From Lisu mountains in Yunnan to the cities of Jiangsu
Last week we (a group of pastors from the Netherlands) visited the little villages in the mountainous area of the Lisu tribe in Yunnan province. Here the CMI (China Inland Mission) missionaries did a great effort to bring the Gospel during the last two centuries. And we saw the fruits in many respects. A very active and dynamic Bible college in Dali, with students from 17 minority groups like the Bai and the Lisu tribe, eager to go back to their home town or village to work as a pastor or an evangelist. I was moved to hear a ninety years old couple describe their life, how they came to faith and how they passed through the very difficult years of the Cultural Revolution. In that period it was a crime to posses a Bible. The lady told us how she tore the only Bible that she had into small pieces, hiding all these little pieces in the inside parts of the children’s clothes (The officers would not search it there!).
This week we visited the big cities Shanghai, Suzhou and Nanjing. I was impressed by the enormous crowds in the mundane Nanjing road in Shanghai, by the vast quarters with high apartments’ towers in Suzhou, containing over 14 million inhabitants, and the 20 different universities that you can find in Nanjing, a city that still remembers the most cruel massacre by the Japanese invaders in 1938.
A fast growing church
The church is alive in China. It is growing very fast, especially in the last 30 years, since the government began to allow more freedom for the religious groups. In 1949 there were an estimated 2,7 million Christians in China. Today the estimation is around 60 million people. (total population of China is nearly 1,4 billions, which is one-fifth of worlds population). The Chinese churches organized themselves in the Three Self Patriotic Movement and the Chinese Christian Council in order to represent the churches to the government and to negotiate for their freedom. In practice there is limited freedom. Officially the Three Self churches are not allowed to do children’s ministry or to baptise children (the government considers this indoctrination). Much depends on the local situation. In Sichuan there seems to be less freedom compared to Jiangsu and Hunan. In Jiangsu I saw flourishing children’s ministry and many Biblical materials for educating young children
The Jian Wan Church in Shanghai is one of the 170 Three Self churches. The church has three services per Sunday, each crowded with over 1200 people. When we arrived with the group of 23 Dutch pastors on Sunday morning we received a warm welcome. A lot of smiles, a lot of people who wanted to shake hands with us.
Pedagogic lessons in the Jiang Wan church
The sermon of rev. Yu Jiang was about good parenthood according Luke 2: 51: ‘Jesus obeyed his parents. ‘How will children obey their parents wit honesty?’ Only, when the parents obey God with all their heart! Joseph and Mary are a good example for us. Why do so many parents everything for their children, bringing them to music lessons, sports, ballet and make every effort to give them a good education? And why do they forget the most important: faith in the living God?’
The pastor gave many pedagogic lessons in his sermon. But what, I thought, if you are here struggling with the brokenness of your life, if your education failed, if there is stress, if you are parents struggling with your own relationship?
Magnetic pulling force
The answer came later during the encounter with pastor Yu and rev. Zhuo Zhuyin, who works in youth ministry. Yes, there is a lot of stress in Chinese families. In most cases both parents have to work, and they have to work hard. If you loose your job, you are in big problems. There are a lot of problems in education and in relationships. But the church is a magnet for people around the church. They often see that Christians are different. They notice that their children change when they are invited for a children’s or a youth meeting. Gradually they begin to experience that Christian faith provides real answers to their problems. The church does not have missionary activities (these are forbidden by the way), but the church is missionary, because it attracts people from outside. The secret of this pulling force doesn’t consist of an attractive liturgy or a ‘flashing’ sermon. The sermon lasts 45 minutes at least and the liturgy is simple. It is the power of the Gospel that changes people. And renewed people are attractive people. Through the youth group many non-Christian youth come to faith in Christ. Often their parents follow later. In the youth group they never let the Bible closed. They speak about the Bible right from the beginning, and on the basis of Scriptures they deal with all the issues and problems that young people face.
Family churches and Three Self churches
This church began thirty years ago in a house. Later the growing house church choose to become a registered church, and to take part in the Three Self Movement, that should represent the church to the government since 1952. Other house groups have chosen to stay on their own, because they didn’t want any involvement of the state in the church. These house or family churches are illegal in the eyes of the government. The non-registered churches played a hidden but still a big role in the history of the Chinese churches in the last half century. They were persecuted severely. But also Three Self churches have been discriminated and persecuted in the past, and still are. This year several reports of churches to be forced to take off the crosses and of churches demolished in the province Guangdong were in the news.
During this journey I have met several people who were active in fellowship groups and in the Three Self churches. It is a pity that the Chinese church still is very divided about this issue. Non-registered churches pray that the Three Self churches will become independent and fight for their full theological and administrative freedom. And Three Self churches pray that the house churches will join the Three Self movement and be united with the ‘official’ church, and give up their ‘sectarian’ approach.
Anyhow the Three Wang church looks a very young, lively and fast growing church. Every year over 600 people are baptized in the three churches in this district of Shanghai.
The power of the Gospel
Meeting the Chinese brothers and sisters is very encouraging, because you see how powerful the Gospel acts. On an average Sunday more people visit a church in China than in the whole of Europe. Is the Dutch church a little old, cynic lady, when you compare her with the vital, young and vibrant church in China? We should not loose the fait that the Gospel is a power dynamite until salvation, also in the Western world. Once, in the 7th and 8th century the Gospel conquered the area of Western Europe, deeply pagan at that time.
Good to know that our Chinese Christians pray for us that the we will keep the precious treasure of the Gospel through God’s grace, in the middle of the storm of secularization.