Modern American and Chinese Christianity: Modern Christianity in Two Cultures and What They Can Learn From Each Other

Introduction

 

             In the Spring of 2006, I had the great privilege to travel to Shang Hai and train twelve Chinese engineers to support my company’s software. Spending 10 days with these people, I found myself immersed in their culture. Each day at lunch, we would go to a different restaurant and would talk about the food and the culture. I asked them to teach me Mandarin. They refused to say that they needed to learn English more than I needed to learn Mandarin. When it was my time to leave, my eyes filled with tears as the plane lifted off the ground. Although these beautiful people had many new economic advantages, there was still a pronounced, yet subtle, restraint on the freedom of thought, the freedom of individual expression, and freedom of religion.

Jump forward to the Spring of 2017. My wife and I had been attending a giant “Big Box” church for six years. The pastor, a former NFL football player, was a dynamic teacher who was attracting 1,200 people in three services because of his message of the multi-ethnic church and the limitless life that lived in Jesus. There were multiple ways to join in ministry, although all of them were coordinated and structured within the framework of the church. Minimal improvisation of ministry occurred. We were leaving that church as we felt called to a new, small, Vineyard church. No animosity to the big church, we just knew that God was calling us to have more connection and more freedom to minister and worship in a less programmed fashion. This Vineyard church, who held services in an upper room of a YMCA, was a dynamic opposite of the larger church. We had found our new church home.

These two scenarios form the emotional backbone of this paper. The American and Chinese churches are changing. The American and Chinese cultures are changing. I will review the current state of American Christianity and the many changes that are undergoing in the American church. Then I will discuss Christianity in modern China including the culture of the Chinese church and the complications of expressing faith in a restrictive society. Finally, I will consider what these two expressions of Christianity can learn from each other.

 

The Christian Church in America

            The American church grew as a reflection of the European church. The European church had an integration of the church and the state. With the adoption of Christianity by Constantine and the Edict of Milan, the age or European Christendom birthed a bond between Church and state.[1] Evan after the Reformation in the 16th century, Protestant countries had national churches. Scandinavian nations adopted the Lutheran church, England had its Protestant expression (with specific ecclesiastical functions given to the monarchy), The Church of Scotland, and others all lent to the understanding the state and the church were deeply intertwined. Conversions did not happen to individuals, but to countries. According to Kim, “Many Europeans converted to Christianity because of the decisions of their rulers. Once a King declared that Christianity was the religion of the Kingdom, his subjects had no choice but to follow or at least appear to.”[2]

megachurch-service

            When Europeans left their homes for the North American continent and eventually established their own country in the United States, they envisioned a new approach. Instead of the nation embracing a formal church or religion, there would be a secular separation of the two entities.[3] The states, with their governments and cultures, would be linked by a united federal government and unified set of values.[4] Individual states would have dominant religions for many years. Pennsylvania with its Quaker roots, New England with its Puritan / Congregationalist and Unitarian churches, and Maryland with its Roman Catholic population all exemplify how states hung onto a religious identity. However, these identities were not explicitly linked to governing forces.

Religious movements could move freely among the states due to the bedrock of this separation of church and state. Hence, the spiritual revivals that flowed not only had a local impact but national impact. The First Great Awakening (1720’s – 1740’s) laid the ground for the development of what was to become Mainline Protestant denominations. Wesleyan Methodism and Calvinist Presbyterianism had their birth out of movements that started in Europe and spread to America.[5] The Second Great Awakening (1790’s – 1820’s) further developed these denominations in America and brought new styles and traditions.[6] Denominations grew and flourished. While the separation of church and state continued, the religious organization influenced political issues. “The Second Great Awakening promoted national unity through the founding of voluntary nationwide societies, mission agencies, Bible societies, and temperance and anti-slavery movement.” [7]

Out of the Second Great Awakening came a new group of Christians, Evangelicals. While the established Methodist, Presbyterian, and now Baptist denominations grew and flourished, by the middle of the 19th century, there rose a cross-denominational movement that stressed spreading the Gospel through evangelistic activities.[8] Dwight L. Moody set the pattern for what would be the modern-day evangelist and evangelistic activity:

