(For more than three weeks in September, I lived and traveled in Taiwan, where I spoke with more than three dozen taxi drivers and an equal number of Protestant Christians, including both missionaries and Taiwanese. The following report summarizes what I saw and heard. This was my twentieth visit to Taiwan since my wife and I lived there for almost ten years during the period 1976-1988.)
“Aside from the main denominations, and especially the Taiwan Presbyterian Church, the Protestant churches in Taiwan are vibrant and growing,” said my missionary host at lunch in his apartment.
“In particular, the smaller local churches, which are now being helped by larger urban congregations, seem to be filled with energy and zeal,” he continued.
This American couple, who have been on the island for twenty years or so, have already planted four churches, one in the south and three in Taipei. From the beginning, they emphasized a few basics: Meeting in homes; telling the Bible story in discrete modules that can be easily learned and repeated; training men to be elders and deacons; and mobilizing everyone in the congregation.
“We didn’t know what we were doing,” the doctor-husband said, “so we just followed the only model we had: the Scriptures. Where, for example, do you find either a dominant pastor or a building-based church in the New Testament?” These seemed to be good questions.
“What we see around us comes from centuries of tradition, not from the Bible itself,” he went on, warming to his theme. “We have discovered that doing things in a biblical way really works.” I thought, four self-supporting, self-governing, self-propagating churches in less than ten years are a pretty strong argument for his case.
In the course of three weeks, I heard a number of stories about how God has transformed people who believe in Christ. One former gang leader, whose arms and face bear the marks of many fights, has become the leader of a church my missionary friends started. His, shall we say, colorful, past enables him to connect quickly with the pimps, prostitutes, drug addicts, and other cast-offs of society in the Wan Hua District of Taipei.
Drunks have been set free from alcohol, and addicts from drugs. Less dramatic, but no less powerful, are the narratives of those who have found peace and joy after spending years worshiping many gods in the main temple in Wan Hua. Respectable people, like the doctor in whose home I stayed one night, have likewise found peace and joy and love. He and all but one member of his family worship and serve in the local church.
Children influence parents, even in this hierarchical society. One rebellious high school boy was sent to the United States to get him away from the bad crowd with which he was running. He attended a Christian school, met Christians (Including my wife and me), and was converted to Christ. Returning to Taiwan on vacation, he shared his new faith with his parents, and took them to the church he was attending. They were also transformed, and now attend church and a small group regularly.
Even younger children can have an impact on their elders. A pastor’s wife told me how she and others in their church offer after-school help with homework for elementary school children. The kids are invited to Sunday school also, as are their parents, who are visited by people from the church. A few families have started coming as a result.
Perhaps to an extant not often seen in America, Christians in Taiwan tend to share their faith with their non-believing family members, friends, neighbors, and co-workers. You frequently hear of them inviting people to church or to evangelistic meetings, some of which can be huge.
A college professor who took one of my intensive seminary courses a few years ago shared the gospel with other faculty members and invited them to their Christian faculty fellowship meeting. The chairman of the department now comes to the weekly gatherings. When they took me out to lunch in a restaurant a while ago, the chairman came a bit late. As she entered the room, my friend said, “She’s almost a Christian!” The chairman smiled and said how much she enjoyed reading my books.
That night, at another restaurant, several members of the church were gathered to meet with me. The physician in whose home I was staying has four daughters, all of them musical. The youngest of them, who had just come from a voice lesson, was urged to sing for us. At the end of the meal, she stood up by the door and proceeded to sing a lovely song, “I will pray for you every day,” as the other diners politely listened. You can do that sort of thing here. Though she has a beautiful voice, my own impression was that her sweet smile and joyful demeanor probably made an even deeper impact.
The wife of a man who had studied in Charlottesville told me how she and other Christian women go to public schools and tell Bible stories to the pupils. They are careful not to be pushy or talk too much about Jesus, but the content and source of their stories are clear for all to see.
The pastor of a medium-sized church has made media personalities the focus of his evangelistic efforts. After they are baptized, he teaches them how to communicate their faith through their music and other skills. Their testimony attracts young people as well as older folks, and leads to the conversion of other well-known performers and artists.
When all the efforts of their social workers failed to effect lasting change in a public housing district, the government invited a large church to send a team of Christian social workers, physicians, and teachers to help out. Lives are being changed and “hopeless” cases rescued, so the evangelism that lies at the heart of the church’s activities goes unhindered by the grateful authorities.
Christian churches have united with other religious groups to oppose the proposed law to legalize same-sex marriages and to penalize all criticism of homosexual behavior.
