My husband has a line, which he often shares with visitors to China that, The only thing that’s true about all of China, is that nothing’s true about all of China.
In other words, in a nation of over 1.3 billion people, where rural and urban areas reflect dramatic differences in wealth, health, and education, where climate runs the gambit from tropical to tundra, and where the sheer number of ethnicities and languages confound, it’s really difficult to generalize about, well, anything. I often tease people from the U.S. that they would freak out if I used New York City, or Kentucky, or Idaho to generalize about all of America or all Americans to my Chinese friends, and usually we start to understand that these local contexts matter a lot.
I start with this anecdote in broaching the sticky subject of churches in China today, noting that my own experiences are limited, but they’re definitely helping me understand the complexities over here. The recent experience Evan and I had taking part in our second English Exchange Camp with pastors and teachers from the TSPM in Jiangsu province and the Outreach Foundation reminded me how different ministry is in China versus from the context from which I come. Each pastor who took part in our exchange ministered to a minimum of 1000 people (some as many as 5000 congregants), and often traveled to several meeting points each week to preach and to teach. Many of them lived or have been living away from their spouses or children, because of the demands of their jobs, for years. Unlike the PCUSA to which I belong (in the developed world), in China, the registered church is expanding rapidly, and there are far too many sheep for the tired shepherds. That said, we also met many young seminarians willing to take on this challenge, and were surprised to hear many young people talk about how they were third, fourth, of fifth generation Christians, fulfilling a lifelong dream of their grandparents (to become a church pastor or leader) who had suffered during the cultural revolution.
A recent article in the Wall Street Journal tells another story of the church in China, that of the expansion and defiance of the unregistered church. From this angle, Christianity is testing the Communist regime, and there are many outspoken voices (who have been around for decades) that also criticize those who belong to the registered church as spiritual prostitutes, sell-outs, or fakes. My experience has been quite different, but then, my husband and I also often quote another famous saying, “show me a church, and I’ll show you a church with problems.” Every church has problems, and neither the registered church nor the unregistered church in China is without exception.
Still, I think it’s important to point out that in our work with the registered church (with whom we work exclusively), we’ve been energized by the real faith of the pastors with whom we fellowship, and we’ve been impressed with the way in which local governments are coming alongside and supporting the churches, especially in rural areas, where they see the church as a resource in the fight against societal ills (drinking, gambling, corruption, and violence).
It’s also true that it’s never easy to paint the lines between registered and unregistered churches as some Christians in China faithfully participate in both, and every church at one point begins as unregistered. (Don Snow, a longtime mission co-worker of the PCUSA, does a great job going beyond the binary of registered and unregistered and speaking about what he’s learned during his time in China about the complexities of Chinese church life.)
In just a few weeks my husband will travel back to Yunnan with Presbyterian Frontier Fellowship to visit minority churches, and I’m sure he’ll have yet another perspective to add. Whatever the difficulty of synthesizing these perspectives, I feel encouraged by the work that God is doing and hopeful for peaceful growth for the churches in China in the future.