Uncomfortably Godly

A house church in China was once expelled from the apartment it was renting. The police told their landlord that he would be fined if he didn’t stop renting to the church. Because of this threat, no one else was willing to risk renting to the church.

Rather than disbanding, the church began meeting underneath a highway underpass. The government left the church alone as winter had come, and such open-air meetings would be short-lived. To everyone’s surprise, the services were not shortened, and the church continued to meet throughout the entire winter.

God did not send these brothers and sisters a mild winter. The weather was bitterly cold Sunday after Sunday. Although they were eventually able to find a place to rent, God did not provide them a place to meet until after the winter was over. Rather than sending this church relief, God instead gave them the strength to endure the winter.

Some time later, the same police were preventing a cult group from meeting. The cult leaders complained to the police because they were now leaving the house church alone and “even let them worship in public for a time.” The police reminded the cult leaders of the temperatures that winter and said, “We know their faith is real.”

God does not promise believers a life of comfort. God sometimes allows His people to endure hardship in order to mold them into the image of His Son and to hold them up for the lost world to see. God may bring hard times to show his power in delivering us, but we must always be prepared to be uncomfortably godly.

The World Saw You Celebrate

Back in 2008, a Chinese church did a series of man-on-the-street interviews asking “What is Christmas?” and “Who is Jesus?” The resulting five-minute video is worth taking a look.

If you went to any mall in the US three weeks ago and asked “What does Christmas mean for you?”, I think the answers given would convince you that the Chinese pretty much understand Christmas as it is celebrated in the West. The world sees what we do, not what we say we believe.

The world was watching this holiday season, and I’m not so sure they have stopped looking yet.

ZGBriefs Newsletter

One of the best ways I’ve found to stay up-to-date on China is to subscribe to the ZGBriefs Newsletter. The service is free (though they do periodically request donations), and you will receive a weekly email with condensed news stories and articles on China along with links to the stories/article themselves. You can sign up at www.zgbriefs.com.

In case you were wondering, the “ZG” in ZGBriefs is short for “Zhongguo” (中国), which is Chinese for “China.”

Homeschooling in China

While a number of expatriates in China home school their children, Chinese law forbids Chinese citizens from opting their children out of public education. However, this video shows that a home school movement is growing in China despite legal obstacles.

Three Unpleasant Realities About the Church in China

American Christians tend to adopt a romanticized view of the Church in China. While we should be excited and encouraged by what God is doing in China, three common misconceptions often obscure a realistic assessment of the state of Christianity in China.

1. Chinese Christians Do Not Number 100 Million Strong

Some estimates place the number of Chinese Christians as high as 130 million, with many more placing the number around 100 million. These numbers become the basis for projections that their will be 200+ million Chinese Christians by mid-century and claims that within several decades Christians in China will outnumber Christians in America (Aikman). Some projections even suggest that China will contain more than half of all Protestant Christians in the world by the end of the 21st century.

Such estimates are simply inaccurate. At best they are grossly inflated due to poor census techniques (see Tony Lambert, “Counting Christians in China: A Cautionary Report,” IBMR 27.1 [Jan 2003]: 6-10). At worst they represent wild guesses. More realistic estimates place the number in the ballpark of 70 million. The Pew Forum estimates that there are approximately 67 million Christians in China. The CIA World Factbook estimates the number to be slightly less than the Pew Forum does, and other conservative estimates range as high as around 75 million.

When people challenge the 100+ million figures, they often get a response that calls their commitment to evangelism into question. One missionary in China put it this way,

By the way, doubting there’s over 130 million believers in China can make you missiological persona non grata. Never understood that – how does disbelieving in the existence of some Christians somewhere that there’s no evidence for mean you’re against Christians? I wish they were there, too – I also wish there was a pot of gold in my armoire.

We should definitely be encouraged at the many millions trusting Christ in China. However, embracing overblown statistics hardly proves a commitment to world evangelism. On the contrary, overestimating the number of Christians in China can blind us to China’s continuing need for the gospel.

2. Not All Professing Chinese Christians Are Genuine Believers

Whenever you deflate perceptions of the overall number of Christians in China, someone invariably concludes something to the effect: “Well, it doesn’t really matter how many millions of Chinese Christians there are. The important thing is that there are millions of Christians in China, and all their Christians are genuine, unlike in the United States.”

