One of the reasons I was drawn to China was because I read the book The Heavenly Man by Brother Yun, an amazing account of the church in China in the 1980s and 90s, which my father shared with me. The autobiography of one of the house church leaders, Brother Yun, it reads like a modern-day Acts, filled with stories of miracles, including walking out of a maximum security prison undetected, visions of finding buried Bibles, and the preaching of the gospel by simply reciting long passages of memorized scripture. Here was a more vital Christianity, I thought, being truly tested in the face of persecution, and here was God showing his hand in obvious and miraculous ways. I wanted to be part of that, to see what Christianity was like under those circumstances.
So I set out for China with an otherwise ill-defined plan, hoping that I would somehow be able to make contact with the underground churches there. When I actually got to China, the only place I could start with trying to get in touch with Christians was in the official, foreigner-only churches or the local congregations conducted in Chinese, also of the official churches. Sure enough, after attending one of these congregations, I got to know an amazing Asian-American woman who was running a small group of local Chinese Christians and also attending the official church.
This Bible study group consisted of about a dozen local Chinese women, all of whom had become Christian in the last one or two years thanks to the evangelistic efforts of the American girl, which was truly remarkable and inspiring. Although young in their faith, they were very fervent and dedicated believers, and I was struck by how they all introduced themselves by their names, English names and when they had converted and when they were baptized (if they had been) – it was a fundamental part of their identity, and they spoke of it with the bloom of first love.
I think it was the most Holy Spirit-saturated small group I have experienced, particularly because of one girl who had a really beautiful gift of prayer and blessed us with her beautiful phrasings and empathy. I asked the group leader if they had ever had any trouble with the authorities for meeting, and she said there was one time that a security guard knocked on their door during small group and wouldn’t go away, and he said, “I know that you are Christian,” and some of the girls began to cry. But then he said, “I know because I’m Christian too.” Then he went away. That was the only time they felt threatened, but they practiced caution by mostly keeping locals and foreigners apart (at least not inviting obviously foreign people to the group) and not revealing the location of the meeting place on social networks.
Inspired by my new friend, I decided I would try asking Chinese people if they had ever heard the gospel, and give them a succinct summary and see what they thought. When I started doing this, a strange thing happened – I suddenly had a very open and appreciative audience for the gospel, which I had seriously never experienced before.
Talking to young Chinese people about Jesus is actually incredibly easy. They mostly haven’t heard much about him. Most people in Singapore, Australia and America have heard some version of the gospel (or think they have). Most Chinese my age haven’t. So they are genuinely curious to hear something they have never heard before. This is a pleasant change from facing cynicism or skepticism because of the “inoculation” a supposedly “Christian” culture gives Australians to the gospel, for example.
Very curious about young Chinese people’s attitudes towards morality and where they get their morality from, I asked my Chinese friends where they got their moral values from, expecting to hear they got them from family or traditions. Mostly they would dismiss their party education as hollow propaganda, as well as Confucian stories as ridiculously exaggerated, and say that economists like Hayek formed their moral views, and they placed a high premium on science and logic. This was a really interesting insight, and made me realize that Christianity is one of many ideas that young Chinese may consider, if they encounter it, to feed their spiritual and intellectual hunger, and many encountering it for the first time are drawn to its message.
I think that Christianity also has a certain currency among the Chinese because they perceive it as a “Western” idea, which people still very much look towards – a huge and growing number of Chinese want to be educated in America or Europe, for example. This is particularly true for the young, urban, university-educated crowd.
The vacuum that Communist ideology left is drawing increasing numbers of young Chinese to religion. I met one girl who became a Christian because she decided she needed to have a faith, and wandered into a church one day and started attending its services. There is barely seating space in any of the churches I have been to, official or unofficial, and usually I have to go early to ensure I get a seat.
So, did I find the Christianity I had sought in China? In a way, I did. I found a church still very much animated by its first love for Christ, and it is heartening to go to church and have new people coming in large numbers every week. However, it is not Christianity without problems. I think it is Christianity at a very particular stage – a stage at which the “fields are white with the harvest”. We are at a particular stage in China’s history and culture where people are very receptive to the gospel. This does not make Chinese Christianity “superior” to Western Christianity, just at a different stage of evolution.
Certainly it means that we should rejoice with the Chinese church as more and more are baptized and as the church grows. But we should also pray for the church as it faces all the problems that rapidly growing congregations face, and we should also pray for the Chinese authorities that they will be wise and tolerant of the church, both official and unofficial, and see it as a good development for Chinese society as a whole that many are converting to Christianity. I hope to touch on some of the problems of the Chinese church in my next post.
Judith Huang ’10 was an English concentrator in Currier House and now works as an editor at a newspaper in Beijing.