Jesson Tian is a graduate student in Beijing working on a master's degree in agricultural biology. After graduation, Tian hopes to discover new ways to make China's farms more fruitful. But he's already learned a thing or two about harvests and fruit—of the spiritual kind.
In China, just as elsewhere, college students are exposed to things their parents wouldn't approve of. For Tian, who was raised an atheist, that thing was Christianity. During his sophomore year, a friend introduced Tian to Jesus, and since he became a Christian, Tian shares his faith wherever he can, including to American students studying abroad.
Tian grew up in Confucius's hometown, where his father was a Communist Party member and his parents were both strict atheists. Like his father, Tian became a Party member when he left home to attend college. He's now in charge of recruiting new members to the local Communist Party.
While he studies plants and agriculture, Tian is also sowing the seeds of the gospel in this fertile country of 1.3 billion people. Students in China are among the most eager to hear about Christianity. In the country's universities, some young people start to question the competitive materialism of China's growing middle class. Also, as China develops economically, students and intellectuals are looking for a model in the West, where many discover Christianity is a major cause of its political and economic success. A third reason many students become Christians is the huge number of English teachers who share their faith through friendships and one-on-one interaction.
While Tian has turned away from his atheistic roots, he hasn't given up his Party affiliation. In fact, Tian says over soup in a Beijing restaurant, he often tells people he is a Party member before he tells them about Jesus. "I think they will trust me more," he says.
Tian is not alone. Indeed, one pastor who oversees churches totaling 400 people in the city of Guanzhou said that "quite a lot" of his members are also members of the Communist Party.
New 'underground' church
While China has opened economically over the last 30 years, it has also experienced a profound spiritual awakening. Though once a place where its leaders declared that God was not only dead but also buried in China, Christians have since learned to thrive. In the early 1970s, there were an estimated 3 million Christians (Catholics and Protestants); today, conservative estimates number Christians at 70 million, while other figures are as high as 130 million.
To American eyes, the face of the Chinese church has long been that of a rural villager meeting secretly, avoiding arrest at the hands of Communist officials. While the perception was accurate and in many ways still is, it is no longer the only face of China's unregistered (sometimes called "underground") church.
Today, China's fastest growing churches are in the country's massive cities. Like Tian, the members are often young, educated, and cosmopolitan. Rather than hide from authorities, China's third church—as these unregistered, urban congregations are often called—seeks to work with government officials. And surprisingly, these officials are usually quite accommodating.
While persecution and human rights abuses are by no means absent from China, as the recent uprising in Tibet illustrates, the urban church is seeking to work with the government in a constructive, non-combative way. Many Christians believe that the official government church, overseen by the state, is too compromised. But the "underground" church is too antagonistic. The urban church hopes to cooperate with the government, assuring officials that allowing Christians to freely operate is good for Chinese society. In return, they hope, the government will allow them to be free from political control.
It's a tricky wager, one that requires them to be both worldly wise and politically innocent. But China's urban church doesn't see any contradiction in living faithfully as Christians and patriotically as Chinese citizens. As Tian says, "I love the Party. It saved us from the war, from starvation, from disease. But I love God more because he made all things himself."
Missionary turns tycoon
Uncle Daniel spent years as a missionary to China's rural villages. There, he said, it was like the book of Acts, complete with miracles, exorcisms, and mass conversions. From 1982 to 1992, he experienced arrest, persecution, and tremendous success planting churches in Henan province. But, Uncle Daniel says, "I started very, very poor. While I was very poor, I had no home. I had a wife. I had children, but I had no food." At the time, he considered it a spiritual badge of honor. "But a brother came to talk to me and said I was wrong to neglect my family." Instead, the man suggested to Uncle Daniel, "I would like to help you to start a business."
After ten years as a missionary, Uncle Daniel's family called him back home to the southern coastal city of Wenzhou. He now owns and directs a number of factories in the rapidly growing city. Yet, Uncle Daniel still considers himself a missionary. "For me as a businessman," he says, "I put it in this order: Increasing my business productivity to build God's kingdom and send out his servants. That is the three-pointed triangle of my life."
Because of people like Uncle Daniel, churches are springing up like bamboo shoots in the city—and wherever these churches send missionaries, including many to the Middle East. And no matter what country these missionaries move to, they are fully supported by the profits of the city's Christian-owned businesses. "We want to be part of the global church," Uncle Daniel says. "We want to be part of the reinforcement for world missions."
After more than 25 years as a church leader in China, Uncle Daniel sees God's hand in the country's economic and political assent. "God has his eyes set on China. I am seeing that in the policy of the government. I am seeing that in the change of the politics and economics and the change in our morality."
Last Christmas, Uncle Daniel's church, as well as other unregistered churches in Wenzhou, provided "parcels of love" to the city's needy. "I believe God will allow China to become strong," says Uncle Daniel, "not just for political reasons, but far more for his kingdom purpose."
The root of freedom
Christians are also seeking to deeply penetrate Chinese culture and values. Hsu is a deeply thoughtful former television journalist for the state-sponsored cctv. Like many members of China's educated elite, he read, thought, and philosophized his way to Christianity.
Hsu tells his story over a meal at a crowded Beijing kfc restaurant. As a university student he searched for the meaning of freedom. This search led Hsu to study European history. "Westerners are not more interested in freedom than anyone else," he says. So why, he wondered, have European civilizations achieved and sustained a greater degree of liberty than any other culture?
Through his study, Hsu concluded, "Before freedom comes, you have to have a foundation. In the West that foundation is Christianity."
Hsu hopes that Christians in China can benefit society in the same way that European Christianity did in the West centuries ago. From the 10th to 12th centuries, Hsu reasons, Europe developed legal studies, hospitals, and universities, all of which grew out of the church. These developments resulted in breakthroughs in human liberty, as seen in the Reformation, the Renaissance, and the Enlightenment. Today, Hsu says, the church is an incubator for similar developments in China.
"After Tiananmen Square, some scholars lost hope," Hsu says. "People in China have lost faith in human wisdom. The Cultural Revolution was a disaster, but this spiritual awakening is an unexpected result."
Hsu, like a growing number of Chinese intellectuals, believes "faith in God as the Lord is the beginning of freedom."
"You need a standard of absolute truth," says Hsu. "You have to convince people that the God of the Jews and Christians is the God of the universe."
China's Christian century
If Hsu's hopes for change are to come, it will be because of the growing influence of the educated and savvy urban church. Yet, the challenges facing these Christians are significant. While the urban church often operates with the knowledge and even cooperation of local officials, their legal status is precarious. And even under optimistic estimates, Christians number less than 10 percent of the population. Because of their precarious situation, churches operate largely below the radar, not only of the government but also of the rest of the population.
There is no limit to the zeal of China's Christians. While the government tries to engineer the grandest economic advance in human history, the church here is no less ambitious, seeking to spread the gospel from the coastal cities through the vast interior and beyond China's western borders. And if the past three decades are any indication, China's Christians are as ready as its Olympic committee to make a grand entrance on the world stage.
Rob Moll is editor at large for our sister magazine, Christianity Today.
Copyright © 2008 by the author or Christianity Today/Today's Christian magazine.
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