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21 February 2001

The Protestant Church in China: "We have not passed this way before"
by Sara Speicher

Li En-Lin remembers the Cultural Revolution in China. Her father was put in prison. Her sisters and brothers were sent to rural communities for "re-education". Their home was searched repeatedly by the Red Guard for any signs of "foreign imperialism" -- particularly Christian material. And all their books, including their Bibles, were burned.

"It took one week to burn all of Father’s books, " she recalled. "And when he got out of prison a year later and learned all his books were gone, he cried."

Li’s father was a pastor who, after being ordained in 1948, chose to serve a rural community that at the time had only a half-dozen Christians. During the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976), all the churches and meeting points were closed, all public religious activity was stopped, and Christians like Li and her family were subject to imprisonment, re-education, hardship and discrimination.

And it was during the Cultural Revolution that the identity and nature of the church in China underwent a profound change. Rev. Gao Ying, professor at Nanjing Union Theological Seminary and member of the WCC Central Committee, says, "It took the Cultural Revolution for us to discover strengths in our weakness. God did indeed lead us through the valley of the shadow of death."

Li En-Lin is now associate general secretary of Amity Foundation, the social services arm of the China Christian Council, and a member of the World Council of Churches’ (WCC) Asia Regional Group. From a time of persecution and intense hardship for about 700,000 Protestant Christians during the Cultural Revolution, she now speaks as one of 15 million Christians in a socialist state.

From a time up to 1979 when all churches were closed, today there are about 40,000 churches and meeting points throughout the country.

This phenomenal growth in such a cultural and political context points to a way of "being church" that, in some ways, does not exist in any other part of the world.

Post-denominationalism and the China Christian Council (CCC)
"The China Christian Council hardly has a counterpart in the world," notes Dr Han Wen Zhao, CCC’s president. "It is not -- yet -- one united church, but we no longer have any denominations. CCC stands somewhere between a national council of churches and the one united church."

The founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949 caused dramatic changes in the identity and mission of the church in China. The protestant church before 1949 was dependent on foreign mission boards. In the context of the "New China", Christians were challenged to make the religion genuinely Chinese in expression and structure. Central to this process of building a distinctive Chinese identity was the foundation of the "Three-Self" movement in 1950. Standing for "self-support, self-governance and self-propagation", Three-Self was a key to the Chinese Christian community establishing a protestant church understood in the Chinese context and ending a reliance on foreign financial assistance, leadership, and evangelism.

In the late 1950s, Chinese protestants entered into what they call "post-denominationalism". Dr Su De Ci, vice-president and general secretary of the CCC says, "The early '50s were difficult, but we looked to God and looked for signs of unity in the churches." In this process, he says, came the realization that because it was missionaries who brought their denominations to China, it was usually by chance that Chinese belonged to different denominations. By 1956, there were movements toward uniting the protestant churches. In 1980, following the Cultural Revolution and the re-opening of some of the churches, the China Christian Council was formed.

Dr Han noted that while there are no longer any denominational separations, certain theological practices belonging to certain denominations are kept, such as different practices in administering the eucharist.

The CCC’s primary concerns are rebuilding churches and supporting the more than 13,500 churches and 35,000 meeting points established since 1979. Theological education through 18 seminaries and Bible schools is also a high priority as the lack of trained pastors in a rapidly growing church becomes an increasing challenge. And through the Amity Foundation, the CCC works to meet human needs and publish Christian literature in China.

The China Christian Council became a member of the WCC in 1991. Current pressures from outside China are pushing to re-establish some of the old denominational identities, and the challenge for the ecumenical movement is to support the CCC in pursuing the vision of a post-denominational church.

Emphasizing cooperation in meeting needs in Chinese society
The Amity Foundation was initiated by Christians in 1985 to help address health, education, rural development, and social welfare needs primarily in rural areas in China. Now operating in 31 of China’s 32 provinces, the organization works cooperatively with a variety of international and local partners.

In describing the organization, Dr Han emphasized this broad base of support and implementation. He noted two primary reasons: "Since we are a minority, to get things done we need to seek support from the community." He also noted that in today’s world, "There is too much confrontation. We want to show we can work together in meeting humanitarian needs."

Although non-Christians serve on the board, and local governments are often involved in the implementation, the projects are initiated through churches and local Christian communities. And one of the most "successful" ventures has been the re-introduction of the Bible in China.

25 million Bibles printed in China
All Bibles were destroyed and banned during the Cultural Revolution. Li recalls that after her father’s church reopened in 1979, he thought back to all his burned books and asked, "How can I preach without a Bible?" But before he received a Bible from a friend in Hong Kong, his congregational members were teaching each other scripture passages from memory, re-constructing the Bible through the oral tradition. Before Li herself left for "re-education" in 1973, her father taught her Psalm 23, which comforted her each night in her three years as a "barefoot doctor". Even after the Cultural Revolution, Li says, her classmates had to copy the Bible by hand.

