The Gospel Crossing Into Chinese Culture

Editor’s note: God has done an amazing work in China over the past decades. The author, who has worked with the Chinese church for many decades, shares his thoughts on the foundations of Chinese church growth, and how God has used catastrophe to draw Chinese to himself. While God’s hand is evident in the spread of Christianity in China, the author also cautions that there is much work left to be done. While no one can tell what the future may bring, he urges believers to be sensitive to the work of the Spirit and ready to walk through any doors God may open.


No one factor alone can explain the miracle of the growth of the Mainland Chinese church in the past 40-plus years. The only absolute factor is God’s hand behind it all. Since we believe that salvation is a miracle brought about by the grace of God, we must not think we can manipulate things. (I call this “managerial missions” – thinking of missions as entirely a result of our methods or strategies, which can thus be controlled, much like a manager would control factory output.) 

We must also not go to the other extreme, thinking we have no responsibility. We should analyze what programs and strategies seem to bring the best results. But this will always need to be evaluated. We seek a “resonance” between what the Spirit is doing and what we do. This takes a lot of prayer and constant evaluation. I also don’t believe that any one strategy will work forever, if for no other reason than the Evil One will find ways to thwart it. We are in a war for the soul of China, and Satan does not want to give up his hold easily. 

Foundations of Chinese Church Growth

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“God has at different times orchestrated events to create a “loss” or a “need” in the hearts of the Chinese.

On one level, we could say the growth of the church is on the foundation laid by the missionaries, particularly those that have come in the last 200 years. Humanly speaking, this is the method God has used to plant the seed of the gospel. Yet even in this, we cannot forget God’s hand. We must admit the missionaries made a lot of mistakes (i.e. going in on the gunboats). Despite these mistakes, God still planted his church. We should humbly ask what mistakes we are making today – we are no smarter than the early missionaries, nor are we more holy and righteous.

On another level, God was not dependent on the missionaries. I met a brother in Tianjin in the late 80s. He said I was the first Christian he had ever met. At first I was extremely wary, but he gave a clear testimony of how the Lord appeared to him in a dream, and how he began listening to the radio broadcasts. (We know this type of conversion – through dreams and visions – is not uncommon in Muslim contexts.) 


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Church Growth through Catastrophe

When I look back at the past 40 years, I also see God has at different times orchestrated events to create a “loss” or a “need” in the hearts of the Chinese. The first was the combination of the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution. Through these things, many Chinese lost hope and perhaps felt guilt in a never-before-experienced way. This work of the Spirit was then combined with the faithful and courageous testimony of many Chinese believers. I don’t think foreign missionaries had much of a role at this time. They may have had a role in teaching, but evangelism and church planting was primarily done by Chinese believers. There was definitely a movement of the Spirit at that time. I talked to an elderly brother who was an evangelist in Henan. He described how they used to go to a village, have a evangelistic meeting, establish a church, and then after a few days go to the next village and repeat the process. Don’t you wish it was that easy today?

My impression of the 80s is no single evangelist nor strategy can explain the growth. It was a work of the Spirit, and he had prepared hearts through the events of the 70s.

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“I am hesitant to say the church has really crossed into Chinese culture and changed the narratives. In many ways, the church is still on the fringe of society.

A second “loss” that had a deep impact on China was June 4th. At the time we never imagined it, but now we see that the growth of the urban church can in many ways be dated from this event. This event brought disillusionment to so many, especially intellectuals. The impact of Western and Korean missionaries in this time was more pronounced. The growing influence of Western culture probably did make it easier for many to accept the gospel. A Chinese pastor said as much to me the other day. He said he felt it was easier for him to accept the gospel than it was for his parents or grandparents. Yet we must not forget that Satan has now used Western culture and affluence to close the hearts of many in China. 

The early 2000s, up to around 2014 or 2015, was a time of “peace.” Perhaps it was much like the “Pax Romana” that was so important for the growth of the early church. As a friend of ours in Chengdu said around 2003, the situation in China at that time was perfect for church growth – just enough pressure to keep the church pure, but enough freedom to do a lot of ministry. If someone like Xi had come in right after Deng, we might have had a very different situation with the church in China today. I take all of this as part of God’s sovereign, guiding hand.

