BEIJING, China (Mennonite Church Canada Witness/Mennonite Mission Network) — For 17 days, 15 North Americans came to China on a learning tour sponsored by China Educational Exchange. They traveled through exotic places like Beijing, Chongqing, Nanchong, Chengdu, Hong Kong, and Macau, but what exactly did the participants learn?
Three goals of the learning tour were to encounter and experience the Chinese church and believers; to experience Chinese realities first-hand through its food, arts, transportation, and masses of people, markets and cultural differences; and to interact with Chinese university students and teachers.
The group gained greater insight into the complexity of the Protestant Church in China. Rather than seeing the issue of whether a church registers with the state as the litmus test of Christian faithfulness, a local pastor invited group members to reflect on the need for all Christians, not just Chinese Christians, to have more discussions on matters of faith. When we debate and dialogue on matters of faith, then Christians are better able to understand what God's will is for our lives, said the pastor.
Worshiping with Chinese Christians on a Sunday morning also provided an opportunity to learn more about the church. Some members of the group appreciated aspects of worship, including the congregational singing, the Lord's Prayer and the Bible readings from the lectionary. The hymns reminded some of their home congregations. Others enjoyed the public recital of the Lord's Prayer and lectionary readings as it reminded them of their worship experiences as a child.
At the same time, group members experienced how influential 19thcentury western missionary theology continues to be in the Chinese Protestant Church. Some members of the group were disappointed to hear old familiar hymns. They said the hymns were too Western.
One group member said the point of one sermon paralleled a long-ago-heard message in a Southern Manitoba church. The message, the person thought, did not fit well into the Chinese context.
The group learned the difficulties of communication across languages and cultures. One morning during breakfast, one person asked a waitress for some tea and was quickly served a shot glass filled with potent rice wine.
Difficulty with the Chinese language was not the only thing which proved difficult at times. Westerners, grown up to love a delicious hot cup of coffee, were disappointed when it wasn't readily available at breakfast. For some, anyway, learning about China was a much more enjoyable experience after their morning "fix."
Not only did the learning tour members catch a glimpse of the complexity of the Chinese Protestant church both in its faith and life, but they gained insight into the differences which exist between urban and rural China.
One of the realities in today's China is phenomenal economic growth in parts of the country. Most of China's huge population lives in the vast countryside away from the economic boom. The incredible economic gap which exists between China's urban and rural areas also exists between China's urban and rural congregations.
Group members experienced the relative affluence of the urban church and the grinding poverty of the rural church.
But difficulties were overshadowed by the overwhelming hospitality of the Chinese. On numerous occasions, group members interacted with Chinese university students both inside and outside the university classroom. Chinese students were genuinely interested in talking and shared many stories. People shared family pictures with each other, ate meals together and began friendships.
Mary Landis, one of the participants, is from Neffsville Mennonite Church, Lancaster, Pa. The other participants were from Mennonite Church Canada congregations.
Kathi and Rod Suderman serve as program coordinators for China Educational Exchange and as country representatives for Mennonite Central Committee. Mennonite Mission Network, Mennonite Church Canada Witness, and Mennonite Central Committee support the Sudermans' work.