“Do you know any Christians?” I asked the taxi driver, as I almost always do.
“Yes, my wife is a Christian.”
“What church does she attend?”
“The big one in Xindian, where Pastor Zhang Maosheng preaches. It’s the Xun Dao Hui.”
Another driver a few days previously had also referred to this church, which some of his friends attend. When I asked what led these people to believe in Christ, he said, “When they were sick, they prayed to Jesus, and he healed them. And when they needed a job, he gave them one after they asked him. It’s just like what we do when we go to the temple.”
From my host in Taipei, I learned more about the church in Xindian.
“The pastor teaches them that if they give more to the church, God will bless them with added income. If you pray for healing and don’t receive it, the problem lies with your faith.”
One of the most popular theologically-alert teachers in Taiwan said, “It’s nothing new, just human nature in a new package. There is no theology, no God, just people trying to get what they want. When it crashes – as it will, both here and in America – it will leave a huge hole. I am afraid of what might come in to fill it.”
Several other taxi drivers said, “It’s all about having inner peace. It doesn’t really matter which god you trust. All religions are the same: They urge us to do good.”
Actually, if what I have observed and heard here before is correct, this concept may come from the Christians themselves. Though they would all say that you have to believe in Jesus to have eternal life, most church teaching focuses on ethics. That is, the sermons deal largely with what we should do for God, rather than with what God has done for us in Christ, and will continue to do in us daily if we turn to him in faith. In theological terms, it’s more about our works than God’s grace.
“It’s a form of ‘Christianized’ Confucianism,” one missionary told me. Rarely do you hear the gospel in the churches, other than at evangelistic meetings. For the average believer, being a Christian mostly means trying to be a good person. All they hear is ‘Read the Bible more! Pray more! Serve more in the church! Evangelize more!’ “
In other words, the preaching is man-centered, rather than Christ centered.
The wife of a deacon in a large church known for its commitment to exposition of the Bible put it this way: “They tell us how to live, but they don’t tell us how to find the energy to live as followers of Christ. The preaching seems thin and shallow to me.”
A missionary here referred to Christian Smith’s description of American Christianity as “therapeutic, moralistic deism,” and said that those words apply to Christianity in Taiwan.
Taiwan Presbyterian Church
With a history of 150 years, the Taiwan Presbyterian Church is the largest Protestant Christian organization in Taiwan. I have been keen to find out how this large denomination is perceived by both Christians and others.
While in Taiwan, I encountered several members of the Taiwan Presbyterian Church (TPC) who were obviously sincere followers of Christ. The story they told, however, was not pretty. One very large congregation in Tainan is rent by strife between the Mandarin and Taiwanese sections, whose sharply conflicting political convictions have spawned personal alienation, the fallout from which now manifests itself in public enmity and contention.
Indeed, political seems to be the operative word describing the TPC in general. With some happy individual exceptions, faculty at the two major seminaries seem intent upon inculcating not only relatively liberal biblical interpretation but also liberation theology. For several decades now, many have wondered whether the TPC is merely a lackey for the Democratic People’s Party, whose legislators recently physically prevented the ruling party spokesman from making the mandatory report in the National Assembly.
Another term I heard often was “traditional.” Generations of Presbyterians have faithfully attended church, but not always with a true experience of the grace of God. One woman, who is married to a leader in another church, stoutly maintains her belief in all the tenets of the faith while at the same time heaping criticism and even invective upon all of whom she disapproves, notably her husband and children. Her service in the church seems to her children to issue more from habit and drivenness than by a heartfelt response to God’s love. Over and over again, I was told about some family member or friend who goes to the TPC merely because of family tradition.
One prominent seminary professor claims that the situation of the church in Taiwan is “terrible.” The main problem is that the pastors are not feeding their flocks with the Word of God, he says. The Eastern Lightning cult has made inroads as a result.
His voice rose as he declared, “Ninety-nine percent of the preaching is awful! The preachers are not preparing their sermons well. The leading seminaries are currying the favor of pastors of big churches and posting articles that have no real biblical or theological basis.” After hearing him read excerpts from sermons and articles by outstanding pastors, I could see why he was so upset. One Christian university professor told him that the sermons in his church were basically junk – shallow, sloppy, and Scripturally weak. He goes on Sunday essentially just to “report to God.”
Theological Interest and Maturity
The occasion for this trip to Taiwan was an invitation to deliver four lectures for the Lit-sen Chang (Zhang Lisheng) Theological Lecture series, which was co-sponsored by Holy Light Theological Seminary and Dr. Zhang Changji, the eldest son of Zhang Lisheng. First in Taipei, and then in Kaohsiung, I spoke to a total of two hundred seminary students and faculty. Despite the difficulty and complexity of Zhang’s thought, not to mention my limited ability to represent him adequately in Chinese, the audiences listened attentively and asked pertinent, even penetrating, questions.
