China’s Urban Christians: A Light That Cannot Be Hidden
With decades of experience living in Asia, traveling within China, and meeting with both Chinese Christians and Christian leaders working within China, Brent Fulton has written the most authoritative and accurate book yet to appear on the urban Chinese church. As editor of ChinaSource Quarterly and co-author with Luis Bush of China’s Next Generation: New China, New Church, New World, Fulton has already established himself as an one of the leading experts on both contemporary China and on Protestant Christians in China.
His own wide reading, along with dozens of personal interviews, has been supplemented by years of extensive research conducted by ChinaSource, of which he is Co-founder and President. He notes in particular the invaluable input from Chinese church leaders that is chronicled weekly in Chinese Church Voices, an “online source for articles, sermons, and social media postings,” by Chinese Christians. As he notes, “the very existence of a vital online Christian community in China . . . is but one evidence of the immense change brought about through the past two decades of massive urbanization” (5).
Bringing together two facets of China’s recent dramatic rise – urbanization and the emergence of a significant and growing Christian community in the cities – the book aims to “to explore how the church in China perceives the challenges posed by its new urban context and to examine its proposed means of responding to these challenges” (2). Fulton focuses on Protestant churches, but acknowledges that parallels may also be found among Roman Catholic congregations.
At the outset, though he is fully aware of the pressures and restrictions upon public activities under which Christians still have to operate in China, Fulton rejects the “persecution narrative” that still dominates Western discourse about Chinese Christians. In doing so, he takes at face value the statements of Chinese church leaders that their main concern now is not persecution but the new urban environment in which they find themselves. He therefore describes major challenges confronting urban churches, all of which have to do with the need to adapt to the dramatically changed circumstances of today’s world.
Chapter 2: The Context for Change
“No other nation has urbanized as rapidly – or on such a large scale – as China” (6). In the space of 30 years, China has seen the kinds of transformation that took, for example, 100 years in Britain. In the process, the greatest human migration in history has brought more than 500 million people into cities, some of these cities of enormous proportions.
Higher education has mushroomed, with millions more graduating from colleges and remaining in cities to pursue better jobs. The formerly tight-knit traditional Chinese family has changed beyond recognition, with most having only one child, and many family members living hundreds of miles from each other. An urban middle class has emerged, bringing millions more consumers into the market, along with a “consumer mentality” that extends even to the church. China’s megacities have become “gateways to the world,” as international businesses seek to enter the huge China market, Chinese students flood high schools and colleges in the West, and Chinese money is transforming national economies from America to Africa to Europe.
Formerly concentrated mostly in rural areas, Chinese Protestants have joined this migration to the cities, and have re-gathered in new urban congregations with entirely different challenges to navigate. Meanwhile, the traditional churches in the cities have been overtaken by countless new ones founded by intellectuals, who have been turning to Christ by the thousands. Students returning from the West have formed their own groups. The state-sanctioned Three-Self Patriotic Movement (TSPM) has seen an influx of both rural believers and younger people, who have brought new life and energy.
Fulton describes the mostly negative impact of urbanization (and the one-child policy) upon families, including endemic pre-marital fornication, rising economic expectations of a future spouse, the gender imbalance, and the ageing of the population, which places a heavy burden on their children, single offspring of the one-child policy that ended only in 2015.
Economic changes are no less dramatic, as China tries to shift to a consumer economy and reduce the drain of inefficient state-run enterprises at a time of economic slowdown, a growing gap between rich and poor, and massive flight of capital out of the country.
Warp-speed economic growth at any cost has inflicted Chinese with an environment so degraded that some doubt it will ever recover. Air, soil, and water are being polluted beyond livability levels, severely testing the patience of the population and perhaps outpacing the efforts of the government to reverse the trend.
As elsewhere, urbanization has also spawned a bewildering array of new voices in the mostly open “marketplace of ideas.” As a consequence, all over China, Christians gather freely in groups both small and large, publish journals, and engage in a lively dialogue on the Internet and in other media.
Finally, China’s opening to the world community has brought foreign and Chinese Christians together in ways almost unthinkable three decades ago. Overseas Christians will have to change their role as the church matures, and Fulton gives very wise suggestions about how this can be done.
Since the rest of China’s Urban Christians builds upon this foundation, the treatment of following chapters will be less detailed. Though the book is deceptively short, the limpid, lively writing conveys a great deal of information and insight in a very brief compass, and no review can do the rich contents justice.
