The Church in China: Perspectives on the Future

Mick Turner

I walked slowly down the steep hillside that overlooked the Taiwan Straits. Located just off shore from Mainland China, Nan Ao Island is a singular place of beauty. As I sat on a large boulder I could sense something very special about this place. Maybe it was what the Celts called a “thin spot,” one of the unique locales where the seen and the unseen worlds intersect. I sat there for over an hour, alternating times of prayer with times of silence; times of conversing with God and times of just being still and sensing the wind against my face. At such a time it was very easy for me to understand why, in so many languages, the words for wind, breath, and spirit are the same.

 

I suspect it is only fitting that this place would be a thin spot, which separates one reality from the next. In our physical world it does the same thing in many ways. This narrow body of water is like a membrane between two worlds, the one on Taiwan and the other on the Mainland. In one world Christians are free to practice their faith without fear of government repercussions; in the other, although things are much more open than in the past, there is still the chance of persecution and incarceration.

 

As regular readers of this site may recall, I spent five-plus years working as a tent-maker missionary in China. These years were without a doubt the most rewarding and fulfilling years of my life on just about every level. Always fascinated by China and its 5,000 year old culture, these years gave me the opportunity to experience first hand many of the remarkable changes that are taking place. In addition, it also gave me a chance to be a witness for the Lord through my interactions with the many Chinese friends I made during my years there.

 

One of the most obvious things I observed was just how spiritually hungry the Chinese people are. With the collapse of the Marxist and Maoist world view and the transition to a market economy, many Chinese are searching for something to hold on to, something that will not only give their life a sense of meaning and purpose, but also, something that will give them a sense of traction in a society that is literally changing from one day to the next. I think it is this very spiritual hunger that is fueling the phenomenal growth of the Protestant Church in China.

 

Here in the West we have heard about this rapid growth of Christianity in China and we welcome it. It is highly correct that we do so and we should do all that we can to enable that growth to continue, whether it be by financial support, going on our own missions, or engaging in consistent prayer for this vital church body. What is even more important is that believers in the West come to understand the potential significance of what is happening with the church in China. Events unfolding now in the Middle Kingdom, especially in regards to the growth of the church, will without a doubt have an impact on the world at large during the 21st Century. Whether this impact is of a positive nature or a negative character remains to be seen. What is certain is the fact that the church, in spite of decades of severe persecution, has grown dramatically.

 

Efforts at ascertaining an accurate number of professing Christians in China are wrought with difficulty. This is due in large part to the reluctance on the part of many true believers to publicly identify themselves as such. And, with the horrid history of severe persecution, who can blame them? Further, the numbers proffered by the government cannot be trusted as they normally include only statistics from the officially sanction Three Self Patriotic Movement churches. Independent researchers come up with varying figures as well. Keeping all this in mind, the most reliable counts put the number of Christians in China at somewhere between 80 and 110 million.

 

A recent report by the National Catholic Reporter’s veteran writer John Allen stated that 10,000 Chinese become Christian every day. If this figure can be trusted, and other researchers affirm that it can, this would mean that by mid-century there will be at least 200 million Christians in China. It boggles the mind and the ramifications are tremendous. Whereas for centuries the Christian faith has been a largely western phenomenon, in just a couple of generations, Christianity may well be “Sino-centric.”

 

Research into the makeup of the Chinese church is also somewhat difficult for the same reasons that accurate numbers are hard to collect. Still, several trends are readily discerned. First, the growth rate in the church is increasingly occurring among the nation’s intellectuals and on its university campuses. This is a significant trend in that it is these very people who will increasingly occupy leadership roles within the apparatus of the state. The more Christians occupying positions of influence, the more these believers may be able to guide the direction of the country.

 

Interestingly, the Chinese Church, especially in the house churches, is overwhelmingly Pentecostal. Some studies report that as many as 95 percent of believers in the non-official church bodies are Pentecostal and/or charismatic in their expressions of faith, including speaking in tongues, signs and wonders, emphasis on healing.

 

The Pentecostal makeup of the church is fascinating, considering what was just said about the fact that the church’s most rapid growth is coming in intellectual and university settings. In America, in the immediate aftermath of the Asuza Street outpouring, the early Pentecostal movement grew rapidly among the lower classes and, to a large extent, uneducated people. It would seem that whatever the Holy Spirit is doing in China, it is of a different flavor that its American counterpart.

 

/to be continued/

 

© L.D. Turner 2008/All Rights Reserved

 

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