“One of the most prominent preachers of his time, Moody organize the annual evangelical meetings, revival meetings, mission services, and special services on a regular basis. He planned and promoted activities that featured itinerant evangelists and lay preachers. Marsden differentiates Moody from others, stating that he “was not a sensationalist evangelist like Charles Finney or the fourth coming Billy Sunday… [H]e contributed tremendously not only towards revivalism but also to Christian education and philanthropic activities. his preaching was so popular and attractive that it drew the deep attention of the audience with his homie and sentimental style of storytelling.”[9]

 

In the 20th century, Mainline Protestant denominations solidified their presence and grew. Evangelicals, sparked by local revivals and iterant preaching, also developed and embraced new forms of worship and evangelism such as the Pentecostal, Holiness, and Charismatic movements. Through three major wars and devastating economic depression, these movements and denominations formed a backbone of American culture. “Thus, the Christian faith in the United States did not come to identify with the term Christendom, but rather with the term Christianity.”[10]

However, something started to happen within the Mainline and Evangelical churches towards the latter half of the 20th century. As science and technology kept making lightspeed advances, so did the modernist thinking in America. The notion of the sacred truth (religion) fell to a category divorced from rational, scientific, humanistic truth.[11] Humanism, stemming from the Renaissance, had come to be a worldview in which the human individual can lead a healthy and happy life removed from any spiritual or theistic foundation.[12] Scientism holds that truth is discovered through scientific methodology and technological advancement.[13] These worldviews had a dramatic effect on the American culture as younger Americans started to question the traditional American Christianity worldviews. Happiness and truth are found outside the church walls. Humanism arose in music, media, film, arts, and, especially the academic arena. In the late 1960’s, many young Americans threw off the traditional convention.

Two brief moments interrupted this progress of Scientism and Humanism. In the early 1970’s, the Jesus movement developed in Southern California with hippies, disillusioned by humanism and hedonism, found their truth in Christianity. This form of Christianity trended towards revivalist and Pentecostal expressions. Also, the revival sparked changes in Christian music as well as birthed new church groups such as the Vineyard movement. Music in many of today’s churches has a foundation in the Jesus Revival of the early 1970’s. In the 1980’s, the political Evangelical – or the Religious Right rose up out of the ashes of the late 1970’s. Politically motivated to combat the changes humanism had brought to the culture, Evangelicals attempted to affect the culture through political motivation as opposed to the spiritual movement.

megachurch-worship

Despite these two periods of growth, American Christianity has had some significant shifts moving into the 20th century. David T. Olsen conducted an extensive evaluation of the American church in the mid-2000’s. His results confirmed what many Christians thought as well as exposed the decline of Christian influence in American culture. While popular polls put American church attendance in the 40% range, Olsen found that something he called the “halo effect” – people answer survey questions to reflect socially acceptable behavior – dramatically affect surveys on church attendance.[14] Olsen instead focused on actual church attendance as opposed to survey self-reporting. What he found was that the number of Americans attending church was more in the 17-18% range.[15] Even more profound, was that the rate of church attendance decreased as compared to the population growth of the U. S.[16]

This decline in attendance has had a profound effect on all denominations. The Roman Catholic Church has had an increase in membership due to Hispanic immigration, but a decrease in attendance.[17] Mainline churches have had 40 years of steady decline.[18] Kim attributes this decline to the increased internal adoption of American secularization of these denominations.[19] Olsen further elaborates that their inability to adapt to cultural change, fight off dysfunction, and delay decay and diminishment.[20] Kinnaman and Lyons, on the other hand, attributes church decline to the adoption of the distinctly unchristian characteristics of hypocrisy, manipulative evangelism, antihomosexual activities, isolation, political agendas, and judgmental attitudes.[21]

Evangelical / Pentecostal churches, however, have not had the kind of decline that the Roman Catholic and Mainline denominations have had. Because Evangelical churches, independent and denominational, have stronger cultures of maintaining attendance levels along with an emphasis on starting new churches.[22] Evangelical / Pentecostal churches also are larger than most mainline denomination churches. Megachurches have the traits of massive attendance (over 2,000 in attendance), mostly independent from denominations, and are highly programmatic in incorporating members into active ministry. The development of the megachurch has had a positive effect on keeping membership higher than other contemporary Protestant and Roman Catholic churches.