Chapter 3: New Wineskins
Today’s urban churches can be categorized as comprised of:
Those associated with the TSPM
Rural migrant churches that have re-organized in the cities
Churches linked to the large Protestant community in Wenzhou, which has planted congregations throughout China
Traditional unregistered urban churches that meet in homes and trace their origins to the first half of the twentieth century
New urban congregations composed of younger, more educated people and led by educated pastors, many of them full time, though underpaid
Fulton focuses on this last group.
These congregations have moved from meeting in homes as small groups to gathering in rented spaces, either apartments or large commercial venues. Greater organization has replaced close fellowship and mutual accountability. Church leaders now rely more on advanced training and academic theological degrees for authority, rather than on spiritual maturity, gifts, and charisma. A much greater gap between leaders and believers has resulted.
A strong preference for Reformed theology, with its emphasis upon God’s grace, has sparked personal and congregational renewal, as well as the plurality of leadership, but in some cases Reformed teaching has resulted in doctrinal rigidity and an over-emphasis upon political action. Renting property has brought higher visibility in society, which some value, while others question this sort of prominence. Larger church budgets have increased independence from outside and the ability to fund paid personnel, resources, and ministries, but have led to risks of mismanagement.
Chapter 4: A Shifting Battleground
In contrast to former years when Christians were subjected to harassment and persecution, the spiritual “battleground” has shifted to “a battle for the spiritual vitality and purity of the church over and against the forces of materialism, secularism, and moral decline. In the words of one pastor, 'At present the main problem facing the church is not government persecution; in fact, this is unimportant to the church. No, the main problem is holiness. If the church is not holy, its witness is destroyed'” (48).
Materialism is widely seen by pastors as the most serious threat to the church today. There is a trend toward “religious consumerism,” along with a consuming desire for wealth and status among young believers. Urban Christians “are in danger of being too materially satisfied to recognize their own spiritual hunger and too busy engaging in consumer activities to seek spiritual fulfillment” (51). The so-called “prosperity gospel” has deceived many, and now extends to competition over which congregation can build the largest and costliest structure.
In a world of post-modern relativism, “Sunday Christians” attend church services in comfortable buildings but do not attend small group meetings, so that they “have neither an intimate relationship with God nor an emotional attachment to the church” (54). People go “church-hopping,” creating huge pressures on pastors to offer a lively and entertaining experience in a modern space. Secularism challenges the relevance of biblical faith to daily life, while millions of churchgoers leave their Christianity behind as soon as they leave the worship service.
As Fulton says, “the battle begins at home,” where marriages and families suffer from all the changes mentioned in Chapter 1. There is a massive crisis in the homes of professing Christians, who are subject to the pragmatic, self-centered, secular values around them, and don’t know how to apply biblical principles to their marriages.
The same goes for bringing up their children in Christian values. Immense social and economic pressures make most parents invest most of their time, effort, and money into getting their children into the best schools and ensuring that they succeed academically. Along the way, few children receive instruction in how to live, much less how to follow Christ; nor do their parents have time to teach or show them.
Finally, a rapidly aging population places a heavy burden upon the younger generation, who – again – lack the time and money to care for their aged parents properly.
Fulton shows how the Christian churches are responding to each of these challenges in a variety of creative ways, some of them quite risky. If they can succeed, however, their contribution to society will be great.
Chapter 5: Into the Light
Everyone agrees that China suffers from a crisis of faith, as the old beliefs, including Communism, lose their former power and credibility. What will replace them, to form the kind of cultural and ethical core that Confucianism once provided?
As the Christian church moves from the margins of society into places of greater public awareness, many urban church leaders believe that Christianity must step into the gap, fill the vacuum, and eventually occupy the center in the marketplace of ideas and values.
This chapter, both concise and comprehensive like all the others, describes new ways in which Christians are making a public impact – in social services and charity, commerce and business, modern media, the academy, and even law and public policy. As we would expect, believers disagree about how much the church, as an organization, should project its presence into these spheres, but most agree that believers must serve as “salt and light” in their homes, the way they “do” church life, their jobs and professions, intellectual discourse across the full range of disciplines, and even, perhaps – though controversy on this point is sharp – law and politics.
Fulton offers extensive examples of creative, costly, and often courageous initiatives by Christians and their leaders in all these arenas, along with honest warnings from within the church that they must not try to “run before they can walk.” The tendency to devote all attention inward is no more dangerous than ambitious plans to make a highly visible impression on society while the personal lives, families, and relationships among Christians fall far short of basic biblical norms.
