It’s early November and I am walking through one of the major department stores in China. As I make my way toward the exit, I begin to hear that familiar sound – Christmas music. It brings back a flood of childhood memories, most of which are very pleasant. The season has meaning and history where I come from. Besides the fact that it is probably starting a bit too early in the year, I’m reminded of my childhood and the transformation that takes place in people’s lives as we remember the birth of the Christ child.
Our family has traditions, much like everyone else, that we observe even here in China. We bought a nice faux Christmas tree (French words always make things like “fake” sound nicer), and when we decorate it with lights and ornaments we bought from the local IKEA, it looks quite nice. We continue traditions like our four-week Advent wreath celebration where we light a candle each week and do a family devotional related to Advent. The family does, however, miss the atmosphere of Christmas in the States, especially the beautiful church music. Nonetheless, we are able to carry on with many of our traditions without any real interruptions. These traditions help us cope better with the challenges of life in China, challenges which include missing family and friends, the stress of living as a non-native in a culture hostile toward our faith, and being separated from our loving and nurturing church community back home where we worship openly and freely.
My nostalgic thoughts soon give way to a question that lingers in my mind, “What must the local Chinese think when they hear this?” The locals do not have the memories I do, nor do they even understand the words since all the songs are sung in English. The familiar tunes and words that elicit so many wonderful memories in me certainly do not do the same thing for those Chinese ears that are listening.
These musings lead me to no conclusion in particular, but rather to another question which comes flooding into my mind. “What would Chinese culture be like if celebrating Christmas meant something more than a commercial gimmick? What if Christmas was a time when a sizable portion of China honored the birth, death, and resurrection of Christ?” This thought leads to a different scene from the previous year when one of the Chinese house churches we work with closely held a Christmas performance at a large venue in the city. Over 700 people came and many of them didn’t truly understand the meaning of Christmas.
The play/musical was written, staged, and performed by the members of the church. They borrowed musically from Les Miserables with words rewritten for the Chinese context. The play was not without glitches and technical difficulties, but I was very impressed with the way the church was postured to engage the culture. It was a critique of modern Chinese society and it succeeded in portraying the emptiness that comes when people pursue hedonistic pleasures and neglect the God-given value of human life. Sex, power, money, and prestige were among the things addressed in the musical. All these things are not evil in themselves, but when people treat them as ultimate they become idols and dishonor, neglect, and mistreat God, our creator.
The play made me realize that the Western church could learn from these kinds of creative expressions and methods of engaging the culture we live in. I’ve been impressed with how Christian expressions of music, art, and film have made great advances in the United States over the last 30 years, but we still have a ways to go. What is needed, I feel, is the flexibility and depth of thought that went into the putting on of this Chinese play.
The church in China is deeply concerned about its cultural context, one that is increasingly devoid of a moral foundation. Issues like abortion, homosexuality, divorce, human trafficking, and a host of other ethical concerns are being addressed with a secular worldview almost completely devoid of a moral compass. Closely related to this, the church is becoming increasingly concerned with how it educates the next generation, the children. Both Christian and non-Christian parents worry about a public school system more obsessed with having kids pass exams than really learning. Christian parents are anxious about both the environment and culture that public schools promote which overemphasizes competition, not to mention the curriculum which is based on an atheistic, Marxist, Darwinist, Hegelian worldview.
This thought then led me to another thought. In a country where being a Christian is seen as radically counter-cultural, it seems the church is forced to come up with an apologetic that not only addresses the concerns of the individual but also those of the community of God’s people, the church. So many Christians from outside are coming to China with wonderful visions of how to evangelize the lost and bring Chinese to faith, but so few are really working closely with the local Chinese church in the areas where the church itself is asking for help. Well-intentioned, good-hearted missionaries come here and work hard to reach out, but after they leave, the ministries they started fall into ruin and the “converts” fall away. Sometimes we are far too eager to post impressive statistics to our supporters at home. The result is a shallow impact with “converts” that are not capable of really exerting any influence in this culture.
One of the things I love about the China Partnership is that it is working with the Chinese church and addressing those most pressing questions that the church itself is wrestling with, helping the church to fashion an apologetic that serves both the individual and the community. This apologetic says, “Christ is here in China, Christ loves the Chinese church, and Christ has something to say to China today.”