Olson’s evaluation of healthy growing churches identified several essential attributes. Healthy churches have a spiritual emphasis on the gospel message, on the transformation of the individual life, and the spiritual formation of the believer. Healthy growing churches also have a strong family culture and strong leadership. Finally, they have a strategic plan of growth, vision, and ministry.[23]  Contrary to intuition, the churches that thrived were churches that multiplied. Although most church plants do not survive for very long, churches that actively did multiple church plants flourished because new churches keep up with population growth.[24]

The American church is at a crossroads. The country has entered a post-Christian and post-Modern age where a person focuses on individual happiness as opposed to the search for objective truth. The American Christian no longer lives in a culture that has its moral foundation in religious belief. American believers in Jesus find themselves at odds with the culture they live. This adversarial relationship to the culture, however, is nothing new to the Chinese Christian.

 

 

The Christian Church in China

Christianity, or any religion for that matter, is a complicated discussion in modern China. While still functionally a committed communist and atheistic nation, modern China has embraced many western economic liberties along with a growing middle class. However, freedoms of thought, association, expression, religious belief, reproduction, and mobility are still highly regulated. Christians in China find themselves in an awkward position. They want to be good citizens, but they also must serve Jesus.

There have been attempts by the West to Christianize China. However, none of the efforts had a lasting impact.[25] Christianity has been held with skepticism by the Chinese due to its ties with Western colonial ambitions.[26] When Mongolian Chinese expanded their empire into the West, conquering large parts of Russia and moving to the steps of Europe in the mid-13th century, The Roman Christian Church under Pope Innocent IV attempted to Westernize their invaders. The Pope sent a messenger, Plano Carpini, to the Mongolian Capital with a 1,400-word letter imploring the King to embrace Christianity.[27] Kuyak Khan responded to the Pope with a terse letter back that ended:

“Now your own upright heart must tell you: ‘We will become subject to you, and will place our powers at your disposal.’ You in person, at the head of the monarchs, all of you, without exception, must come to tender us service and pay us homage; then only will we recognize your submission. But if you do not obey the commands of Heaven, and run counter to our orders, we shall know that you are our foe. That is what we have to tell you. If you fail to act in accordance therewith, how can we foresee what will happen to you? Heaven alone knows.”[28]

chinese-christian-painting-101-e1279084308272

The historical Chinese skepticism towards Christianity reached new heights with the Communist takeover of the country in 1949. China had been accepting of missionary work through the 19th and early 20th century. When the Japanese invaded China at the beginning of World War II, the expelled most missionaries. Following the War, China went back to a delayed civil war that had the Communists taking power. After solidifying power, Mao Zedong embarked on a “Cultural Revolution” that started in 1966 and lasted until 1976. The Cultural Revolution attempted to purge and remove all vestiges of Western influence from Chinese society. Nien Cheng was a Christian with ties to Western Corporations at that time. She was caught up in the fury of Cultural Revolution and imprisoned for no other reason than being linked to Western ideas. During one of her many interrogations, she recounts:

“The interrogator continued, ‘The thing for you to do is to look over your own life and examine your family background. Find your correct place in the political and economic structure of our socialist state. Where do you stand? With the working people and the revolutionaries or with the class enemies? You do not need me to tell you that you came from a funeral family that owned an enormous amount of rich agricultural land. For generations, your family exploded the peasants and lived off of the riches created. Your grandfather, your father and your husband were all senior officials of reactionary regimes that cooperated with foreign imperialism, exploited the people in oppose the Communist Party.'”[29]

