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Time to Shine: The Chinese Church, Church Planting, and World Missions

By Peter Sung
August 2008

“Arise, shine, for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you.” – Isaiah 60:1-3

It’s Sunday afternoon in Beijing. Outside, people are enjoying a warm spring day, a welcome respite before the harried work-week begins. But inside an office building in a newly-developed section of Beijing, nearly two hundred Chinese are crying out to God. A young man in his early twenties plays the guitar as he leads an enthusiastic worship team.

“Lord, have mercy on China!” they sing in Chinese. The congregation follows along, reading the PowerPoint slides on the projection screen. After singing, the believers bow in prayer. They intercede for the church’s two missionaries sent to other parts of China. They thank God for his blessings and faithfulness in the past. And they pray for their pastor and his upcoming sermon, that God would use it to touch the lives of those in attendance, including nearly thirty newcomers.

The text for the pastor’s sermon comes from 1 Thessalonians 2:17-3:9. He speaks of the reality of evil and people’s need to be aware of the battle that is raging. The service concludes with communion, announcements, and more singing. In many ways, it resembles Christian worship services in other parts of the world—except that some of those in attendance are among the brightest minds in China.

A Void to Fill
The spread of Christianity in China over the past few decades has been called the “greatest church growth since Pentecost.”1 When Communists took control in 1949 and commenced expelling foreign missionaries, there were an estimated 700,000 Protestant believers in the Middle Kingdom. In the years that followed, Christians in China endured intense persecution. Many thought the Chinese Church was crippled beyond repair. An American visitor in the early 1970s claimed there was “scarcely a visible trace” of Christianity in China.2 That’s certainly no longer the case. Although accurate estimates are hard to come by, there are perhaps as many as 130 million Christians today, according to one Beijing government official. A remarkable work of God has taken place.

But until recently, that work took place mostly in China’s countryside, among farmers and peasants. That is partly due to the fact that, until recently, the vast majority of China’s population lived in rural settings. But it’s also because, for many years, China’s urban intellectuals were resistant to the gospel. Christianity was viewed as a foreign ideology and often associated (sometimes, rightly so) with Western imperialism. Following World War I, Western powers ceded German colonies in China to Japan, prompting a great outcry—known as the May 4th Movement—among China’s intellectuals. Shortly thereafter, the Chinese Communist Party was founded in Shanghai.

After civil war resulted in Communist victory, many of China’s intellectuals thought the future was full of promise. China was finally rid of foreign influence and could rise to her fullest potential. But things soon began to change. The Anti-Rightist Movement of 1957-1958 resulted in the imprisonment of many intellectuals. Then, the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976) took most of China’s scholars out of university classrooms and into labor camps or factories, only to return to their academic posts in the late 1970s. Subsequent events, plus the emptiness and corruption caused by the rise of materialism in China, have left many intellectuals with a sense of disillusionment.

Many urban intellectuals have filled their ideological voids
with faith in Christ.

Time to Shine?
Thankfully, many urban intellectuals have filled their ideological voids with faith in Christ. As one example, in the mid-1990s, Beijing was home to only a handful of urban house churches. Today, there are perhaps between six and ten thousand such fellowships. Shanghai, China’s most populated city, has seen growth as well, with possibly as many as 400,000 believers.3

To be sure, some of the churches in Beijing target the migrant workers behind the capital city’s building boom. Others host rural believers who have moved to the city. But a sizeable number of the urban churches are filled with white-collar, well-educated business and academic professionals. Many will be, or already are, China’s leaders in their respective fields.

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Peter Sung (pseudonym) works in and around China with Chinese intellectuals and business leaders.