Editor’s note: Christians must constantly study their own culture in order to share the gospel in a way that remains faithful to the core of Christian faith, while simultaneously speaking to the needs of society. Today, Simon Liu talks about some of the issues the Chinese church faces as they share their faith, and of opportunities believers are finding to evangelize within their communities.
Check back Thursday for the rest of the interview!
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.
China Partnership: What does evangelism in China look like these days?
Simon Liu: Today things are much different than before COVID. The whole of society is different. Evangelism has become very personal, whereas before, you could share publicly.
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China is complicated. Some places have always been very restricted; in other places, you could do whatever you want. One person might say there is persecution in China; another person would say there is no persecution. Both perspectives are true. Even though we have one constitution and one law, in different areas of China, people execute those rules differently. It all depends on who the boss is.
In general, everything must go underground. Even places where three years ago you could publicly have worship and share the gospel, now that is disappearing. The government’s propaganda tells people to accept the Communist Party, and to abandon anything or anyone who has relationships with foreign countries or foreigners. This same propaganda proclaims that anything from outside of China—and any Chinese person who has ties outside of China—is dangerous. The government even says COVID-19 came from outside of China.
This is the propaganda which runs on public television. The Party is trying to instill this in the minds of regular Chinese people. However, in many large cities, most people know that what they see in the media is a lie. People will not officially challenge the news; but inside, they know it is not 100 percent true. The more the news describes religion and Christianity as evil, the more people are intrigued. When people are lied to over and over—and they know they are being lied to—they become more interested in the thing that is presented as bad. They think: “This religion they say is evil is actually probably true.”
On a personal level, people are still pretty open. But: they have fear.
We have been holding online meetings to share our faith. The number of people who join these conferences has been stable, and is even increasing. That is a very good sign. Still, the pressure is quite strong.
Recently, five believers from northern China were arrested for attending a Christian conference in Malaysia in January of 2020. In a more normal setting, people who are arrested can hire a lawyer and find evidence to prove the charges against them are false. But in China, this is meaningless. The accused can do whatever they want, but they have been charged by the Party and they will be sentenced by the Party. Probably what happened is some leader, at the top, decided to make an example of those Christians and inspire fear in the common people.
CP: If evangelism is going underground, does that mean it’s more personal, more relational, more friends sharing with friends?
Liu: Evangelism is always more relational in China.
About forty years ago, China underwent an economic reformation. The idol of Chairman Mao was destroyed, and money took his place in the center. In China, people worship money, and devote their all to trying to make more money. This pursuit of money has destroyed families and friendships.
People have an instinctive distrust of strangers. In the U.S., people say hello to strangers; in China, that would be weird. People would think: “This person wants to get something from me.” Real friendship must always be with people you already know, because you can trust what they say.
Even good friends must take their time and avoid money so they can share the gospel in a pure way. I have a lot of friends who are salespeople. It is difficult for them, because others always think these salespeople are sharing the gospel because they want to sell something. Even if they do not have that intention, after they share the gospel, their friends come and buy something, thinking they need to pay them back. This culture becomes very complicated.
It is nearly impossible to invite a stranger into the church. Perhaps this would work if someone was very poor, and a Christian gave them money. In that situation, the person would go because they felt they needed to pay back the debt. “You want me to go to church, I will go to church. You want me to go to a Buddhist temple, I will also do that,” they think. “This is just to show I appreciate your help.”
That does not really mean this person believes in Christ. That may happen later, but at the start, it is just an exchange.
CP: In this environment, where there is a lot of mutual distrust between people and institutions, how are churches teaching people to creatively share their faith?
Liu: The Chinese church is struggling to do evangelism. We need to become people of Christ, instead of using tricks or strategies. You can give people something to attract them to church, but when Chinese people are treated kindly, they try to reciprocate. They will only follow to a certain level; people are not willing to give their life. The evangelism process usually takes a lot of time, which is why a lot of Chinese churches are very frustrated. But, China is a country of disasters. If the church wants to evangelize, there are always a lot of opportunities. You can always go to help.
During COVID, we did evangelism through individuals in different cities. For instance, one lady I know owns a dumpling restaurant. Every week, I gave her money and asked her to give dumplings out to those in need. Many people came and asked: “Why did you do that? What do you want from us?”
She said, “I just want to help you. There are people who care about you and want to help.”
People said, “Why? Do they want us to do something for them?”
She said, “No! We want to help you only because we are Christians.”
People wonder why Christians want to help them. Then she shares her own story, and people are very interested. A lot of evangelism is done this way: help people.
Another way evangelism happens is through individual networks. Since Chinese people are more relational, if you shop at the market, you need to build a relationship with the seller so they will not cheat you. You need to build your own network to survive daily life. Once you become a Christian, you can navigate this network to bring people to the Lord.
Simon Liu is a church planter and works with church planting networks.
FOR PRAYER AND REFLECTION
Pray for Chinese Christians to be patient and discerning as they seek to share the gospel with friends in their personal networks.