EF Gregory serves as China Partnership’s Assistant Blog Editor. She spent seven of the past thirteen years living and working in China and currently lives in the Los Angeles metro area with her husband and two small children. She remains involved in ministry alongside and to Chinese, working to plant a church with her husband in their predominantly Chinese community.
The first time I visited China was the day I moved there. That was almost fifteen years ago, and what I thought would be a year in China turned into nearly a decade. I grew to love a people, a city, and even delicious, oily, spicy, mouth-numbing Sichuan food. After living most of my post-college life in or headed to China, my family and I left two years ago, this time for good. Recently, I returned to visit with a few women from my church in the States.
Of all the places in the world, why did our church visit China? There are many answers to this, answers specific to our church and generalized to the church in America. For me, the answer now is the same as it was all those years ago: China will change the world, and I want to be part of that.
In Exodus 17, Moses sat on a hill and watched the Israelites fight the Amalekites. When his arms were raised, Israel won; when they dropped, Israel lost. Yet Moses was too tired to hold his arms up alone. He needed help. His companions, Joshua and Hur, were there for him. As Moses’s arms faltered, they stood beside him and held up his arms when he was too weary.
I hope the American church can play this same role for our Chinese brothers and sisters. I believe the most useful thing we as Americans can do is to help hold up their arms. There are many ways to do this: sharing resources, praying, intentional encouragement, and compassion. We do this by physically going to visit our brothers and sisters, and by remembering that no matter our location, the church is one flesh and one body.
Our church visited China not just for the sake of China, but to remind ourselves that we are a part of the church universal. Churches in America can be lazy, entitled, and materialistic. We need to see believers who are different from us, and to know the costs they bear. We, the American church, need to be challenged by the passion and faith of the Chinese church – whether that be evangelistic passion or perseverance under pressure (our definitions of pressure and persecution are laughable to so much of the world).
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That is why we went. What did we see?
We saw it can be hard. In recent years, the Chinese church has experienced spectacular growth. By some accounts, Christianity grew from around 1 million in 1949 to upwards of 60 million today, with much of that taking place in the last several decades. While dynamic growth is a blessing, the number of experienced Christians is low, particularly in comparison to the amount of new and immature believers. There are not enough shepherds to guard the flock, and heresies and faulty teaching abound. Dynamic growth has led to the common ailment of youth: enthusiasm that outstrips preparedness.
We also saw that life can be lonely. Like Americans, many Chinese are in a competition to prove their worth, whether that be through social media likes, academic achievements, or professional wealth and success. In the midst of this competitive environment, it can be difficult for Chinese believers to find fellowship. Christian community, of course, exists. In fact, I believe the fellowship of believers in China is often deeper and more meaningful than that experienced by many Americans with a shallow and superficial faith. But the loneliness and isolation of being the only Christian in the office, in the class, or in the apartment complex can make Chinese believers feel even more out of step with their culture. While they may not be consciously aware of it, Western believers at least have a cultural heritage of Christianity. The trappings that accompany that heritage – such as a general regard for charity or “good deeds” – endure even as the beliefs themselves disappear.
Finally, we saw that, for some believers, these are scary times. There is probably more uncertainty today regarding the relationship between Christianity and the state than has existed since the early 1990s. Pastors are preparing for persecution, and many congregations are splitting into halves or quarters to avoid attention. Predicting the future is a fool’s errand, but there is no denying the anxiety with which many full-time local Christian workers are living.
For me, some of this was a surprise; most of it was not. I lived in China, I love it, and although I no longer live there, I keep a close eye on its events. But after nearly two years away, a few things did take me by surprise.
First, the constant change. Things in China are always in flux. If you are interested in China enough to follow this blog, you know this. But a few years out of the country and the endless infrastructure growth overwhelmed me. A new high-speed train! A new airport! A new subway line! A new shopping mall! And all of this in fields where just a few years ago peasants were growing bok choy. The relentless adjustments to economic, political, or social realities demanded by life should have been no surprise, and yet I could not overcome my constant shock at how quickly things had changed.
Second, I was surprised by the stress experienced by many local Christian workers. Christianity has always been officially out of favor in China, but this trip I was taken aback to hear friends openly discuss their anxiety over the future of Christian ministry, for themselves and their families. Everyone always knew the wind could turn and they could face trouble; but all of a sudden, many friends are simultaneously preparing for the same what ifs.
Finally, I was encouraged and challenged by the lack of anxiety displayed by most believers. I am a generally fearful person, more cautious than most. While I internally panicked for my friends, they calmly carried on with their work. “It’s uncertain,” one local friend told me, “but at the same time we are seeing open roads. So, we just keep following this path, because God is doing something.” As I’ve returned home, my mind keeps returning to that: I don’t know what God is doing, but I can perhaps see as far as the next right thing.
For me, a mom who is mostly at home with young children, it means physically serving my kids and praying for patience and perseverance with uncertainty. China is easy to romanticize, but the truth is that obedience there is just one more costly, painful step down the road. In some ways it is the same for me. The call is to “run with endurance the race set before us,” no matter where or what that race is (Heb. 12:1).
I am grateful for the cloud of witnesses all over this globe, and for God’s good providence in using his people to encourage one another in this marathon of the Christian life. I pray this trip reminds me, most of all, to daily pour myself out in prayer for my family in China.