This kind of interrogation typified the paranoia and cultural pressure that marked the movement. The Cultural revolution is a shadow that hangs over China and Christians to this day. As Chinese Christians are just one generation removed from a campaign that actively persecuted any person tied to ideas of the West, this remains a backdrop for Chinese Christ followers. As the Cultural Revolution died off and ties with the West began again, there developed a new openness to religious activity. The State Churches guided by the Three-Self Patriotic Movement started to open doors of indigenous, state-controlled church bodies. The Three-Self Patriotic Movement (self-government, self-support, and self-propagation), began in 1951 as an overseer of Protestant religious activity in China. In the 1980’s it led to the formation of the China Christian Council (Protestant) alongside the Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association.[30] As of 2007, estimations are that there are forty million Protestants and 10 million Catholics.[31] However, these numbers should be viewed with skepticism in light of the House Church movement that has developed as a reaction to the state-controlled churches.[32] Because of the deep ties to the Communist government, many Chinese Christians have gone to unregistered house churches. In his book, God is Red: How Christianity Survived and Flourished in Communist China, Liao Yiwu recounts stories from those who have been persecuted by the government for participation in these house churches. In discussion with one participant, Yuan Fusheng, Yuan recounts his experience as a Christian in China. Yuan, the son of a House Church pastor who at the time of the writing of the book was imprisoned for his work, talked about his experience.

“(My father) turned our house into a church. Initially, he preached to 10 people at our house. Within a few years, his congregation was 300 and his house church was the biggest in Beijing. Our house was certainly too small to accommodate such a number – we would dismantle our beds to make more room – and soon the whole alley was packed with followers when he preached. We used to have a joke: “We are short of everything at home, except bibles and benches, and we were given those.” My father still holds that the government and the church should be separate and that the church should also be self-sustaining.”[33]

The Three-Self Patriotic Churches are also opening more aspects of Christianity. The government still holds restrictions over churches, limiting size, political speech, and insisting on orthodoxy.[34] Pentecostalism, once seen as non-orthodox, is now embraced as a legitimate expression of the Christian faith.[35] Hong Kong missionary Dennis Balcombe attests that spiritual awakenings are happening in the government approved churches, but yet many Chinese Christians remain wary of these bodies.[36]

The house churches in China grew out of the persecution of the Cultural Revolution in what Bram Colijn calls pluriprax households.[37] These are family households who secretly kept their Christian faith and practices through the severe abuses. These households also networked together and had a shared values of Bible study, Sunday worship services, and the avoidance of ancestor worship.[38] These Christians view their house church system as a culture as opposed to a religion. Colijn concludes:

Without being recognized as ‘religion,’ central and local authorities have rounded up leaders of such groups, demolished or seized their buildings, and outlawed their activities. Inside pluriprax households, such actions are easily replicated, because as we have seen, people can and do emulate the authorities’ handling of ‘religion’ and ‘religious freedom.’ A narrow understanding of religion as a mere discursive tool may push recently rehabilitated groups back into illegality, upsetting delicate harmonies in pluriprax households.[39]

China's Christians Practice Their Faith in Underground Churches
BEIJING, CHINA – OCTOBER 12:(CHINA OUT): A Chinese Christian woman sings during a prayer service at an underground independent Protestant Church on October 12, 2014 in Beijing, China. China, an officially atheist country, places a number of restrictions on Christians and allows legal practice of the faith only at state-approved churches. The policy has driven an increasing number of Christians and Christian converts ‘underground’ to secret congregations in private homes and other venues. While the size of the religious community is difficult to measure, studies estimate there more than 65 million Christians inside China with studies supporting the possibility it could become the most Christian nation in the world within a decade. (Photo by Kevin Frayer/Getty Images)

The Fangcheng Fellowship is an example of a well-structured and wide-ranging house movement. The movement began shortly after World War II, survived intense persecution of the Cultural Revolution, and is now growing in numbers of believers and house churches.[40] The Tanghe Fellowship is another house church system that shares, along with Fangcheng, many Pentecostal expressions of faith including healing and miracles.[41] The most substantial house church movement is the Born-Again also known as “Full Scope Movement” and “Word of Life Movement.”[42] This system of house churches joined together with Fangcheng in the late 1990’s to produce The United Appeal and The Confession of Faith. These two documents tied the house church movements together in a standard, orthodox, system of belief that avoided Pentecostal and Eschatological issues. At the same time, the documents proved that these movements were not cults, but legitimate expressions of the Christen Faith.[43]

