A Voice from the Field: A Current View of the Church in China
Anonymous | JANUARY 22, 2019 | 7 MIN READ
Editor’s Note: This firsthand account is published anonymously because the author lives in China.
Talking about what is going on in China is a lot like the ancient Indian proverb of a group of blind men touching a separate part of an elephant and each describing what they feel from their subjective perspectives. What each describes is true, but it does not necessarily represent the other parts.
In the same way, it is difficult to describe what is going on in this big, complex, mighty nation. Where some areas are experiencing the iron fist, other areas are enjoying freedom and even revival! So anything said about this country can be both true and false at the same time.
Yet starting with my first year as an undergrad exchange student in the early 90s and now having lived here for the last 20 years, there are some general statements and requests that I can safely make that most Christian leaders living here will agree on.
1. We are seeing a tightening of the reins
It is mind-boggling how much has changed in the last five years. Previously you could buy a SIM card or a train ticket without an ID card or passport. Now you need to provide your personal documents and place of residency. When entering a train station, you have to go through face-scanning software. And the country is soon on its way to becoming a cashless system, using e-money to buy coffee or use transportation.
This is all very convenient but your whereabouts and personal habits are all being logged and recorded. Those who use social media in this country are warned upfront that big brother is watching. If you start a group chat, you will be liable for even what other members post. In this way, people are discouraged from gathering, whether physically or in cyberspace.
Because China has thousands of CCTV cameras going up daily as well as advanced facial recognition and other technologies, the government can track down any person in this country within 7 minutes.
All this to say that it is getting harder to stay under the radar. We can assume that big brother is already aware of what we are doing, but for whatever reason, allows some to continue to be here.
Many years ago we stopped trying to figure out the government’s system or logic. Why does it will close down one large unregistered meeting place, but then allow another one right down the street to go on for years and balloon to hundreds of members? Another underground Christian school is shut down, while another one is visited with only a warning. The authorities revoke the visas of some missionaries, while others doing bigger, bolder things are left alone.
This past year, there has been a significant tightening. Previously allowed Christian bookstores are now being closed down one by one. Bibles that were once sold online are limited to being sold only in government sanctioned churches, and people can purchase just one copy.
Though China has had long had a policy of preventing minors from receiving religious education, for the first time in 30 years, these laws are being enforced. It is especially alarming that parents teaching the Bible to their own children, in their own homes, are officially labeled as breaking the law.
Just last year, we heard of school teachers in several provinces being forced by their school to ask each of their students to sign a document denying their belief in God. Those who refused were then targeted and harassed. It is a heartbreaking situation for both believing teachers and the students.
Unfortunately, the arm of control is not limited to their borders. Chinese authorities are seeking to prevent any of their citizens from participating in any religious activity even abroad.
A few years ago, a couple of Chinese nationals were martyred in a neighboring country for sharing the Good News. This set off a panic within the government’s top leaders. They are very aware of the rumblings among the Christian world that China has the potential to become the largest missionary-sending nation in the history of world evangelism.
So now the government is doing everything it can to prevent this from happening, especially if it may jeopardize its "One Belt, One Road” Initiative that seeks to create trade alliances and economic partnerships with Asia, Europe and the Middle East with the goal of placing the "Middle Kingdom" back in the world's center. This is one of the reasons behind their latest string of kicking out hundreds and thousands of foreign missionaries residing in their country.
2. The tightening seems here to stay
The last 30 years has been like a rubber band — tightening, loosening, then tightening and loosening again. And each time the rubber band kept expanding and the growing trend was toward greater freedom. Yet what we are seeing now is something that is unprecedented. There is a growing consensus among the local leaders that China is entering a new era of religious control that seems here to stay.
3. Pray that we will persevere under persecution
I remember having the utmost privilege to meet with some of the famous underground church fathers who were still alive in the 90s such as Pastor Moses Xie and Pastor Samuel Lamb, as well as dear Sister Maribel.
Many of them shared horrific stories of persecution and being imprisoned for 20 or more years for not joining the government-approved Three-Self Church. One shared how he ate his leather belt because he was so hungry. Another shared how in the dead of winter, he had collapsed in the snow and was waiting to die from the cold, hunger, and exhaustion. Then suddenly the Lord provided a Siberian Tiger to come and cover him with his warm fur.
Each story so unique and amazing, and yet they all had a common request. That their brothers and sisters overseas would pray not that persecution would stop, but rather that the church of China would endure and even thrive under persecution. They even echoed one another in saying persecution is good and that God uses it to purify His Church.
In the last 30 years, China has experienced exponential financial growth. Unfortunately wealth tends to pull people's hearts away from God. We are seeing God using the current wave of persecution to cleanse the church and bring people's hearts back to Him. Winds of revival are blowing.
4. Pray that the Christian leaders can be wise as serpents and innocent as doves
Christian leaders need new strategies for the new season they are experiencing. Ask that they would be bold and not compromise their faith, especially in the areas of passing on their beliefs to the next generation and their commitment to participate in the Great Commission.
The minority groups have also been hit particularly hard. Threats of terrorist activities further complicate matters for those believers living among the Muslims in the northwest region of the country. They especially need our prayers.
5. Remember that the Kingdom of God is like yeast... slow and unseen, but before you know it, it works its way in and permeates everything
I remember a veteran missionary once encouraging us newbies to the country, "Don't overestimate what you can do in 2-3 years. At the same time, don't underestimate what you can do in 10 years."
Sometimes missionaries and their support churches are in too much of a hurry to see results. The world's way is to do something big and see quick results. Yet that is not the way of the kingdom, and that is not how it has worked out for us and countless other fieldworkers.
Perhaps now, more than ever, prayer and patience is needed. Yet at the same time, our work training up youth workers, writing youth curriculum, and coming alongside countless local churches is a testimony that slow and steady can finish the race.
Just last month while we were feeling particularly low because friends of ours were given a week to leave and wondering if we too should be scouting out a new mission field, we unexpectedly got connected to two new network leaders.
Getting connected to network leaders is nothing new, but after meeting these two in particular, I felt my spirit telling me that we have been waiting 20 years to meet them. Why? Because it took 20 years for them to be ready and if I'm honest, it took 20 years for us to be ready too. Where we have previously trained up 100s and perhaps some thousands of youth workers in our whole time here, these two networks have the passion, potential, and courage to train up tens of thousands! Praise the Lord!
Even in the midst of increasing persecution, the kingdom of God is continuously working and expanding. In the midst of this challenging environment, let us not abandon China for more open fields. They need our prayers and our support.
The author has lived in China for the past 20 years, loving the people and serving God’s church.