1998 NCC News Archives

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China's Churches: "Vital, Growing, Addressing Their Problems"

October 21, 1998, NEW YORK -- The Rev. Dr. Joan B. Campbell slipped into the back seat of the taxi at New York’s Kennedy Airport, exhausted following the long flight back from China yet exhilarated at the rapid growth and increasing vitality of the Chinese church that she had witnessed during her eight-day visit.

But when Dr. Campbell – General Secretary of the National Council of Churches – mentioned to the driver where she’d just been, his immediate question was, "Are they still beating up on the Christians?"

"I get that question everywhere," Dr. Campbell sighed as she recounted the incident. "Are there regulations to be observed by churches in China? Yes, and by all organized bodies. Are the regulations onerous and restrictive? Sometimes. Many of them we would not accept in our country. Are laws guaranteeing religious freedom unevenly applied? Yes.

"But Christians in China are terribly offended at the tide of rumor that there’s widespread, terrible persecution, and asked us to advocate for a more accurate portrayal of their situation," Dr. Campbell said. "These people deserve our support. The most damaging is when people say, ‘The people in the registered churches aren’t real Christians.’ That’s so insulting. Of course they are real Christians."

Dr. Campbell spent Oct. 8-15 in China as leader of a seven-member official NCC delegation visit that included as members Ambassador and Mrs. Andrew Young. (Ambassador Young is the NCC’s President Elect for 2000-01.) Their purpose was to look at the current status of church-state relations in China.

The delegation’s very full program included briefings by the China Christian Council and discussions with the U.S. Embassy officials in Beijing. They visited Yenjing Seminary in Beijing and had meetings with top Chinese officials and the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. They were received by Chairman Li Ruihuan of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference and Mr. Yeh Xiaowen, Director General of the Religious Affairs Bureau.

Dr. Campbell said Chinese Christians "told the delegation over and over again, in effect, ‘Are you listening to us? Do you not see our growth? We are doing the best we can. We are running to catch up!’"

China’s Church Marked by Rapid Growth

China’s Protestant Christians numbered about 700,000 in 1949. When the Cultural Revolution struck in 1965, "the church disappeared for more than 10 years," said the Rev. Dr. Albert Pennybacker, NCC Associate General Secretary for Public Policy and a member of the delegation. "Its leaders were taken into custody. Its church buildings were confiscated and closed.

"At the end of that terrible period, a Christian community emerged committed to self-governance, self-propagation and self-support," he said. "Now the China Christian Council tells us that they count 11 million Christians, 12,000 registered churches and at least 25,000 ‘meeting places,’ which may use private homes."

"Christians in China reflect the best of China’s vibrant young generation as well as the faithful who survived religious persecution during the Cultural Revolution," commented delegation member Sharon Maeda, Deputy General Secretary, Mission Contexts and Relationships/Mission Education, General Board of Global Ministries, United Methodist Church.

Church growth has been, and continues to be, so rapid that one of the biggest challenges facing the China Christian Council, the NCC’s historic partner, is to keep pace in the training of clergy and lay leaders and refurbish churches returned by the government.

In Nanjing, the NCC delegation worshipped in Mochou Church, where Ambassador Young preached to 4,000 people on the theme of "God’s Amazing Power of Love." At the end of the service, people crowded four rows deep around the altar rail and knelt in passionate prayer.

In Beijing the delegation attended a jam-packed mid-week worship service in an "unregistered" meeting place – a three-room private home in a crowded working class area. "People from the neighborhood come at 8:30 a.m. three days a week to sing hymns, study the Bible and pray," Ambassador Young said. "One of the hymns they sang said, ‘The Kingdom of God shall triumph in spite of the weakness of little churches like this.’ We had the feeling of being in the early church, as described in the Book of Acts."

The group’s first stop was Shanghai where they were formally received by the China Christian Council and the Three-Self Patriotic Movement. During the opening reception at the International Community Church, a choir of four welcomed the delegation with moving Chinese hymns composed and written by the Chinese themselves.

Chinese Christians "didn’t deny the serious persecution during the Cultural Revolution," Ambassador Young said. "They said one of the reasons the church grew so after the Cultural Revolution was because during it, Christians didn’t turn in their neighbors. They suffered themselves rather than implicating others.

