Wang introduces us to seven representative leaders of urban unregistered congregations in different parts of China. With their varying backgrounds, unique stories, and particular emphases, they comprise a composite picture of the “third wave” of China’s rapidly growing Protestant Christianity. English names are used throughout.
Joe is an orthopedic surgeon and pastor in Wuhan, and Ruth balances business, family, and leadership of a church in the same industrial complex. Abraham pastors a large congregation in Shanghai. Caleb and Daniel combine the roles of businessman and pastor in Chengdu and Wenzhou. Paul is a pastor in the southern coastal city of Xiamen, while Benjamin works in a church in Shanghai. Most have roots in the massive movement of God in rural areas, and are now seeking to navigate the new conditions faced by immigrants to the cities.
These brisk narratives of the trials and triumphs of remarkable people and striking demonstrations of God's power in answer to prayer possess their own intrinsic merit, of course. What catapults this well-written volume out of the "miraculous stories from China's Great Awakening" (the subtitle) genre and into the "must read" category, however, are the many observations of current Protestant Chinese Christianity, coupled with keen insights into both significant strengths and serious weaknesses. Wang and his co-writer Georgina Sam avoid ponderous pronouncements and ominous warnings, while boldly offering both evaluation and wise counsel for leaders in a fast-changing environment.
Here are a few of their findings and recommendations, culled from a much larger inventory. The whole book deserves careful reading. Several common threads bind their narratives together:
- The people whose stories are told have all witnessed the mighty power of God to heal, deliver from demons, and work amazing changes in situations in answer to faith-filled, persevering prayer.
- They hold to the Bible as the inerrant, authoritative Word of God, and seek to restrict their preaching and teaching to what is emphasized in the Scriptures.
- Though in varying ways, they have experienced the transforming work of the Holy Spirit in their own lives, some of them quite dramatically.
- Like believers everywhere, but perhaps even more so because of the fierce struggle to make a living in China, they have endured serious tests to their faith in God’s provision of daily bread. Some have had to make hard ethical choices as they realize they can no longer engage in deceit or corrupt business practices; others have had to abandon a secure or even wealthy lifestyle to follow their sense of God’s leading in ministry. Always, however, they have found that God is faithful and that all their needs have been met.
- God has guided each of them through prayer, the Word, the counsel of others, and subjective promptings of the Holy Spirit, especially when they have waited upon him, often with fasting.
- They focus their energies upon evangelism and building up the Body of Christ through teaching, small groups, prayer, and personal attention to individual needs.
- Some of them also engage in more public initiatives, including attempts to meet pressing needs in society, especially after the great earthquake in 2008. More and more Christians are starting NGOs as a way to work within the system in a legal fashion (though this has become more difficult in recent years).
- Many churches are taking the Great Commission seriously in a new way, and training a second wave of missionaries to work among people of different cultures, having learned from the generally unsuccessful attempts of the first eager evangelists who started out on the road “Back to Jerusalem” without proper preparation or support.
- They have known pressure, even some mild persecution, from the government, but they have not run away; rather, they have stayed with their flock and sought to lead their people through difficult times. Most are trying to build good relationships with government officials. They have not chosen to imitate what they consider to have been the rather confrontational approach of the Shouwang church.
- Pressure from the government and internal challenges have reminded them that true leadership flows from character and communion with Christ, not natural ability or ceaseless activity. Reacting to the events of the past sixty years, "the modern Chinese person can tend to be cynical about leadership and hold very minimal respect for authority... [T]hey generally feel less obligated to be submissive or committed to anything or anyone." (149) They see that the church needs leaders with integrity, humility, and love, not ambition and self-promotion.
- Increasingly, they are discovering that wholesale imitation of Western churches, with their big buildings, sophisticated organization, professional worship services, and highly educated pastors, has often led to a loss of spiritual vitality. The former pastor of a very large congregation which was shut down by the government has learned that "I shouldn't be copying Korean pastors, Western pastors, or anyone else... We need to continue purifying ourselves and continue the path of the previous generations that experienced explosive growth in the past 60 years. And if that means suffering, then we will learn those lessons too." (140) As a consequence of government suppression, "the church has begun to grow in numbers again. . . This time, though, the increase did not come about because of one large, impressive, flashy service. Rather, it is the fruit of the smaller, multiple gatherings around the city that are being led by different co-workers," as the pastor now spends his time nurturing others to lead. (141) They are also training rank-and-file members to exercise their gifts in the church, rather than relying on paid professionals to do it all.
- In a return to their “roots,” they are re-discovering the unique energy and warmth of smaller meetings, especially home gatherings. Large premises now seem to be something of a liability, soaking up time, money, and attention, and serving as obvious targets of unfriendly officials. (This was even before the cross removals and building demotions in 2015.)
- They also see more clearly the dangers of close association with Western – especially American – churches and leaders. That is even more true since the book was published, of course.