Indeed, it does make sense to assume that people who come to Christ in the midst of persecution would all be genuine converts. However, this is simply not the case. Chinese churches see false professions, and contrary to popular opinion, the problem is not limited to government agents trying to infiltrate the churches. In a review of Liao Yiwu’s God is Red, Jared Compton, a professor at Detroit Baptist Theological Seminary, writes:

Liao’s account also raises a troubling idea. The book is slightly unsettling, in an unexpected sort of way. Liao includes a handful of conversion narratives that sound—I’m not sure how else to say it—rather shallow. One man, e.g., summarizes his experience this way: “I felt inspired by God and was baptized.” Another, a then-barren women, tells how she stumbled upon Isa 54:1, was moved by its apparent relevance to her life, and, therefore, decided to go to a local church and say a “commitment prayer.” Mercifully, not all were like this, but enough were that I was left discouraged. I’ll admit, I want every single one of those 75 million Christians presently in China to be genuine believers. I’m looking for a simple storyline: Christianity has exploded in China despite Mao’s efforts. Period. What am I to do with this other storyline, this apparently conflicting subplot? Thinking about all this immediately brought to mind a pointed question Philip Jenkins once asked in a similar setting: how can Christians who are willing to face suffering and death be shallow?

The theological answer is that Satan sows tares in China just like anywhere else. Culturally, this phenomenon might be explained in terms of Christianity being altered to meet religious expectations in China’s very superstitious rural areas. Furthermore, unless someone has a promising career, decides to become a house church leader, or joins a church that likes to pull stunts to garner Western sympathy, it is highly unlikely that an average church member in China would suffer persecution, at least not directly. In any case, we need to pray for the many Chinese who are trusting false gospels.

3. The Doctrinal Positions Held by Chinese Christians Vary Widely and Are Neither Identical to Your Own Nor Arrived Upon by an Unaffected Reading of the Bible

This last point is a mouthful, but it expresses the three things Americans need to get about the doctrines taught in Chinese house churches. (1) Chinese Christians have significant disagreements with one another concerning doctrinal issues. (2) Chinese Christians hold doctrinal positions that probably diverge significantly from your own. (3) Chinese Christians did not arrive to their doctrinal conclusions in a vacuum based entirely on an unaffected reading of Scripture.

First, many (especially Chinese) descriptions of Christianity in China like to use the term “post-denominational” to indicate that Chinese Christians are not divided by doctrinal differences like their Western counterparts. While it is true that Chinese house churches do not have denominational labels to mark their collections of beliefs, each network does have distinctive doctrinal beliefs, traditions, and differences. We shouldn’t mistake this lack of vocabulary to indicate that doctrinal disagreement and debate are absent.

Second, it seems as though most Christian groups in America assume that Chinese house churches not only hold to a uniform doctrinal position but that they also hold a position identical (with perhaps one or two minor exceptions) as themselves. Thus the beliefs of Chinese Christians constantly get characterized in ways that at least boarder on misrepresentation. The likely motivation behind this is my final point.

Third, Americans need to stop thinking of the church in China as the ecclesiastical equivalent to the literary concept of the noble savage. The Chinese church did not arrive at their present doctrinal positions without any outside influence. While it is attractive to think of a group of Christians somewhere deriving a pure expression of Christian doctrine based solely upon an unbiased reading of Scripture (especially if they more or less agree with your admittedly biased interpretations), this simply is not an accurate explanation of what happened in China.

The story of Christianity in China is truly remarkable. American Christians should be inspired and encouraged by God’s surprising providence in this unlikely location. However, we must take care to neither sensationalize nor weaponize this story. The story is already amazing; we don’t need to exaggerate. The story is about what God is doing in China; let’s not make it all about us. As we recognize unpleasant realities about the church in China, we should be driven in prayer to God who has perhaps not finished His work in China.

Bribery and the Church in China

A number of Christian ministries in China consistently pay bribes to have local officials look the other way. This practice is widespread enough that some have suggested that missionaries to China must look past their ethical qualms and embrace this practice out of sheer necessity. Aside from the obvious objections to the pragmatism of this approach, a recent secular blog post has cast doubt on the effectiveness of bribes in China.

The post was written by a businessman and argues,

All of the foreigners I know who have given bribes have done so at the advice of their Chinese partners of staff.  Most of the foreigners I know continue to believe that bribes have helped them get more done more quickly in a corrupt system.  However, it’s clear from talking to them and comparing their experiences to the “clean living” lifestyle practiced both by me and a small handful of other foreign businesspeople I know that they are not only not gaining an advantage from bribing but are possibly setting themselves up for a pattern of repeat extortion.

The author does note that bribery is common in China, but he suggests that foreigners should consider playing by different rules.

Of the Chinese businesspeople I know who have specifically told me about situations where they have given expensive gifts it sometimes works to their benefit and sometimes has no obvious result.  However, unlike foreigners doing business in China, they are working from within a system that they grew up in.  One presumes that they know whose palm to grease and how to do it.  That or they only tell stories about the times that it worked.