The lectures, which will be posted later on our web sites, introduced two books originally composed by Zhang in English (Strategy for Missions in the Orient and Zen-Existentialism: The Spiritual Decline of the West) and his Critique of Indigenous Theology, which I translated as part the volume Wise Man from the East: Lit - sen Chang. The last lecture compared him with Carl F.H. Henry.
Clearly, commitment to solid Christian theology is not dead in Taiwan. Conversations with several faculty members of the seminary revealed them to be men of sound scholarship, orthodox beliefs, and sincere piety. A few days later I ran into a student outside the library of China Evangelical Seminary, where I taught Greek in the 1980s. Supposing me to be a teacher, he asked me whether I could help him figure out how to make the move from Greek exegesis to clear expository preaching. I began to answer, using the first chapter of Paul’s letter to the Ephesians as an example.
“Oh,” he said excitedly, “may I show you my own preliminary grammatical analysis of that passage and how I propose to build my sermon outline on it?”
When I saw the work he had done, I said, “You have gotten it right! You can preach from that outline!” He was encouraged, but I was thrilled to see a budding preacher who had so firmly grasped the essentials of expository preaching and the message of grace which shines so brilliantly in the opening verses of the epistle.
As noted earlier, larger churches in Taiwan have begun to lend a hand to small, struggling ones, both in the metropolitan areas and in the country towns where Christianity is still trying just to survive in a sea of traditional Chinese religion. Conversions come slowly and Christian values compete with the old ways of paganism. The “back door” is often wider than the “front door,” as people find the pull of family religious allegiances and the pervasive presence of idols and temples almost impossible to resist.
Christians persist, nevertheless, in taking their message out into the still-unevangelized towns of Taiwan, and sometimes see encouraging progress. The former senior pastor of one major congregation spends a great deal of time visiting the lonely pastors of these tiny churches.
At the same time, most congregations of any size pour resources, both human and financial, into overseas missionary efforts, with a special focus on mainland China. I heard constantly of pastors, elders, and other leaders who had just gone to the other side of the Taiwan Strait or were about to make a short trip, either to train house church leaders or to visit members of their churches who live and work in China as missionaries (though of course not under that name).
That seems natural, since they know the language and have many existing ties with relatives and others in China. More than a million Taiwanese have chosen to live there in order to do business, despite the increasingly unfavorable climate, in which the government favors local enterprises.
Indeed, it would be hard to over-estimate the strategic impact of Taiwan’s Christians upon the growth of the church in China over the past thirty years.
Continuing Need for Foreigners
With all this energy and activity, you would expect that foreign Christians would have little scope for ministry in Taiwan. The opposite is true. Fewer than four percent of the people in Taiwan are connected in any way with Christianity, and most of the population has never heard even a simple presentation of basic Christian truths. There are simply not enough followers of Christ to share their faith.
After a period when the mission societies diverted most of their attention to mainland China, they are beginning once again to see Taiwan’s crying need for witnesses to Christ. YWAM reportedly has a hundred workers there; OMF International has seen an increase in new candidates to join its campaign to reach Taiwanese-speaking working people; and other missions are not far behind.
Just as I arrived at the airport, I ran into a group of young Americans who were returning for another year of teaching English. Fielded by an organization connected with Bill Gothard’s Institute, they teach in local schools, cooperate with Chinese churches, and try to use their lives as an example for children and their parents to see what Christian character looks like.
Taiwan could use many more like them, as the society crumbles under the weight of urbanization, modernization, and the corrosive effects of media-generated hedonism and moral relativism. Old values have been shredded in a post-modern, fast-paced world of dizzying change, and millions are paying the price in poor health, depression, and broken families. Most are gripped with anxiety and fear about the future, as China’s clout in every domain advances with ominous and apparently inexorable progress.
Not a few Christians in Taiwan believe that believers there will soon face challenges from which they have hitherto been spared. Freedom and prosperity have robbed the church of that toughness and concentration upon God and eternal life which their counterparts of an earlier generation in China evinced in the long years of persecution before the present period of relative religious freedom.
No one knows what the future holds for Protestant Christianity in Taiwan. Past experience in China would point to a mixture of triumph through trials, with many losses along the way but a stronger, purified body of faithful believers resisting all pressures and coming out victorious.
(Go to the China Institute website for a short “Call to Prayer” based on these reflections.)