Former Mission Network associates Kevin Xiyi Yao and his wife, Szewai Ho, were involved in Mennonite efforts in China for several years before Yao was recently installed as a mission studies professor at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary. Download full-resolution image.
Kevin Yao discusses his goal to help build bridges between American and Chinese churches.
This text will be replaced
When Kevin Xiyi Yao was growing up in communist China, becoming a professor at a theological seminary never entered his mind. However, when he began studying world history at Nankai University in 1980, his reverence for communism began crumbling. Yao also began reading theological classics, like Martin Luther’s A Treatise on Christian Liberty.
Eventually, God transformed Yao’s mind.
In May, Yao, a former Mission Network associate, completed his first semester of teaching at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary near Boston. He is also passionately involved in helping to grow Anabaptist churches in China. Yao recently spoke with MMN about his journey toward Jesus.
MMN: You have undergone quite a powerful conversion.
Yao: I grew up as an atheist, as a communist. My world view was very different. I didn’t believe in anything supernatural, only the natural law. Basically, there was not a God whatsoever. Someone like Jesus, who is fully human and fully God, was obviously absurd to me, superstition or a myth.
MMN: Then, the Cultural Revolution in China ended in 1976, and new ideas and philosophies began entering the country. How did things change for you?
Yao: After the Cultural Revolution, my communist faith was completely shaken. I explored a different direction in my life. It was still hard as a scholar and graduate student; before I believe something, I need proof. That’s my habit. It took time for all of this to make sense, this new faith.
MMN: What happened that finally transformed your thinking?
Yao: I began to realize that human reason cannot explain everything in the universe … I tried to understand Christian faith and Christianity completely with my own reasoning and academic study ... As I began to learn more about Christian values, I saw that the communist faith is very rationalistic. It’s very cold … it’s a fatalistic and deterministic world view. You think you have got the truth and you think it’s the nature of the universe, but you never experience the kind of love, grace and dignity, and brotherhood, that kind of value that you experience with Christianity.
MMN: But you’re also a scholar of world history and know well that Christianity has been unpleasant for many people. What do you say to critics who point out that violence and atrocities have also been associated with Christianity?
Yao: Violence that happens under Christianity is a distortion of Christianity. It’s a drifting away from the Christian faith. If you look back at all the faith communities, we are all capable to make that kind of mistake. We are human beings. We have sinful natures. It (the atrocities) only happens at certain points of Christianity. As a historian, it makes sense to me, though it’s also very, very sad.
MMN: What are your thoughts on the state of Anabaptism in China?
Yao: Anabaptism still has tremendous relevance for the church in China, but it’s not always appreciated enough. It’s my prayer that the church leaders will realize how important the Anabaptists in the region are for them as they realize the church in the 21st century in the Chinese context. Anabaptists have a lot to share with our brothers and sisters in China. It’s my prayer that I will continue to play a role in sharing the Anabaptist tradition with the church in China. We’re (Chinese Christians) now asking questions. Where do we go from here? What kind of theological tradition do we adopt? What polity should we adopt? Without answering those questions, you cannot move forward. I think the church in China is pretty desperate to learn whatever is available to them.
MMN: Your recent installation service at Gordon-Conwell must have been an amazing moment considering your journey.
Yao: It confirmed my conviction that I’m here for a task, a reason and a purpose. It’s not just another career or job, like the kind of feeling when you get a teaching job at a secular university or school ... The installation makes you feel different. It’s a big deal. You’re here because you are part of God’s plan to join the mission along with your colleagues to train the workers for the kingdom of God. The seminary has become very interested in China. I believe I can help build the bridge of the church in this country and in China … My heart is always with the brothers and sisters in Hong Kong and China. I hope to continue to get involved in the ministry over there … I think what the Chinese church needs most is theological education.
Yao and others at the seminary are planning a conference on campus Aug. 22-24, 2012, for Chinese and American scholars and church leaders. He is also involved in several ministries in East Asia and will travel there.
Mennonite Mission Network, the mission agency of Mennonite Church USA, leads, mobilizes and equips the church to participate in holistic witness to Jesus Christ in a broken world. Media may contact Andrew Clouse at firstname.lastname@example.org, 574-523-3024 or 866-866-2872, ext. 23024.