In the case of the church in China, we should be slow to condemn the actions of house churches that use bribes to provide safety in the midst of religious persecution. However, western missionaries should also take careful thought before they adopt the practice.

Attorney Dan Harris rightly identifies pride as the driving motivation making Westerners willing to pay bribes. He writes, “I am convinced that there are companies that almost want to pay bribes so they can act like they ‘really know the system’…. I am not saying that all companies can function in China without paying a bribe at some point, but I am saying that most foreign companies can and do function in China just fine without ever paying a bribe.” Perhaps the same is true for Christian ministries in China.

Getting Married, Having Children, and Growing Up

My wife and I recently watched a documentary on China’s economic rise as a superpower. The documentary identified one interesting contributing factor. Chinese individuals are delaying marriage, and after marriage couples are delaying childbirth.

This cultural shift unquestionably springs from China’s one child policy. If you knew that you could only have one child, it makes perfect sense to extend adolescence, delay marriage, and wait towards the end of your fertile years to have your one child. This happened all across China, and to the government’s alarm, the birth rate has plummeted faster than anyone anticipated.

The government has partially rescinded the policy so that virtually every Chinese couple can now have at least two children. However, while cultures can change with astonishing speed, they tend to resist manipulation. China’s current generation does not want to have more than one child and has chosen a lifestyle that makes multiple children families impracticable.

In the West, this lifestyle is hardly foreign. Without any sort of looming government mandate, individuals have waited past their twenties for marriage and well into their thirties for children. This practice offers the hope for unparalleled self-actualization but comes at the risk of never actually growing up.

One important part of adulthood is the capacity to deny one’s self. Children behave erratically in part because they constantly chase after whatever they think will bring them the most pleasure. They must learn to deny themselves so that they can do more important things. They need to grow up.

Nothing teaches self-denial quite as effectively as marriage and children. Nobody wants to yield to somebody else. Nobody wants to please somebody else at the cost of his or her own hobbies and interests. Nobody wants to get up at 2am to tend to a screaming child. Nobody wants to think about what is best for another 24/7.

Somewhere along the line, however, most spouses and parents learn that relatively few of their wants comprise the most important things in life. They become adept at foregoing their own desires and consequently become adults. Perhaps the childishness that marks self-indulgent cultures is largely a byproduct of their tendency to delay marriage and childbirth. Interestingly, the long interval between birth and parenthood is one of the few details Moses records about the culture of the world that perished. Growing up must take priority over self-fulfillment. Can anyone really experience a full life without ever truly becoming an adult? We need to aspire to more than being amused children.

News Roundup

I came across three interesting news stories over the past few days. None of them quite merited an individual post, so here’s a quick roundup.

You Are Not Special

Last week, David McCullough Jr. delivered perhaps the best graduation address of this year. The text of this address was published by the Boston Herald.

Bible Trivia Game Show

The Game Show Network announced a new Bible trivia show to be aired this summer. The show, “American Bible Challenge,” will be hosted by Jeff Foxworthy (a self-proclaimed redneck and current host of “Are You Smarter than a Fifth Grader?”).

Chinese Driving Stunt

In Chongqing, China, a driver decided to pull a stunt on a highway overpass.

Remember How We Remember

On this Memorial Day, most Americans will hear calls to remember those who served in the military and many will engage in acts to honor veterans. The holiday was originally know as “decoration day,” a day set apart to honor the graves of soldiers who died in the Civil War. This tradition is carried on today by many Americans who will place flags and flowers on the graves of veterans.

I heartily endorse decorating the tombs of veterans on days like today. It is how our culture shows respect for the dead. However, please remember how we remember. Christians are often blind to their own cultures and harshly judge the cultures of others.

Could you imagine a Christian approaching a family who lost their son in Afghanistan and rebuking them for placing flowers at his grave on Memorial Day? Sounds unbelievable? It happens every year on the mission field.

Every April, China celebrates the Qingming Festival (清明节). This holiday, also known as “tomb sweeping day,” is celebrated by taking flowers and food to one’s ancestors’ graves. While celebrations can include Buddhist rituals such as burning paper money and objects, the holiday is celebrated by the entire culture and need not include these elements.

The Qingming Festival is the only day out of the year that Chinese visit graveyards. They do not visit graves on birthdays or special anniversaries. If Chinese people wish to show respect for the deceased, the Qingming Festival is when they do it.

