CHICAGO (Mennonite Mission Network) — A century after Mennonite mission workers first arrived in China*, many observers see the Eastern power as atheist and Communist.
Xiyi Yao disagrees.
Religion in China, Yao told a group of North American mission personnel during the Council of International Ministries gathering in Chicago, is experiencing a revival and is one of the primary influences on Chinese society. The question, he continued, is what form Christianity can and should take in China’s future.
Yao, a professor of church history at the China Graduate School of Theology in Hong Kong through Mennonite Mission Network, said some Chinese Christians, and many international supporters—especially Westerners—hope for some sort of Christendom to evolve within China. Instead, he said, he can see Chinese churches as “a Christian community with a prophetic voice and a loving witness in a not-so-friendly world.”
The Council of International Ministries is an annual assembly of representatives from all North American Anabaptist-related mission agencies. During its meeting in January, the group focused on China, using the phrase “Turning bricks into jade” and marking 100 years since the first Mennonite, church-supported mission workers arrived in the country.
That phrase, explained Jeanette Hanson, a mission worker through Mission Network and Mennonite Church Canada Witness, and Myrrl Byler, director of Mennonite Partners in China, is a familiar Chinese phrase that indicates humility—perhaps another can turn my humble bricks into something valuable. Missions and the church in China, they said, is an example of value arriving from something modest.
Under the current Chinese regime, Mennonite Church USA and Mennonite Church Canada mission presence takes the form of education through Mennonite Partners in China—a partnership of Mennonite Mission Network, Eastern Mennonite Missions, Mennonite Central Committee and Mennonite Church Canada. Currently Mennonite Partners, formerly China Educational Exchange, has 13 workers in China.
Today, Yao said, as many as 100 million Chinese may believe in Christ—an estimated 60 to 80 million of these Christaians are Protestants, including both the state-approved Three-Self Patriotic Movement churches and the house churches. Another group of Chinese is fascinated by Christianity as a philosophical and cultural phenomenon, Yao said. These cultural Christians often do not believe in Christ, but believe the religion is important for China’s history.
In the last 30 years, the government moved from condemning religion to acknowledging its positive and stabilizing force on society, as long as it is controlled, said Yao. The church, he continued, is still exploring theological orientation, organizational structure and its relationship to authority, as it did in ancient and Reformation times. Most changes in those relationships, he said, have come from internal discussions, not external pressures.
China’s limited religious freedom, combined with the rapidly diversifying culture, has resulted in some believers questioning the legitimacy of the official church. Members of the house church movement, especially, believe the Three-self church is too closely tied to the government.
Yao said the two movements differ more socially and historically than theologically, though younger, urban house churches bring new social and cultural consciousness to their expressions of faith. While older house churches tend to seem anti-government in their confrontational pushes for religious freedom, social justice and political reform, the newer house churches look for a third way, pushing Christian education and reform over revolution.
Some North American Christians, Yao continued, have chosen to oversimplify the more radical movements as the only true Christian expression in China. In fact, at the local levels, many Three-self and house churches work together, he said.
China, according to Byler and Hanson, is a nation of paradoxes that can be difficult for outsiders—and insiders—to understand.
The pair said China’s size—its population equals all of Africa, Central America and South America’s combined—affects everything. And its rate of change is astounding. The West had 200 years of adjustment between the industrial and technological revolutions; in China, the two are happening simultaneously.
The changes that affect the Chinese include the church, reported Byler and Hanson. They have heard pastors discuss the issues they face, then shake their heads in amazement. The people just keep coming and coming and the church keeps growing, they reported, like bricks into jade.
Wang Xuefu, director of the Nanjing (China) Counseling Center, said today’s Chinese churches must offer care, comfort and healing in the gap between the relative poverty of rural Chinese and the government-backed, large-scale technological advancements in urban areas.
During the meetings, the Association of Anabaptist Missiologists recognized Roland P. Brown, David Ewert, Alice Ruth (Pannabecker) Ramseyer and Leland Voth for the contribution that they and their parents made to Christian missions in China. Brown’s parents, Henry and Maria Brown, were the first Mennonite mission workers in China. The others’ parents also spent significant time in China; some also served in other Asian countries.
*Henry and Nellie Bartel, members of a Mennonite Brethren church, arrived in China in 1901 but without the support of a mission agency or denomination. The first church-supported mission workers, Henry and Maria Brown, arrived in 1909. Foreign evangelists first entered China in the seventh century A.D.