One Christian leader told me about his first trip to China. On the long airplane trip, he read a popular novel about a Chinese believer who was imprisoned because he had a Bible. When this leader got to China, he was shocked to see people reading their Bibles openly. He began to wonder: Was the novel all fiction?
Well, it was a novel. But in this issue, both of the experts debating strategy for religious freedom around the world mention China in unflattering terms. There is indeed a bloody history of repression and slaughter in China, and religion was only one of the aspects of Chinese society that felt the heavy oppressive hand, especially during the communist Cultural Revolution of 1966-76.
In today's China, however, things are changing for the church (as they are for the economy). I saw some of those changes during a brief trip to Shanghai and Jiang-su provinces last fall. Family events have kept me from writing a full report, but I want to share just a few things with you now.
First, legal Bibles are not in short supply. The Red Guards confiscated Bibles, so that after the Cultural Revolution, the most pressing need of Christians in China was for Bibles. A decade of illegal Bible smuggling met part of the need, but it put Christians in the difficult position of supporting an illegal activity. After three years of negotiations, the Amity Press was able to begin printing Bibles legally. The printing plant I visited has printed almost 30 million copies since 1986.
Illegal Bibles, however, are still illegal. In 2001 a Hong Kong businessman was arrested for smuggling copies of an annotated version used by the Shouters. He faced a possible death sentence for "propagating an evil cult." Fortunately, after President Bush took an interest in his case, the businessman was released on medical grounds.
Second, Christianity has experienced tremendous growth. When I asked a pastor in Nanjing, China's ancient capital, what was the biggest challenge the churches in his city faced, he said with a big smile, "Too many believers." His registered church has 2,000 at worship every Sunday and baptizes 200 to 300 per year. What he meant, of course, was too few pastors. The ratio of believers to pastors in Nanjing is about 3,000 to 1.
I was very impressed by the lay ministry training programs I witnessed in several large churches around the region. At the first church we visited, we saw a group of 50 elders, living barracks style at the church for several months while taking classes in lay ministry and Bible teaching.
Third, the spirit of worship we witnessed was palpable. There was no possibility that what we saw were "Potemkin" churches. As a church music director, I can sense whether people mean what they sing, and the renditions of "Softly and Tenderly" and "Sing Them Over Again to Me" were clearly from the heart. The fervency I saw and heard in urban "churches" (congregations with a pastor) was matched in the village "meeting points" (congregations with lay leadership).
In future articles, I hope to pass along more information about the registered church in China. They are undergoing a generational shift in leadership, a reappropriation of the best from their missionary roots, and a program of theological construction (firmly based on the creeds and the doctrine of justification by faith).
Next month: The best Christian places to work, healing the wounds of church splits, and the passions of a prolife novelist.
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."
Last year, Tony Carnes wrote a Christianity Today cover story on persecution in China. Articles included:
'New' China: Same Old Tricks | Top communists, despite their denials, endorse arrest and torture of Chinese Christians by the thousands. (Feb. 15, 2002)
The Unlikely Activist | How a bitter athiest helped besieged Christians—and became a believer. (Feb. 15, 2002)
What China's Secret Documents Reveal | The 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-Ji | Tortured to the point of death. (Feb. 15, 2002)
China Persecution Dossier: Shi Yun-Chao | Beaten for Hosting Bible Studies. (Feb. 15, 2002)
China Persecution Dossier: Gu Xiangmei | Surviving 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 and Hong Kong include:
Working with the Communists | Some evangelicals minister happily within China's state-supervised Three Self church. (Oct. 18, 2002)
Bush: 'I'm One of Them' | Religious persecution allegations set the stage for George Bush's visit to China. (Feb. 27, 2002)
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 Confessions | Letters from imprisoned Christian women in China describe assaults with electric clubs. (Feb. 1, 2002)
Free China's Church | The Communist country may ease some religious restrictions, but they still want an apolitical church. (January 3, 2002)
Church Leader Gets Reprieve | China's case against Gong Shengliang now on hold. (Jan. 24, 2002)
Chinese House Church Leader Granted Time to Appeal Death Sentence | Sentence likely to be commuted to imprisonment, but church remains in danger. (Jan. 8, 2002)
Communists May Recognize Independent Christians | Communist 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)
Hong Kong Church Leaders Fear Anti-Sect Bill | French legislation may have worldwide consequences. (July 3, 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 Foreigners | It is against the law for visitors to teach the Bible in China's house churches. (Nov. 13, 2000)
China's Smack Down | 53 Christian professors, students, and church-planters detained. (Sept. 11, 2000)
House Approves Divisive U.S.-China Trade Pact | But will permanent normal trade relations status help human rights? (May 25, 2000)
China Should Improve on Religion to Gain Permanent Trade Status, Commission Says | Religious liberty in Sudan and Russia also criticized. (May 8, 2000)
A Tale of China's Two Churches | Eyewitness reports of repression and revival. (July 13, 1998)
FreeChurchForChina.org is a non-profit advocacy group for religious freedom.
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