American missionaries often get hung up on the fact that Chinese leave food or other objects for their dead and condemn the entire holiday as a pagan practice. However, we leave flowers on graves and bury our dead in nice clothes, often with jewelry and other objects. The concept is pretty much the same. Note that in China, cremation is the norm; they have to leave objects on the graves to honor the dead in that way. Unless you’re going to argue that Americans should not decorate their graves or be buried with favorite objects (a pastor with his Bible or a soldier with his medals), then one must be cautious about critiquing this custom. There’s an old joke that goes like this:

An American and a Chinese visit a cemetery, the American puts flowers by a grave and the Chinese puts food near one. “When is your dead one going to come up to eat the food?” asks the American. “When yours comes up to smell the flowers,” replies the Chinese.

Let us honor our dead today, but let us also remember that we are employing one of our culture’s extra-biblical forms of expression. Mixed with our expressions today will be many prayers to false gods. We do not reject Memorial Day because unbelievers observe it, and we shouldn’t condemn holidays like the Qingming Festival for the same reason. Please remember how we remember before condemning how others remember.

Is China the New Crete?

China is facing another product safety scandal. By now everyone has lost count of how many this makes. Joel Brinkley, in an article titled “A Culture of Cheaters Grows in China,” reports a recent finding that Chinese pill manufacturers were deliberately using a known carcinogen in their capsules. Apparently, the companies decided it was more profitable to use a cheaper industrial gelatin normally used for glue.

This news comes about a year after after China’s “leather milk” scandal. Companies were diluting their milk with water and then adding toxic leather-waste byproducts to pass the government’s protein-content tests. Another milk scandal caused infants to grow breasts, and still others have left children dead. Such instances lead Brinkley to conclude,

China…has grown to be an industrial power in only one generation. And it hasn’t yet set up an effective regulatory structure to police its manufacturers. That certainly plays a part. But there’s another, institutional problem:

China is a nation of cheaters!

No, it’s not my intention to besmirch 1.35 billion Chinese. Certainly, many do try to be honest — even if it puts them at a disadvantage. But the state holds so many selfish, deceitful people that they have given the entire country an ugly reputation.

Two thousand years ago, the Apostle Paul condemned the culture of Crete by quoting a Cretan philosopher (probably Epimenides) who said,

“Cretans are always liars, evil beasts, lazy gluttons.” (Titus 1:12)

Liars

Crete was known for its deceptive population. Koine Greek even had verb “to crete-ize” (κρητίζω) that meant “to lie” or “to cheat.”

Evil Beasts

Crete was know for its ruthless population. The island of Crete famously lacked wild animals (Pliny, Natural History 8.83; Plutarch, Moralia 86C). By calling Cretans “evil beasts,” the description implies that the island had natural predators of the human sort.

Lazy Gluttons

Crete was know for its gross materialism. The term “lazy gluttons” probably speaks more to excessive self-indulgence than inactivity since the Cretans also had a reputation as pirates and mercenaries. Towner notes, “The phrase complements the sorts of things Polybius and other ancients said about the excessive and uncontrollable appetites of Cretans, who exercised no trace of self control, gentleness, or uprightness, and who would do anything to turn a profit” (The Letters to Timothy and Titus 702).

Christianity and Cretan Culture

The Cretans were lying ruthless materialists. Their culture sounds like modern-day China. Since this description of Crete comes right after instructions for selecting Cretan pastors on the basis of positive character qualities, Paul obviously did not assume that all Cretans lived up to their culture’s reputation, and we should likewise not judge Chinese individuals by their culture. However, China’s Cretan characteristics have become engrained in Chinese culture. Paul provides three biblical principles for ministry in Cretan cultures.

The Chinese Church Needs Seriously Prepared Leaders

Who did Paul send to Crete? He sent one of his closest ministry partners (2 Cor 8:23). Titus was well trained to enter a difficult ministry and cultural situation. Apparently, Titus was to pass his training and experience along to the local leadership (Titus 1:5; 3:14). Seriously sinful cultures need seriously prepared Christian leaders. Western Christianity should send its best pastors/teachers/resources to help equip China’s Christian leaders.

The Chinese Church Needs Seriously Qualified Leaders

After a brief greeting, Paul immediately turns his attention to the qualities necessary for church leaders (Titus 1:5-9). These qualities should stand in stark contrast to the sinful culture surrounding the church. News of the culture’s sinfulness should constantly remind Christian leaders to guard their spiritual qualifications and drive the church to pray that their leaders would have grace to endure temptation.

The Chinese Church Needs Seriously Confrontational Leaders

The church must be prepared to critique and condemn its surrounding culture. Leaders must confront false doctrine arising from the culture (Titus 1:10-16) and teach the church to pursue godly lives in their fallen cultures (2:1-3:11). China’s Christian leaders must “speak, and exhort, and rebuke with all authority” (2:15).