"The moral example they set during the Cultural Revolution was the key to their evangelism and propagation after the Cultural Revolution. That’s a story you never hear," he said. "And I think the Chinese government has recognized the role of religion in stabilizing and encouraging people to live moral and responsible lives." Commented Ms. Maeda, "It is clear that the government of the Peoples Republic of China welcomes the good citizenship and community leadership of Christians."

However, stressed Victor Hsu, NCC Director for East Asia and the Pacific, who staffed the delegation, both the China Christian Council and the government officials the delegation met admitted repeatedly that there were problems in the implementation of the religious regulation during this decade.

"When we talked with Christian leaders," Dr. Pennybacker said, "they spoke of problems between a growing church and a developing government and country. They spoke of regional problems where ‘ultra-leftists’ remain in positions of power. However, they emphasized their government’s commitment to religious freedom for all.

"They talked of China’s commitment to the rule of law and its value for the churches, in spite of sometimes the inadequate administering of laws in their large and varied country. But consistently they denied that persecution was widespread or an intentional government policy."

Continued Dr. Campbell, "China knows its relationship with the United States is very affected by the degree of religious freedom that’s practiced. Even the highest officials said, ‘Our law is that people worship in their faith without interference. But there are places local officials don’t always grant people as much as they should. If that’s pointed out – as it has been by the China Christian Council – we will look into it and act.’"

Counseled Dr. Peter Pizor, Chair of the Worldwide Ministries Division of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) who serves on the faculty of Northwest College, Powell, Wyo., "My advice for U.S. Christians would be to celebrate the emerging strength of Chinese Christians, rejoice as they share their faith, and at the same time be realistic and recognize there are problem areas.

"The government’s administration of religion in China is heavy handed," he said. "There are party officials in several of the provinces who are overzealous. There are places where free expression of worship, although provided for under Chinese law, is not fully honored." But he cautioned against generalizing, urging that "when we hear of problems, we need to look at them carefully and deal with them as individual problems.

The NCC delegation raised two particular cases with government officials, advocating for:

"Our call for tolerance," Dr. Pizor said, "was made in every conversation at every level. It was done on an individual basis as well." In general, Dr. Pennybacker said, "We urged a greater confidence in the entire Christian community, registered or unregistered, as loyal Chinese. We asked government leaders to make allowances for the diverse and sometimes belligerent or excessive religious voices that always emerge. It is the nature of religion. I believe we were heard. Time alone will allow us to judge the impact of our engagement with these leaders of China."

Most Chinese Christians value their identity as a "post-denominational" church. "The eagerness of some Western denominations to reintroduce themselves into China will be viewed by Christians there as an inappropriate intrusion," Dr. Pennybacker said. "Such activity would be disrespectful of Chinese Christians." One such situation creating tensions is in Mongolia and North East China, where Korean missionaries are establishing missions and programs without reference to the local Chinese churches.

The Three-Self Principle helps create an indigenous Christian church no longer under the control of missionaries from other parts of the world. Said Ms. Maeda, "Their Three-Self Principle allows us to build a true partnership without the inequity of a donor/recipient relationship. It is a wonderful model of self-determination for Christians in other developing countries."

"It was my second time in China in two years," Dr. Campbell said. "I sense more ease on the part of the pastors, more comfort with their capacity to act out their Christian faith. I see the church gradually coming more and more alive. I think there will be a future with a tremendous interaction between China and the United States. We will have to be partners for the good of the world."

"We try to see a country through our partners’ eyes and ears, what it’s really like for Christians who have to live and work on a daily basis in that country," Dr. Campbell said. "The United States can offer to the world a model of religious liberty but we can offer it as a gift rather than use it as a club."

Mr. Hsu reported that "the delegation discussed several possible measures for telling the wonderful story of God working in China through Chinese Christians. The first step will be a report to the upcoming NCC General Assembly in Chicago, to be presented Nov. 13 by Ambassador Young. It will take time and commitment to impress on the American public that the Church of Jesus Christ is alive and well in China, despite imperfections. I hope very much that the member communions will be supportive of our follow-up plans once they are worked out."


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