Winds of Change in China
Christians around the world continue to be fascinated by the Church in China—the world’s most populated country. The nation is going through rapid transformation economically, socially, culturally and spiritually. We examine how these changes are affecting the kingdom of God in China, and specifically how it may affect some of the projects we implement there.
Often as people grow older they long for things to stay still, so they can get their bearings, put down roots, and enjoy a consistency in their lives. Things never seem to work out that way, however. The world is in a constant state of transformation, and our time can easily be spent trying to catch up with the changes going on around us.
Of all the places in the world we know, nowhere is changing as swiftly and as dramatically as China. In part, this is because of the draconian decades of hard-line Communist rule, when the nation closed its doors to the rest of the world from the 1940s to the late 1970s. Feeling left behind by these lost decades, China has frantically been catching up since at breakneck speed.
We have been greatly privileged to serve the Lord Jesus and His Church in China since the late 1980s. The pace of change has been so swift during that time that often when we meet younger missionaries starting out, it’s difficult to describe what China was like back then without sounding like ‘old fogies’ reminiscing about things “back in the day”!
Just a little more than 20 years ago the streets of cities like Beijing and Kunming were filled with bicycles and donkey carts. Today they have become mega- municipalities with glistening skyscrapers, congested highways and all the latest shopping malls and facilities like any other major world city.
More changes seem to occur in five years in China than in a generation in other parts of the world. Consider this for example: The first place many visitors to China see is the town of Shenzhen, just across the border from Hong Kong. It was a farming village in the 1970s, then a sleepy town with about 50,000 people in the 1980s. Remarkably, today Shenzhen is a massive, modern city, home to more than 8 million people!
New Challenges for the Church in China
The rapid transformation in Chinese society is inevitably also influencing the way the Church functions. For decades the Body of Christ experienced the largest revival, numerically speaking, in the history of Christianity. One of the foundations for the revival was suffering and sacrifice. The Church gave their all to Jesus, and He used them for His glory in a marvellous way so that today there are at least 100 million Christians in China.
Late last year the government made two announcements. The first was that they were relaxing the one-child policy that has been in place since 1979, and which has wreaked havoc on the family structure of the nation.
The second announcement they made did not receive widespread coverage in the media, but it has major ramifications for the Church: The Chinese government announced it was immediately closing down all prison labor camps.
For decades, prison labor camps were dark, abominable places where hundreds of thousands of Christians were sent as punishment for their belief in Jesus. Many were never heard from again.
Countless faith-filled testimonies, like that of Brother Yun in his biography The Heavenly Man, included accounts of the brutal punishment metered out in those awful places, where prisoners were forced to work 14 to 16 hours a day, seven days a week.
A few years ago I was present at a meeting in a remote area of China with about 30 house church leaders. At lunch time the main leader stood up and announced, “Let’s thank the Lord for the food, and then everyone who has spent time in a prison camp for the Gospel can start eating!”
Every head turned around and stared at me, and people began to chuckle under their breath. They knew their foreign guest had probably never been imprisoned for the Lord before. All the other men and women in the room had spent time in prison labor camps, some for decades.
Sensing that I was feeling a little anxious, the Chinese broke into hearty laughter and then lovingly served me first.
Labor camps caused untold suffering to multitudes of believers and their family members in China. Now, all of a sudden with the stroke of a pen, they have been consigned to history!
Of course this change doesn’t mean that persecution has ceased in China. In fact, just recently reports have emerged of church buildings being demolished and of believers being arrested and fined. As long as the kingdom of God continues to clash with the kingdom of darkness there will be hardship and suffering for those who follow in the footsteps of Jesus.
Christians in China continue to be fined, harassed, and discriminated against because of the Gospel. While prison labor camps have been closed, please note that these were not the same as general prisons, where people can still be sent without trial for up to three years. The labor camps, however, were the staging point for the most severe persecution.
The Chinese Church has now entered into a new phase. It is wonderful news that the labor camps have been abolished, and severe persecution has undoubtedly decreased from the levels of the past.
We should be thankful for the positive changes. They are the direct result of the Lord’s intervention and His gracious response to decades of prayer.
Most of us would agree that if our lives were under constant threat of being fined, beaten and imprisoned, then news that labor camps have become a thing of the past would be greatly welcomed!
As the winds of change continue to blow throughout China, a fresh and difficult challenge has emerged.
A wise friend of ours summed it up this way:
For more than 30 years God tested the Chinese Church with persecution, and they endured faithfully. Their faith was purified and they won tens of millions of people into God’s kingdom. Now God is testing the Church in China with an even greater challenge: Prosperity.”
Church history shows that Christians are strongest when they are united against opposition, but when times are easy our faith tends to grow weaker. Is this principle true in your own life, and in the churches in your part of the world?
It was also true in the Old Testament, as Israel struggled to break free from the cycle of pride and laziness caused by prosperity. God summed up the plight of His chosen people this way: “I cared for them in the wilderness, in the land of burning heat. When I fed them, they were satisfied; when they were satisfied, they became proud; then they forgot me” (Hosea 13:5-6).
A Note of Caution
Friends, please continue to pray fervently for God’s will to be done among His children in China.
Even though believers now face some different challenges than previous generations, the Body of Christ in China remains huge and influential.
Recently, The Telegraph newspaper in the United Kingdom ran a surprising story under the headline: ‘China On Course to Become World’s Most Christian Nation Within 15 Years.’ The article claimed: “Mao thought he could eliminate religion. He thought he had accomplished this. It’s ironic—he failed completely.”
Although the Chinese Church may function differently going forward, the fact remains that there are tens of millions of people who have been purchased by the Blood of Jesus throughout China. They love Him, and they will continue to testify about what God has done in their lives.
These disciples of Christ are well aware that there are more than one billion lost souls in China, among hundreds of unreached ethnic groups, and that their work is far from finished!
Although systematic, government- orchestrated persecution of Christians is definitely decreasing in China, it would be a mistake to assume that there is no longer any persecution. It persists, especially in rural areas away from the public gaze.
We constantly review and tweak the projects we help with, as we desire to be involved in the most strategic opportunities for the advancement of God’s kingdom in Asia.
While things are changing quickly in China, one project that will remain a great need for some time to come is the China Bible Fund. There are other factors at play which cause the dire shortage of Bibles in China, especially among the rural house churches we are privileged to serve.
While the economy is growing in many parts of China, all Bibles printed outside the control of the government- approved church are considered ‘illegal’. Those involved with their production or distribution continue to risk arrest and prison without trial.
Secondly, almost all of the Bibles we print inside China are for rural believers in farflung provinces. Despite the economic boom in other parts of China, people in rural farming communities remain extremely poor by any standard, and in fact their plight has been exacerbated by the soaring cost of living. Millions of house church Christians remain unable to afford Bibles, even if they were able to access them. These factors have resulted in millions of believers being starved of God’s Word. They are forced to survive on the few crumbs they are able to gather from beneath the table of the registered churches.
As long as the need for God’s Word exists, we pray the Lord will give us resources and opportunities to help meet that need. One of our key leaders recently told us, “For as long as God gives me breath, I want to continue providing Bibles to believers who are unable to obtain them from any other source.”