If you are a regular reader of this blog you are aware that I have a deep and abiding love for China, its people, and especially its church. I lived and worked in China for almost six years as a tent maker missionary and, as I have said before on these pages, these were the most rewarding years of my life on both a professional and a spiritual level. Moreover, my wife is Chinese and a Christian and through our years of marriage I have deepened my understanding of her homeland and its people.
As the 2008 Olympics rapidly approach, I have been thinking and praying about this fascinating country and thought I might share with you a bit about a book that explores the Church in China and the ramifications of its rapid growth. The book is by David Aikman and entitled, Jesus in Beijing. Aikman was Beijing Bureau Chief for Time Magazine for many years and has a unique perspective on the social and religious changes taking place in China as it transitions into a market economy. The book is highly informative, readable, and cuts to the chase as far as some of the main issues surrounding the church in contemporary China.
Based on the current growth figures, the book makes several thought-provoking statements early on. For example, consider this perspective:
Within the next thirty years, one-third of China’s population could be Christian, making China one of the largest Christian nations in the world. These Christians could also be China’s leaders, guiding the largest economy in the world…..What is happening in China is what happened in the Roman Empire nearly two millennia ago – a great power transforming itself. The results could be astonishing.
Indeed, the results could be quite astonishing. Is Aikman guilty of being overly-optimistic in his assessment of the potential influence of Christianity in China? Perhaps he is, at least in certain areas. Overall, however, I think his statements ring true in a number of ways. For example, Aikman discusses an important meeting that took place between a group of 18 American tourist and several key Chinese economists and sociologists. In particular, Aikman mentions a lecture attended by this group of tourist. During the lecture, the Chinese speaker said the following:
“One of the things we were asked to look into was what accounted for the success, in fact, the pre-eminence of the West all over the world,” said the lecturer. “We studied everything we could from the historical, political, economic, and cultural perspective. At first, we thought it was because you had more powerful guns than we had. Then we thought it was because you had the best political system. Next we focused on your economic system. But in the past twenty years, we have realized that the heart of your culture is your religion: Christianity. That is why the West has been so powerful. The Christian moral foundation of social and cultural life is what made possible the emergence of capitalism and then the successful transition to democratic politics. We don’t have any doubt about this.”
Standing alone, that statement itself should blow your socks off. Even more asounding, however, is the source. This was not some hard line evangelical Christian preacher from America speaking; it was not a pastor of the official Three Self Patriotic Movement or even a renegade house church organizer. The person speaking was a well-respected scholar from one of China’s most prestigious academic research institutes, the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS) in Beijing. Although always seeking to expand the arena of social science research in China, Aikman accurately points out that CASS is “hardly a viper’s nest of liberal dissent” in China. In fact, I had several dealings with CASS during my stay in China and found the scholars there to be cordial, helpful, but quite conservative.
The lecture, which took place in 2002, was delivered by a man who spoke excellent English, was quite knowledgeable about both Chinese and American history, and is representative of a growing number of highly educated academic elite in China who are becoming enamored with Christian thought in general and Christian morality in particular.
During my years in China, I noticed that many of my students were spiritual hungry and seeking answers to life’s important questions. Since the collapse of credibility in Maoist-Marxist teachings, more and more thoughtful people in China are turning to religion for answers. Many return to their family roots in Buddhism or Daoism. Large numbers are exploring other religious traditions, many of the New Age variety. The overwhelming majority of these spiritually famished seekers, however, are finding both hope and truth in Christianity.
It will be vitally important for Western Christians to keep abreast of the growth and progress of the Church in China. By sheer numbers alone, the Chinese Church will help forge to future directions of the global church. It is equally important that Christians in the West learn as much as possible about the Chinese Church, its history, its cultural underpinnings, and its ongoing relationship with the government. China as a nation is going to play a major role in the unfolding of history in the 21st Century and beyond. The Chinese Church will also play a significant role in the unfolding of Christian history as well. With these thoughts in mind, let us do all that we can to become better educated about this ever-growing circle of brothers and sisters all across China. A good place to begin is Aikman’s book.
And above all, lets remember to keep these consecrated and committed people in our prayers. They face, on a daily basis, challenges that we in the West never imagined.