The Conflict Between the Gospel and Chinese Culture

Yet even with this, I am hesitant to say the church has really crossed into Chinese culture and changed the narratives. In many ways, the church is still on the fringe of society. As we have worked closely with Chinese couples, we see many ways in which the gospel has not really changed deep parts of their worldview. (This would definitely be true in the U.S., too!) Often, when the gospel and culture conflict, culture wins. Expectations regarding marriage, relationships with in-laws, and even the roles of men and women have not been set free by the gospel, but still reflect the values of more traditional Chinese culture – even among believers.

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“We should be looking and praying for insights into how God is at work today. Is Covid another “loss” that could open hearts?…The challenge is to continue to prepare ourselves so that when God opens doors, we are ready to walk through.

How else can we explain the divisions in the church in Hong Kong in regards to the political issues of the past few years? People’s identity as a Hong Konger or a Mainlander is more important than their identity in Christ. (The same issue exists in the States. I also recently heard it exists in Russia as well, in relationship to how they view the war in Ukraine. Satan wants to sow division!) As we often say, we need to continually study the gospel. 

I fear that confronting Chinese culture, to the point of changing the narratives, will be much harder than facing persecution from the government. The government is “outside”; the pressure from culture will come from families, more “inside.” This is the challenge those in Muslim, Hindu, or Buddhist countries (such as Thailand) face. In so many ways, the church in the U.S. has not been able to change the narrative in American culture even after so many years. We should not be surprised, therefore, that the narratives of Chinese culture have not been changed after only about one generation. Rising nationalism in China will likely only make this change harder. Again, Satan does not want to give up his territory easily. 

What does all of this say to us? We should be looking and praying for insights into how God is at work today. Is Covid another “loss” that could open hearts? Could events like the lock-down in Shanghai create a disillusionment that could create openness to the gospel? Will the economic difficulties China may soon face break the illusion China will always be growing and things will always be getting better? I don’t know. But I am challenged to begin looking around and evaluating. God always takes the initiative; we only act in response. The challenge is to continue to prepare ourselves so that when God opens doors, we are ready to walk through. 


Otis is a pseudonym for a Westerner who works with the Chinese house church.

 

FOR PRAYER AND REFLECTION

Pray that believers will pray and look for insights into how God is working in China today, so they may be ready to walk through any doors God opens.

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Further Reading

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The Internal Cross: A Pastoral Letter
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The External Cross: A Pastoral Letter
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Qingdao: How to Pray
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LEADERSHIP DEVELOPMENT IN CHINA

With rising pressure and persecution in China, there are two challenges imperative for church leaders. The first challenge is for current leaders to love Christ above all else, and not to stray into legalism or love of the world. The second challenge is to raise up the next generation of leaders, who will humbly model Jesus even if current leaders are arrested.

WILL YOU JOIN US IN PRAYING FOR LEADERSHIP DEVELOPMENT IN CHINA? PRAY FOR:

  1. Current leaders to grow in their daily walks with Christ
  2. Current leaders to shepherd and raise up new leaders
  3. New leaders who love Christ and will model him to the world
  4. New leaders to love and care for the church

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ABOUT LEADERSHIP DEVELOPMENT

About Shenyang

Shenyang is a city located in northeastern China and is the capital of Liaoning Province. It is known for its rich history and cultural heritage, including the Shenyang Imperial Palace, which is a UNESCO World Heritage site. Shenyang is also a hub for China’s heavy industry, with companies such as the China First Automobile Group and the Shenyang Aircraft Corporation having their headquarters in the city.

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About Qingdao

Qingdao is a city located in eastern China and is famous for its beaches, beer, and seafood. The city is home to several landmarks, including the Zhanqiao Pier and the Badaguan Scenic Area. Qingdao is also a major port and has a thriving economy, with industries such as electronics, petrochemicals, and machinery.

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About Xiamen

Xiamen is a city located in southeastern China and is a popular tourist destination known for its beautiful coastal scenery, including Gulangyu Island, which is a UNESCO World Heritage site. The city is also a hub for China’s high-tech industry, with companies such as Huawei and ZTE having research and development centers in Xiamen.

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About Chongqing

Chongqing is a city located in southwestern China and is a major economic center in the region. The city is known for its spicy cuisine, especially its hot pot dishes, and is also famous for the Three Gorges Dam, the world’s largest hydroelectric dam. Chongqing is also home to several historic sites, including the Dazu Rock Carvings, which are UNESCO World Heritage sites.

