Are churches in Communist China real?
I am constantly asked questions about China's situation regarding religion. Is it real or propaganda?
When I made my first visit to mainland China it was at the invitation of Dr. Jimmy Allen, then President of the Southern Baptist (SBC) Radio and Television Commission and past-president of the SBC. He was seeking to gain approval for concerts in China by the Baptists' Centurymen choir. He was successful, not only for two choir trips, but the making of a film documentary on the present situation of Christianity in China. The documentary, "China: Walls and Bridges," was made in cooperation with the American Broadcasting Company and won an Emmy for best daytime documentary in 1989.
Jimmy Allen was a senior when I was a freshman at Howard Payne. Though not that much older than I am, he has in many ways been something of a mentor for me. Every furlough he welcomed me into his pulpit to speak. If my memory is correct I spoke in Cockerel Hill in Dallas, Wills Point, Sherman and First Baptist Church of San Antonio. I don't know if my being there had anything to do with his moving on to another church or work, but I do remember his and Wanda's kindness and concern for mission work.
When I seemed to be trying to fit too much into that first China trip, Jimmy took me aside and said slow down, "you will be making many trips to China in days to come." He was right. Most of the next ten years we lived in Hong Kong and made over 50 trips to China. Much of that time I was getting to know the pastors and people, building bridges of understanding as we placed American English teachers in Chinese universities and helped medical and technical personnel have a witness.
As any new-comer to China, Jimmy was concerned if the churches that were beginning to open were real or controlled by the Communist Party. Naturally in a totalitarian state the Party has its finger in every pie. But Christianity was and is such a tiny minority they seldom gave the foreign-initiated churches a second thought. The government's main concern was that the churches were not controlled by foreign mission boards or churches. There never has been a national policy to stamp out Christianity. There are scattered incidents of displeasure by some local officials who do not understand the purpose of the church. Some places are more difficult than others to share the Christian faith.
As we made more trips, and eventually lived in Nanjing the fall of 1989, I met some of the most dedicated pastors and lay people I have ever known. The government tolerates the churches but does not subsidize them nor help them as they have in restoring some Buddhist temples. As long as the Chinese lead the churches, without foreign direction or money, they are free to preach the gospel.
China's religious freedom is limited according to our American ideas about freedom. For example, they cannot have TV evangelists, which I consider a blessing. China churches have grown more than 20-fold since 1949 to number possibly 20 million believers. Just think what a blessing it would be if America had no money grubbing televangelists -- the Christian faith in the USA might be viewed with more integrity by unbelievers and our churches might begin to have meaningful growth!
Such growth has come through much suffering. There is very little suffering in American Christianity. There is too much "God wants you to be rich" theology that kills the true spirit of Christ. It is not a sin to have material things -- just don't live for such things.
I have learned from walking among people in countries under totalitarians regimes, such as Hungry, East Berlin, Burma, and China, that the church can function and thrive in such places. There the message is not "down with the system," but simply living a positive life of faith, being trustworthy when all others are not, being faithful when all around there are those with no faith. That turns heads and hearts to Christ much faster than anti-Communist agendas.
People do not unite with such churches to be polite or get ahead. They are on the whole salt for this world. They give a down-trodden people hope and nothing can beat that.
In that regard it is no mystery churches thrive and grow in some of the darkest corners of the world. -- Feb. 18, 2000
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