What the Chinese and American Churches Can Learn From Each Other

American Christians have recently shown a great deal of interest in Chinese Christianity and the House Church movements. Aside from the increased level of persecution under current Chinese General Secretary Xi Jinping (as documented by agencies such as Voice of the Martyrs, Open Doors, and China Aid) the Chinese House church movement holds an attractiveness to many American Christians. Francis Chan even left his position as pastor of megachurch Cornerstone Fellowship and moved to Asia. There he focused on the underground church movement. In studying this movement, Chan was struck by the remarkable simplicity and beauty of this model.[44] Chan states:

In America, you feel like you need to become famous in order to have an impact. But in China, it was quite the opposite. There better not be anyone who knows you, or you’ll be in trouble. It was so cool. The Lord doesn’t need our popularity or platform.[45]

Christians-in-China-1-550x350

            Chan’s experience demonstrates that the celebrity culture in America is not necessarily a good thing for the Church. In fact, it is the smaller churches in America that are thriving.[46] Large megachurches, while having a plethora of programs and ministries, ultimately lack qualities of fellowship and intimacy. Small to midsize churches that focus on the giftings on the congregation as well as fostering friendship and affection tend to have stronger futures.[47] It is something that the Chinese churches have had to do out of necessity and may be the key to their success.

Another area the American Church can learn from their Chinese brethren is in the field of secularization. With the Three-Self Patriotic Movement essentially being a branch of the government, and with the mainline Protestant denominations embracing secular and liberal theologies, there is a weakening of both. The goal of Christianity is to be unique from the culture without necessarily being combative. There are times, and they are increasing in frequency, where the church and the state come into conflict. But the point is that the boat needs to be in the water, the water should not be in the boat.

The Chinese church can learn from the American church in church planting. As mentioned earlier, Olson states that churches that plant other churches are the healthiest. House churches in China should spark other house churches. Propagation through the natural growth of new churches strengthens the Christian Church overall and allows the population to be served by many different bodies of believers.

Lastly, the Chinese church can learn from the Americans in a commonality of orthodoxy. Although denominational and church doctrines differ from church to church; there is an overall commonality of faith shared among Evangelicals and Pentecostals. Chinese home churches run the risk (if isolated from larger movements) of embracing heresies and cultic tendencies. By embracing larger movements with commonality of doctrine, house churches in China can retain their unique identities and intimacies without falling into error or cultic dysfunction.

The American church has drifted far from its original dominance in the culture. The Chinese Church has never dominated the Chinese culture. Post-modern and post-Christian America have put orthodox Christians in a place of tension with the culture. For the Chinese Christian, this is just a part of being a believer of Jesus in a communist nation. American and Chinese come with two very different cultures and two very different histories. However, the amount Americans can learn from their Chinese brothers and sisters and vice versa is immense. Through the power of the Holy Spirit, God is using these two groups of Christ Followers to further increase His Kingdom – on Earth as it is in Heaven.

 

 

Works Cited

Aikman, David. Jesus in Beijing: How Christianity Is Transforming China and Changing the Global Balance of Power. Washington, D.C.: Regnery, 2003.

Berglund, Taylor. “The Greatest Commandment: How Francis Chan’s Radical Return to Christian Roots Is Reshaping His Faith Community.” Charisma 43, no. 9 (April 2018): 22 – 28.

Cheng, Nien. Life and Death in Shanghai. New York: Grove Press, 1987.

Colijn, Bram. “The Concept of Religion in Modern China: A Grassroots Perspective.” Exchange 47 (2018): 53-70.

Collier, Adam. Letter from Mongol Leader from Kuyuk Khan to Pope Innocent IV. n.d. http://adamcollier.com/mongollettertopope (accessed July 1, 2018).

Kane, J Herbert. A Concise History of the Christian World Mission: A Panoramic View of Missions from Pentecost to the Present. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker House Books, 1982.