- They lament the lack of emphasis upon godliness, prayer, sensitivity to the Spirit, and concentration upon the Bible that characterized the former rural church leaders, and they share a common concern for the quality of the crowds who are flocking to urban church meetings. As Christianity becomes a bit trendy among the young urban elites, these leaders see a marked fall-off in devotion to Christ, willingness to sacrifice, and zeal for sharing the gospel with their friends and families. Instead, a rising materialism and worldliness has dulled their taste for God’s Word, prayer, and spiritual things in general. They have become typical consumers, ever seeking the best “deal” in churches and the most attractive “brand” of pastors.
"For the church in China today, the toughest external battle is not against communism or atheism. The fiercest fight is against complacency brought on by the ever-growing wealth and ability to enjoy a lifestyle of comfort and ease." (182) One of the leaders agrees: "It's hard for people to overcome the temptation to keep buying and acquiring things." (182) As savvy consumers, even Christians "try different churches as if they were trends and fads." (148)
- Women far outnumber men in most churches. Some possible reasons include: Lack of teaching about how to share’s one’s faith in a natural way at home and in the workplace; men’s natural reticence in general; distractions of work and career; huge family pressure for the son to make money and succeed; and the perception that Christianity “is for women and children. It is not masculine.” This is especially true of the rural Christians. (71) Some also believe that Christianity is presented as a solace for the weak, a message that does not immediately appeal to most men.
- Women lead many congregations also. The usual pragmatism of Chinese has led to a lack of grappling with passages about male leadership in the Scriptures. As one result, the predominance of women only increases, and many sisters are left without Christian husbands.
- Perhaps following the example of the legendary hero Yu, who tamed the Yellow River, many Chinese pastors neglect their families in order to concentrate upon what they consider to be their duty to advance the Kingdom of God. Some, like the great evangelist John Song, do not realize their error until they lie on their deathbed. One of the pastors interviewed in this book, however, though formerly obsessed with his work, because his church has been prevented from meeting as a large congregation, is "able to spend more time with his wife and children.. . . The church's shutdown . . . has led to an enriching time for them all, and they've drawn closer together as a family unit." (141)
Christian China evinces a clear preference for unregistered congregations rather than the TSPM. The author points to the "justification by Love, not Faith" doctrine of now-deceased Bishop Ding Guangxun; the almost total reliance of paid clergy; the lack of emphasis upon evangelism; and the intimate connection with the government.
For me the biggest problem with this book involves the title, Christian China and the Light of the World.
True, the burden for worldwide evangelism appears in the very first chapter, and recurs occasionally later.
But "Christian China" does not figure as a concept in the text. One must assume it was chosen by the marketing people, who wanted to appeal to those who imagine, or hope, that China will someday, perhaps soon, become a "Christian" nation.
David Aikman, who wrote a foreward to this volume, raised this possibility in Jesus in Beijing, but was careful to nuance the idea by talking about a "Christianized" society, that is, one in which Christians and Christian ideas are so pervasive that they exert a wide-ranging and perhaps even profound impact. He explores the question of a “Christianized” society further in One Nation without God?: The Battle for Christianity in an Age of Unbelief, as I have in Christianity in America: Triumph and Tragedy.
First of all, in biblical terms there are only Christian individuals or churches, but never Christian nations.
Second, we must ask, How long will it take for Chinese Christians to become numerous and influential enough in all sectors of society to transform the many fundamental cultural values and practices that are not consistent with the Bible and the Christian faith? To the extent that the USA is "Christianized," we must remember that the early colonists and their children were heirs to 1,600 years of Christian history, and to at least a thousand years of Christian influence on British law and society.
Furthermore, if Wang and those whom he interviewed are correct, Christians in China today have only begun to work out the implications of biblical concepts and standards in the family, churches, and ordinary life. Much more work would need to be done for Scriptural principles to inform other domains of society and culture, such as law, education, medical care, the arts, philosophy, political theory, and government.
I think we should be very cautious here, lest we encourage Chinese and foreign Christians to attempt shortcuts and end up with very superficial results, as has already happened with evangelism and church life.
Then there is the very painful fact that even mature "Christian" nations have, ever since Constantine, so mixed religion and politics that both are corrupted, with the organized church seeking to use the state to consolidate or advance its own power and prestige, and the state regularly manipulating religious leaders and language to clothe its purely secular projects in sacred terms, thus mobilizing naive believers to give ultimate loyalty to the state and to join the "crusade" of the day.
The problematic title aside, Christian China and the Light of the World is an excellent description and evaluation of “house church” Protestantism in China today, and should receive a wide and thoughtful readership.
For some some possible implications of the experiences and lessons contained in this book, see: http://www.reachingchineseworldwide.org/blog/lessons-from-chinas-house-church-movement-reflections-on-christian-china-by-david-wang
-G. Wright Doyle