Chapter 6: The Church’s Global Mandate
Chinese Christians first began to organize for cross-cultural mission work in the 1940s with what is now known to Westerners as the “Back to Jerusalem Movement” (called by the Chinese themselves “The Preach Everywhere Gospel Band”). After 1950, these pioneers had to restrict their activities to low-key evangelism in Western China.
After World War II, Western missionaries transferred their energies to work among “Diaspora” Chinese in Asia and the West. An overseas Chinese church has grown up and matured, now fully committed to taking the gospel around the world. The Chinese Congress on World Evangelization, which began meeting in 1976, holds large conferences every five years to stimulate missions, with increasingly sophisticated, organized, and coordinated efforts around the world. Almost all Chinese Christians sent to different countries have limited their ministry to other Han Chinese, however. Many of those few who have gone to a different culture have usually found the challenges too great, and have returned home without fulfilling their mission.
Since the 1990s, a new “Back to Jerusalem” movement, originating in the rural churches, has captured the attention of both Chinese churches and Western Christians. Actually, this is more a vision than a movement, but it has spurred a great deal of prayer, planning, and preliminary efforts in cross-cultural ministry. In the early stages, the unexpected difficulties of learning a new language, fitting into a foreign culture, and collaborating with other foreign Christians have cooled the initial enthusiasm.
Now, however, urban Chinese Christians have caught the vision and are increasingly communicating and cooperating with rural churches and with Christians from overseas to mobilize, train, send, and support cross-cultural Chinese missionaries. With their greater international experience, relationships with foreign Christians and Chinese Christians living overseas, and more abundant financial, human, and managerial resources, they can potentially tap the passion of the rural churches for a more sustained and effective missionary effort.
With his usual breadth and balance, Fulton describes the potential and the problems facing the plans, programs, and people engaged in this new enterprise, leaving the reader in no doubt about the difficulties they must surmount or of the certainty that God will use them for a great new wave of global outreach in coming years.
Chapter 7: The Quest for Unity
For more than fifty years, Christians in China have been divided, not only into the two main categories of Government-sanctioned (and controlled) TSPM, but among different streams in the unregistered church. Christians congregate according to social and educational background, different networks brought to cities from the rural churches, traditional unregistered congregations and the new educated churches, and theological distinctives.
Now, however, both urbanization and a growing awareness that greater unity would bring many benefits, more attempts at communication, collaboration, and even combining into new denominational structures are creating both more unity and more division. Theological differences prevent both organizational unity and civil conversation, and the Chinese tradition of “imperial” leadership hinders those in charge from being accountable to each other.
In this chapter, the author skillfully profiles the manifold causes of division, the many benefits that more unity would bring, the various steps already being taken, and the remaining challenges.
Chapter 8: Testing the Limits
“Should Christians in China continue along their present trajectory. . . political realities will likely become of greater concern in the days to come.” That is because “urban believers have sought to work out the implications of their faith within China’s rapidly changing social environment, this journey has taken them into areas that previously had not had a significant Christian presence” (126).
The “political realities” to which Fulton refers are, obviously, the remaining legal restrictions placed upon unregistered churches, the continuing hostility of the Party state to organized religion, and the real possibility that current opportunities could close down quickly whenever the Party decides that the church has become too much a threat to its monopoly of power and influence in society. Large organizations of any kind are suspect, but Christianity especially worries the government because of its past association with “imperialist” powers and the current ties the Christians maintain with Western, and especially, American Christians.
As a result, as the author points out, recent advances into social services, publication, media, online expressions of faith, education, connections with foreigners, and the construction of large church buildings could be quickly overturned. Indeed, the demolition of buildings and removal of crosses from TSPM structures in Wenzhou, though perhaps only a local phenomenon, show how suddenly relations between Christians and the government can turn sour.
Some Christians believe that a new “cold wind” may already be blowing, with uncertain consequences. The future remains unclear.
“The relative social space and position afforded by the city represent, for the church, a double-edged sword” (135). As the public profile of Christians is raised, temptations to pursue bigness could divide and dilute the witness of Christians, and a government backlash could easily tighten freedoms as in the past; persecution is even not out of the question.
Brent Fulton believes, however, that Chinese Christians know that their hope is set on the heavenly city; this motivates them to persevere in efforts to glorify God on earth.
Evaluation: Required Reading
Rarely do I dare to say that a book is a “must read,” but careful study of China’s Urban Christians certainly will be essential for anyone who wants to understand current Chinese Christianity, serve effectively among urban Chinese Christians, or pray for them with understanding.