Now the Amity Printing Press, a joint venture between the United Bible Societies (UBS) and Amity Foundation, publishes the Bible in Chinese, English, Braille and several ethnic minority languages. 25 million copies have been printed since late 1987. The Press also produces hymnals, study Bibles and teaching materials, and other Christian literature. The only "restriction", notes Peter Dean, a UBS publishing consultant at the Press, is that Bibles cannot be sold in state-run bookstores. But the Bible is widely available through private bookstores, church bookstores and mail in addition to the distribution centres.

Dean notes also that having Bibles printed in China is not only more cost-effective than trying to import Bibles into the country, it is important in the self-understanding of the Chinese church. "People like that they are printed in China", he states, adding that in practical terms, legally-printed Bibles cannot be taken away from people. He adds, too, that it is a matter of respect. "It is important to work with the door that has been opened and build trust both ways between the government and the church."

Evangelism and religious freedom
The building of trust, and respecting the country and its culture are important themes evoked by members of the China Christian Council. They note especially that religious freedom still means that you need to follow a country’s regulations. "If we follow the constitution and the law," Dr Su states, "we have religious freedom. Of course, there are some things not done correctly by governments because of a leftover of leftism. At the China Christian Council, we try to report such cases to the government to solve those problems."

In the mid-1990s, the WCC sent an international ecumenical delegation to China at the invitation of the CCC to investigate the impact of governmental decrees regulating religious activity. The report, shared with the Religious Affairs Bureau, noted areas of cooperation between local government and church officials as well as regions where heavy restrictions needed to be addressed. WCC International Relations staff continue to say that, "The churches in China are called to give witness to the gospel in often difficult circumstances but try to make best use of the space available." They note that a factor in restrictive state policies has been the activity of missionaries and new religious movements from the West and other parts of Asia.

In reflecting on the continuing efforts of foreign missionaries in China, Li stated simply, "They have the good will to let people know Christ, but they need to know the context of China. They need to respect a country’s rules."

One of the fundamental aspects of the context of China is the reality of a minority religion in an atheist state. Rev. Gao recalled her experiences studying theology in the West and noted that there are vast differences between the West and China about how people become Christian. In the West, "a person is exposed to religious teaching from birth to adulthood through radio, television, newspapers, journals and all kinds of mass media. To each person the love of God, the sin of men and women and the salvation in Jesus Christ are familiar terms." In China, "evangelism of the church… is largely confined to church buildings." In this context, growth of Christianity in China has only one explanation: "It is a miracle."

Li has some additional, more pragmatic, explanations. "Lay preachers often emphasize that if you are Christian, you should bear fruit. Bearing fruit is a mark of a good Christian." Therefore Christians, often women, work very hard in bringing family members and friends to church. Also, in rural areas, where proper medical care may not be accessible or affordable, conversion may occur in response to the healing from sickness.

But such explanations cannot mask the tremendous energy of the Christian community, its witness and service that has grown over the last 20 years. "Most important for Christians in China," Dr Su says, "is that we are trying to be salt and light for society."

Looking behind, looking ahead
Dr Han reflected that Protestant Christianity in China is really only about 150 years old. And the church in its present form is only about 50 years old. Today, although with 15 million members it is one of the largest churches in the world, it is still only a little over one percent of the total Chinese population. Dr Han says, "Ours is a very young church and a small one, but we are growing."

The challenges the CCC faces are also great. For Dr Han, they include how to bring up a young generation of leaders and train new pastors. In 1949, the ratio of pastors to the lay community was one to 100. Today it is one to 4,000. And encounters, such as the recent meeting of the WCC Asia and Pacific regional groups held in Shanghai and Nanjing, help in "looking at common issues and finding common solutions, and teaches our congregations about the church universal".

But the path ahead for this young church is not entirely clear. Rev. Gao quoted Joshua 3:4 -- "for you have not passed this way before" -- to describe their situation. "We are poorly qualified to be explorers of the new path of the evangelistic work. But God has not asked what, in our sight, is a better-qualified church to do this. The church in China gladly explores in our rather quiet ways. In bearing witness to Christ in this new situation, we like to feel we are carrying on our work with the prayer and the blessing of the ecumenical church… our strengthlessness and powerlessness are transformed by the Holy Spirit into God’s powerful action."

Sara Speicher is a member of the WCC's Public Information Team.

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The World Council of Churches is a fellowship of churches, now 342, in more than 100 countries in all continents from virtually all Christian traditions. The Roman Catholic Church is not a member church but works cooperatively with the WCC. The highest governing body is the assembly, which meets approximately every seven years. The WCC was formally inaugurated in 1948 in Amsterdam, Netherlands. Its staff is headed by general secretary Konrad Raiser from the Evangelical Church in Germany.