want [Westerners] to learn about China. There are so many misconceptions." Erik's father, Werner, recalls that an American missionary in Nanchang was very surprised to hear that there was a Bible institute in town. "He had already been there for nine months," Werner says. "Even missionaries in China often don't realize the extent of ministry of the legal, above-ground church."
Erik recognizes that thousands of unregistered congregations (known as house churches) are thriving in China. But he sees an unfair bias among some evangelicals, favoring independent congregations over churches supervised by communist leaders.
Frakes believes Westerners can minister in China in a variety of ways. "You can come in openly, but you have to check your weapons at the door. Or you can tunnel in [and] be secretive." He believes the secretive approach backfires. "[Westerners] look like burglars in the government's eyes."
Frakes favors what he calls the "lizard approach." Proverbs 30 describes a lizard living in the king's palace. "The lizard is in the palace for years. He has seen how things operate. He is wise, but he is also benign. He catches bugs. Though he is an uninvited guest, the king lets the lizard stay."
Local Relationships Are Key
The Frakes and Burklin families both believe that healthy relationships with government officials are critical for the credibility of Christian outreach in China. Good "relationships" in China are more like a marriage than friendship. Called guanxi, relationships are long-standing ties that obligate partners to help each other. A Chinese proverb says someone who doesn't honor relationships has "a wolf heart and dog lungs." Fulton says effective mission work in China depends on the quality of these relationships. "Wherever there is a successful work with open churches, there are long-standing personal ties."
TEL-China has kept a low profile, but it achieved a breakthrough when Frakes ran down a petty thief on the streets of Guangzhou. He was pleased to find himself hailed in local newspapers. After that, local authorities gave Frakes new latitude. As he brought new individuals to a state-approved Three Self church, its pastors defended him from critics.
For Werner and Erik Burklin, establishing good relations with government officials followed a different pathway. Werner, following in the footsteps of his missionary parents, returned to China in 1981. He jumped off the train in Jiangxi, en route to Shanghai, and was picked up by the police.
"I want to go home," Werner told the police chief. He pulled out an outdated identification card he had used as a child. The policeman stared at the card, turned to Burklin, and smiled.
"Welcome home," the officer said, shaking his hand firmly. That police chief's acceptance sparked in Werner's mind the idea of working with Chinese officials.
"I had to make a decision," Werner said. "People in Hong Kong told me not to have anything to do with the official church." He started to visit illegal house churches. In 1982, a house church leader showed Werner the way to a Three Self church, but would not enter the official church with him. That deeply disturbed Werner. After Werner walked inside that Three Self church, he says, "I found out that they were believers just like me."
So the elder Burklin launched China Partner. The new Nanchang Bible Institute, temporarily located in a former detergent factory, provides a vital resource to the region's growing churches. "Our morality has really gone down in this city," institute director Lin Feng says, "but our churches are filling up."
In the early years, the local Bible institute had many needs, from toilets to paper for its copying machines. The Burklins have made possible quite a bit more than that. "This area is still pretty poor, and the school tries to educate some of the poorest of the poor," Erik says.
China Partner works with 17 seminaries and Bible institutes in China. The Rev. Lou, a local Three Self leader familiar with the Burklins' work, says China Partner provides critical resources for leadership training. "What we on the local level want is people like the Burklins to come and help us teach our young pastors about the Word of God."
Frakes and Erik Burklin acknowledge that the road to ministry in China has hazards. One year ago in Nanchang, for example, China Partner sponsored a meeting of the official church and Western mission leaders. The occasion was a triumph for the Burklins' diplomacy, but there were also confrontations. A leader from Youth for Christ asked pastor Lin if an American missionary could come openly to China to evangelize. Pastor Lin, who serves at the pleasure of local communist officials, suddenly got red in the face and declared, "That is illegal! That is not permitted here!"
But Frakes openly evangelizes at the prestigious Zhongshan University in Guangzhou. On one recent evening the campus was enjoying balmy weather, and couples crowded a brightly lit park where students practice speaking English. About 300 young people, some of them pitching him questions in English, swarmed Frakes, including a student named Janet.
"What are you doing here?" another student asked.
"I teach the Bible," Frakes answered.
"What school? I'll come to hear you," that student promised.
Then Frakes asked Janet if she would go to his Bible study.
"I'm interested in the World Trade Organization. Have an opinion on that?" she asked. Most of China's students aren't always interested in a Bible study, but at this university, the topic can at least be brought up without reproach.
"People jump in our fishing boat here," Frakes told Christianity Today. "In Shanghai, we get the same reaction at the English corner around the Mao statue."