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About Nanjing

Nanjing is a city located in eastern China and is the capital of Jiangsu Province. It is one of China’s ancient capitals and has a rich cultural history, including the Ming Xiaoling Mausoleum, the Nanjing City Wall, and the Confucius Temple. Nanjing is also a modern city with a thriving economy and is home to several universities, including Nanjing University and Southeast University.

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About Changchun

Changchun is a city located in northeastern China and is the capital of Jilin Province. It is known for its rich cultural heritage and is home to several historical landmarks such as the Puppet Emperor’s Palace and the Jingyuetan National Forest Park. Changchun is also a hub for China’s automotive industry, with several major automobile manufacturers having their headquarters in the city.

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About Guangzhou

Guangzhou, also known as Canton, is a city located in southern China and is the capital of Guangdong Province. It is one of the country’s largest and most prosperous cities, serving as a major transportation and trading hub for the region. Guangzhou is renowned for its modern architecture, including the Canton Tower and the Guangzhou Opera House, as well as its Cantonese cuisine, which is famous for its variety and bold flavors. The city also has a rich history, with landmarks such as the Chen Clan Ancestral Hall, the Sun Yat-sen Memorial Hall, and the Temple of the Six Banyan Trees. Additionally, Guangzhou hosts the annual Canton Fair, the largest trade fair in China.

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About Kunming

Kunming is a city located in southwest China and is the capital of Yunnan Province. Known as the “City of Eternal Spring” for its mild climate, Kunming is a popular tourist destination due to its natural beauty and cultural diversity. The city is home to several scenic spots, including the UNESCO World Heritage Site of the Stone Forest, Dian Lake, and the Western Hills. Kunming is also famous for its unique cuisine, which features a mix of Han, Yi, and Bai ethnic flavors. The city has a rich cultural history, with ancient temples and shrines like the Yuantong Temple and the Golden Temple, and it’s also a hub for Yunnan’s ethnic minority cultures, such as the Yi and Bai peoples.

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About Shenzhen

Shenzhen is a city located in southeastern China and is one of the country’s fastest-growing metropolises. The city is renowned for its thriving tech industry, with companies such as Huawei, Tencent, and DJI having their headquarters in Shenzhen. The city also has a vibrant cultural scene, with numerous museums, art galleries, and parks. Shenzhen is also known for its modern architecture, such as the Ping An Finance Center and the Shenzhen Bay Sports Center. Despite its modernization, Shenzhen also has a rich history and cultural heritage, with landmarks such as the Dapeng Fortress and the Chiwan Tin Hau Temple.

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About Chengdu

Chengdu is a city located in the southwestern region of China, and the capital of Sichuan province. It has a population of over 18 million people, and it is famous for its spicy Sichuan cuisine, laid-back lifestyle, and its cute and cuddly residents – the giant pandas. Chengdu is home to the Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding, where visitors can observe these adorable creatures in their natural habitat. The city also boasts a rich cultural heritage, with numerous temples, museums, and historical sites scattered throughout its boundaries. Chengdu is a city of contrasts, with ancient traditions coexisting alongside modern developments, making it an intriguing and fascinating destination for visitors to China. 

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About Beijing

Beijing is the capital city of China and one of the most populous cities in the world, with a population of over 21 million people. The city has a rich history that spans over 3,000 years, and it has served as the capital of various dynasties throughout China’s history. Beijing is home to some of the most iconic landmarks in China, including the Great Wall, the Forbidden City, and the Temple of Heaven. The city is also a hub for political, cultural, and educational activities, with numerous universities and research institutions located within its boundaries. Beijing is renowned for its traditional architecture, rich cuisine, and vibrant cultural scene, making it a must-visit destination for travelers to China.

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About Shanghai

Shanghai is a vibrant and dynamic city located on the eastern coast of China. It is the largest city in China and one of the most populous cities in the world, with a population of over 24 million people. Shanghai is a global financial hub and a major center for international trade, with a rich history and culture that spans over 1,000 years. The city is famous for its iconic skyline, which features towering skyscrapers such as the Oriental Pearl Tower and the Shanghai Tower. Shanghai is also home to a diverse culinary scene, world-class museums and art galleries, and numerous shopping districts. It is a city that is constantly evolving and reinventing itself, making it a fascinating destination for visitors from around the world.

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