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China’s “Exiles” – the Shoot God has Planted

By Dr. Carol Lee Hamrin Issue Nov-Dec 2009

t would seem, on the surface of things, that followers of Christ in China are a tiny minority with little hope of changing Chinese culture, much less “Christianizing” China. Guesstimates of numbers of China’s citizens who are self-identified believers, baptized or not, range from 55 million (40 m. Protestants, 15 m. Catholics) up to 100 million. At a continuing rate of growth that surpasses the population growth rate, Christians likely will be 10% of the populace, 130-140 million in the not too distant future.

This may prove an important marker – indicating the point at which believers gain full freedom, following decades of limited practice. Christians were approximately 10% of the Roman populace when Emperors finally realized they had to accommodate them. The Edict of Toleration of 311, granting Christians the right to exist, worship and construct buildings, was issued by Galerius on his deathbed, perhaps due to his Christian wife, and was signed by co-emperors Licinius and Constantine. Their Edict of Milan in 313 guaranteed full freedom of worship to all and restored their confiscated lands.

Others have suggested that 30% of the population is a benchmark for having major influence on society and culture. If true, that stage would seem to be far off into the future for the “Chinese church.” However, I think this overlooks the fact that the “church in China,” the invisible body of Christ at work as co-creators of His Kingdom there, includes other key players. From God’s viewpoint, we will gain a different perspective – broad enough to cover all of history and transcend nation-state boundaries.

Through the past century, God has been preparing His people outside of China through various waves of global exchange, economic emigration, or political exile.

  • 1898 - 1900: Supporters of the abortive “Hundred Days Reform” and refugees from the Boxer War fled to Japan, Hong Kong, and south China. Many believers became key supporters of Sun Yat-sen’s Republican revolution. (Note that the 100th anniversary will be October 2011). Xu Qin (Huie Kin) of New York City and Huang Naixiang of Fujian were among them. Xu’s story in Salt and Light 2 and Huang’s grand-daughter is writing about him in Salt and Light 3
  • 1948 – 1950: Thousands of believers left China or remained abroad and built up Chinese churches in Asia and America. The overseas Chinese have been core partners since 1980 with those who remained behind and survived to revive the church. The provision of new ideas, doctrinal and skills training, and funding from abroad has been an important, if invisible, part of His-story in China.
  • 1988 – 1990: Dozens of Democracy Movement leaders and hundreds of students and scholars found refuge abroad after the crackdown of June Fourth. Many have become believers and carry their faith and model new ways during visits back to China or (for those still on the black list) through the Internet or other new media.
  • 1980 – until now: Thousands of non-Chinese believers have left their homelands to live and work in China’s ex-Pat community, while hundreds of China ministries based overseas employ or support believers whom God has called to ministry among the Chinese people, wherever they may live. They are the successors to the pioneer China missionaries of the 19th and early 20th century.

What is the role of exiles? When the people of Israel were in exile in Babylon, both Ezekiel in Babylon and Jeremiah back in Jerusalem were told clearly the purpose – to purify the nation, cleanse the land of idolatry. The exiles would one day return as a chastened people who would never again turn to idols. What idols? Perhaps the worship of “China” (giving primary loyalty to the Chinese people, culture, or nation-state) is only overcome by living overseas and becoming citizens of the Kingdom, first and foremost.

Ezekiel 11:16-20, 37:26-27: Tell the exiles that the Lord God says: Although I have scattered you in the countries of the world, I will be a sanctuary to you for the time that you are there … And when you return, you will remove every trace of this idol worship. I will give you one heart and a new spirit; I will take from you your hearts of stone and give you tender hearts of love for God, so that you can obey my laws and be my people, and I will be your God …And I will make a covenant of peace with them, an everlasting pact. I will bless them and multiply them …I will make my home among them.”

Somehow, the experience of exile is not only necessary for bringing peace to the land, but also is central to the ingathering of all nations, from all ends of the earth, into the Kingdom. Chinese believers after decades of international exchange have a renewed vision for missions to the world, and the world is coming to China on a new scale.

My prayer for China in the coming decade remains the words of Isaiah 60 (for Zion), which I wrote into my prayer journal ten years ago in 1999, for the new millennium:

Arise, shine, for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord rises upon you… His glory appears over you. Nations will come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn.

Lift up your eyes and look about you. All assemble and come to you; your sons come from afar and your daughters are carried on the arm…

The wealth on the seas will be brought to you, to you the riches of the nations will come… Foreigners will rebuild your walls, and their kings will serve you. Your gates will always stand open, they will never be shut, day or night, so that men may bring you the wealth of the nations …The sons of your [former] oppressors will come bowing before you; all who despise[d] you will bow down at your feet…

Then you will know that I, the Lord, am your Savior…I will make peace your governor and righteousness your ruler. No longer will violence be heard in your land…Your sun will never set again, and your moon will wane no more; the Lord will be your everlasting light, and your days of sorrow will end …They are the shoot I have planted, the work of my hands, for the display of my splendor. The least of you will become a thousand, the smallest a mighty nation.

When will this happen? The Lord says, “In its time, I will do this swiftly.”