His group has not escaped unscathed. Authorities have closed two of his groups in Guangzhou, and a leader in Shanghai was arrested and deported. In early June, Minister of Education Chen Zhili told the heads of Communist Party committees in the universities to watch more vigilantly for religious activity on campuses.
Frakes attributes some problems to chance encounters with the wrong people. "We had a Bible study, and the policeman next door didn't like all the singing. So he turned us in." Frakes explained that he and his group went to a local Three Self church and showed another officer his Bible study materials. No one was arrested, but the Bible study had to be moved away from the policeman's residence.
China has a long history of foreigners assisting social reform. The presence of a new generation of leaders keeps the pulse of reform beating. They work within the system and persevere through obstacles.
How much difference will it make long term? Right now there are only individual examples. Janet, who came from her distant village to study at Zhongshan, drops her guard at the end of Frakes's discussions at the English corner.
"My sister in London became a Christian and baptized my parents in a bathtub in Beijing," she tells Frakes. "Now I understand a little bit more about what is happening here in China. Maybe I'll try Bible study."
Tony Carnes is CT's senior news writer.
Copyright © 2002 Christianity Today. Click for reprint information.
The 2002 International Religious Freedom Report on China says, "The Government tries to control and regulate religious groups to prevent the rise of groups that could constitute sources of authority outside of the control of the Government and the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), and it cracks down on groups that it perceives to pose a threat. Despite these efforts at government control, membership in many faiths is growing rapidly."
Earlier this year, Tony Carnes wrote a Christianity Today cover story on persecution in China. Articles included:
'New' China: Same Old TricksTop communists, despite their denials, endorse arrest and torture of Chinese Christians by the thousands. (Feb. 15, 2002)
The Unlikely ActivistHow a bitter athiest helped besieged Christians—and became a believer. (Feb. 15, 2002)
What China's Secret Documents RevealThe New York archive of religious persecution in China contains numerous government documents that show how the government controls religion. (Feb. 15, 2002)
China Persecution Dossier: Zhang Wu-JiTortured to the point of death. (Feb. 15, 2002)
China Persecution Dossier: Shi Yun-ChaoBeaten for Hosting Bible Studies. (Feb. 15, 2002)
China Persecution Dossier: Gu XiangmeiSurviving on "tiger's diarrhea." (Feb. 15, 2002)
See Christianity Today'sBearing the Cross article on the persecution of Christians in China.
Previous Christianity Today stories about religion in China include:
What is the Falun Gong?And why does the Chinese government want to destroy it? (Feb. 6, 2002)
Gong's 'Accusers' Claim Torture Induced False ConfessionsLetters from imprisoned Christian women in China describe assaults with electric clubs. (Feb. 1, 2002)
Free China's ChurchThe Communist country may ease some religious restrictions, but they still want an apolitical church. (January 3, 2002)
Church Leader Gets ReprieveChina's case against Gong Shengliang now on hold. (Jan. 24, 2002)
Chinese House Church Leader Granted Time to Appeal Death SentenceSentence likely to be commuted to imprisonment, but church remains in danger. (Jan. 8, 2002)
Communists May Recognize Independent ChristiansCommunist leaders in China are preparing to give formal recognition to unregistered religious groups, but house-church leaders are wary. (November 19, 2001)
Changes in China's Religious Policy Imminent?Several respected house-church leaders consulted about official registration. (November 16, 2001)
House Churches May Be 'Harmful to Society'But China's unofficial congregations resist "evil cult" label. (Jan. 25, 2001)
China's Religious Freedom Crackdown Extends to ForeignersIt is against the law for visitors to teach the Bible in China's house churches. (Nov. 13, 2000)
China's Smack Down53 Christian professors, students, and church-planters detained. (Sept. 11, 2000)
House Approves Divisive U.S.-China Trade PactBut will permanent normal trade relations status help human rights? (May 25, 2000)
China Should Improve on Religion to Gain Permanent Trade Status, Commission SaysReligious liberty in Sudan and Russia also criticized. (May 8, 2000)
A Tale of China's Two ChurchesEyewitness reports of repression and revival. (July 13, 1998)
Brent Fulton watches China mission trends as part of ChinaSource, an organization that provides information and resources for people who serve China.
FreeChurchForChina.org is a non-profit advocacy group for religious freedom.
Have something to add about this? See something we missed? Share your feedback here.
Subscribe to Christianity Today and get access to this article plus 65+ years of archives.
- Home delivery of CT magazine
- Complete access to articles on ChristianityToday.com
- Over 120 years of magazine archives plus full access to all of CT’s online archives
- Learn more