Kim, Elijah J. F. The Rise of the Global South: The Decline of Western Christendom and the Rise of Majority World Christianity. Eugene, Or: Wipf & Stock, 2012.

Kinnaman, David, and Gabe Lyons. Unchristian: What a New Generation Really Thinks About Christianity– and Why It Matters. Grand Rapids, Mich: Baker Books, 2007.

Liao, Yiwu. God Is Red: The Secret Story of How Christianity Survived and Flourished in Communist China. New York: HarperOne, 2011.

Olson, David T. The American Church in Crisis: Groundbreaking Research Based On a National Database of Over 200,000 Churches. Grand Rapids, Mich: Zondervan, 2008.

Walker, Ken. “The Biggest Revival in History.” CharismaDigital 2 (January 2012): 16-23.

Zacharias, Ravi K., and Vince Vitale. Jesus Among Secular Gods: The Countercultural Claims of Christ. New York: Faith Words/Hachette Book Group, 2017.

 

 

[1] Elijah J F. Kim, The Rise of the Global South: The Decline of Western Christendom and the Rise of Majority World Christianity (Eugene, Or.: Wipf & Stock, 2012), 90.

[2] Ibid, 107.

[3] Ibid, 314.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid, 275.

[6] Ibid, 284.

[7] Ibid, 286.

[8] Ibid, 302.

[9] Ibid, 293.

[10] Ibid, 303.

[11] Ravi K. Zacharias and Vince Vitale, Jesus Among Secular Gods: The Countercultural Claims of Christ (New York: Faith Words/Hachette Book Group, 2017), Kindle Edition, 9.

[12] Ibid, 146.

[13] Ibid, 64-65.

[14] David T. Olson, The American Church in Crisis: Groundbreaking Research Based on a National Database of Over 200,000 Churches (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan, 2008), Kindle Edition, Location 451-453.

[15] Ibid, Location 467-469.

[16] Ibid, Location 604.

[17] Ibid, 770-773.

[18] Ibid, 841-843.

[19] Kim, 341-342.

[20] Olsen, Location 1819-1846.

[21] David Kinnaman and Gabe Lyons, Unchristian: What a New Generation Really Thinks About Christianity and Why It Matters (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Books, 2007), 29-30.

[22] Olson, Location 906.

[23] Ibid, Location 1876-1939.

[24] Ibid, Location 2364-2640.

[25] J Herbert Kane, A Concise History of the Christian World Mission: A Panoramic View of Missions from Pentecost to the Present, rev. ed. (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Book House, 1982), 130-131.

[26] Ibid, 127.

[27] David Aikman, Jesus in Beijing: How Christianity Is Transforming China and Changing the Global Balance of Power (Washington, D.C.: Regnery Pub., 2003), 27.

[28] Adam Collier, “Letter from Mongol Leader from Kuyak Khan to Pope Innocent IV,” Looking Unto Jesus, accessed July 1, 2018, http://adamcollier.com/mongollettertopope.

[29] Nien Cheng, Life and Death in Shanghai (New York: Grove Press, 1987, 1986), 149.

[30] Aikman, 153.

[31] Yiwu Liao, God Is Red: The Secret Story of How Christianity Survived and Flourished in Communist China (New York: Harper One, 2011), 5.

[32] Aikman, 7.

[33] Liao, 162.

[34] Ken Walker, “The Biggest Revival in History,” Charisma Digital 2 (January 2012): 19-20.

[35] Ibid.

[36] Ibid, 21.

[37] Bram Colijn, “The Concept of Religion in Modern China: A Grassroots Perspective,” Exchange 47 (2018): 59.

[38] Ibid.

[39] Ibid, 69.

[40] Aikman, 75-77.

[41] Ibid, 81.

[42] Ibid, 87.

[43] Ibid, 93.

[44] Taylor Berglund, “The Greatest Commandment: How Francis Chan’s Radical Return to Christian Roots Is Reshaping His Faith Community,” Charisma 43, no. 9 (April 2018): 24.

[45] Ibid.

[46] Olson, Location 1257.

[47] Ibid.

The Church

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: