Thursday, August 31, 2017

Many Will Come from the East: The Explosive Growth of the Church in China

"I say to you that many will come from the east and the west, and will take their places at the feast with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven." - Matthew 8:11

One of the most dramatic and startling revivals happening in the world right now is in China. Yes, China--the avowedly atheist, communist country that many see as the USA's greatest geopolitical rival. Within a few short years, it will have more Protestant Christians than the USA does (if it doesn't already). Within two decades, China may well have a Christian population that exceeds the entire population of the United States! When I was growing up, amid the ferment of evangelical speculation about the end of the world, it was often conjectured that China would be the source of one of the great armies of Antichrist that would issue forth in the end times. Now, however, it looks like China will likely be the source of a great army of Christian missionaries, ready to lay down their lives to take the Gospel to the last remaining unreached people in the world.

An ancient Chinese Christian monument
The history of Christianity in China is ancient, going back far before the faith ever reached the shores of North America. In the 700s AD, the Church of the East (that is, the Christian populations living in what is now Iraq and Iran) was experiencing a Golden Age of missions work, even though it was now under the rule of a newly-arrived set of Muslim conquerors. The Church of the East sent out missionaries far and wide throughout Asia, and succeeded in establishing the Gospel in both Tibet and eastern China. The faith took root there for several hundred years before blinking out again in the face of persecution and separation from the global network of the Body of Christ. But the Gospel would make a return during the Age of European Exploration, when Catholic missionaries again brought the Christian faith to Chinese shores. In the 1800s, Protestant missionaries also began pouring in (my own church contributed a prominent member of this early wave of missionaries, John Johnson), and the Christian church took root once again. It produced noted Christian saints, like Watchman Nee (author of a classic devotional book, The Normal Christian Life). Though it appeared to be nearly wiped out by the crisis of the Chinese Revolution and World War II, as well as by later Communist persecution, Christianity persevered. Many Christians held onto their faith and secretly passed it down to their children. New networks of churches began to radiate out across the country throughout the late 20th century: the Three-Self Patriotic Church (the only one officially approved by the government, under heavy limitations), the Roman Catholic Church, and the vibrant, ever-multiplying house churches who represent much of the Evangelical and Pentecostal presence in China. A remarkable picture of these house churches can be found in the pages of Brother Yun's popular account, The Heavenly Man.

China is now experiencing a continued and rising wave of interest in Christianity. Though the total population of China is massive (which is necessary to remember when considering the large numbers of Christians therein), the explosive growth of Christianity there has still been remarkable. The evangelical presence in China has grown by more than 200% in the period between 1990 and 2010. It now has at least 58 million Protestants, more even than Brazil, the growing southern powerhouse of Protestant Christianity. By 2025, China will have more Protestants than the USA. And by 2030, it will have nearly 250 million total Christians, making it the largest Christian country in the world.  In terms of official membership, there are now more Christians in China than there are communists. Even the communist government itself, while still persecuting many believers (especially the house church movements), has softened its stance somewhat. It is the owner of Amity Press, which publishes and exports Bibles in more than 75 languages. With more than 50 million Bibles published, China has become one of the Bible-printing capitals of the world. 

And it's not just the numbers that make Chinese Christianity a remarkable thing. I've had several personal contacts with Chinese Christians (including Brother Yun), and have been deeply struck with their Christian maturity. One Chinese woman with whom I attended seminary left an impression on me as one of the most incredible saints I have ever known, with a presence that was irradiated by a paradoxical mix of gentle grace and spiritual power, fueled by prayer. If the USA was the vanguard of the global missionary force in the 20th century, it now seems likely that China will take that role in the 21st. The house church networks have already begun fostering a culture of missionary fervor, and have impressive plans to make the Gospel of Jesus Christ known throughout the Muslim world. 

A common bit of pessimistic humor in the US is to wryly warn that we should all be learning Chinese, because they may be the world's next superpower. From a Christian point of view, though, we can say the same thing from an optimistic slant: we should all be learning Chinese, so that we can be a part of one of the greatest moves of God in our world today.