China seems to have two faces.
Face #1: Five years ago I went to a northern city in China and heard about how dangerous it is to be a Christian in this communist country. I only stayed three days so I didn’t have time to visit the any house churches but I remember the impending sense of doom I felt when we flew out. Going along with this face presented to us are a few common threads that I hear repeated from many who have a similar surface experience with China like I do:
1. Bibles must be smuggled into China.
2. Foreigners cannot participate directly with house churches.
3. There are cameras and microphones everywhere. A word can’t be spoken without it being heard by The Party. Therefore, don’t use words like Jesus, church, missionary, Gospel, etc. or someone will go to jail.
4. Chinese leaders must be bi-vocational (since their vocation as preacher would be too easily known) and can only be trained in secret, remote locations.
5. The churches must meet in secret locations and stay silent.
Face #2: Last week I returned to the same city in Northern China and saw more than just a little different face. I attended a house church on Sunday and spent the week teaching three young men who are training to be pastors. I noticed the following themes at this church:
1. All the Bibles they used were bought from the local Christian bookstore and Three Self Church. They cost $2 and were bought in bulk. When the police interviewed the pastors last month it was a positive that they used the same Bibles since it helped to identify them not as a cult but as a genuine Christian church. (The police don’t like cults but assume that Christians are peaceable people not trying to cause trouble.)
2. The pastor and founder of the church was an American friend of mine. For four years they have had summer interns and other foreigners participating for the church. The Sunday I was there there were six foreigners present not including my wife and myself who were just visiting.
3. The church sang loudly about Jesus. Eighty people strong packed into an office space with an overflow room with a closed circuit TV showing the preacher. Earlier last week I was in Beijing and asked my taxi driver through a translator if he was Christian like me. He enthusiastically told me that he is and that he attends a house church since it’s closer to his house. He called me his brother and gave me a big hug. No hint of fear from cameras.
4. The preacher that day was a Chinese young man who had been trained by the missionary. I spent two days speaking about discipleship with three Chinese men who have all left secular employment to be trained for ministry. They have all told their family and friends and the police, in fact, what their profession of calling is.
5. The church passed out thousands of invitations with their churches address printed on it. They had a number of visitors that way. They are right now in search of a second location to start another church out of that church. I went with them to the real-estate agent whom they informed that they were looking for a place to rent to study the Bible in.
So here are some common solutions in our Western minds to this duplicity:
1. There must a different amount of persecution in different regions of this huge country.
-While this may be true to an extent, I don’t believe this is the reason since I saw both attitudes in the same city. There are over 200 missionaries teaching English in this same city where I went to church all operating under the first face I saw five years ago. They don’t go to church. They call themselves macaroni’s and not missionaries. They are afraid. They have little or no fruit.
2. Someone is lying
-While it is true that there are lazy missionaries and opportunistic nationals in every country I have been to who would love to make a profit from fantastic stories of persecution, this is hardly the norm. Most Christian pastors and missionaries are good men who are not lying. So, again, this may be part of the problem but certainly a small part and not the major reason for the disparity.
3. Fear gets more press than Faith
-This, as you might guess, is what I think lies at the cause of these two faces. In Numbers 13 twelve men were sent to spy out the land that God had promised to Israel. Ten men told all the people who had not yet seen the land of how dangerous it was. Their testimony was full of “can’t”. Two men tried to still the people and beg them to listen. Though it was true, the people were strong, it was also true (and perhaps true-er) that God’s power was greater. They were confident that the people should go in and take the land. After hearing the testimonies from both sides, the people wept. They had not listened when faith had spoken. Fear gets better press than faith. People love stories of fear and danger.
Below you can read their story:
And they went and came to Moses, and to Aaron, and to all the congregation of the children of Israel, unto the wilderness of Paran, to Kadesh; and brought back word unto them, and unto all the congregation, and shewed them the fruit of the land. 27 And they told him, and said, We came unto the land whither thou sentest us, and surely it floweth with milk and honey; and this is the fruit of it. 28 Nevertheless the people be strong that dwell in the land, and the cities are walled, and very great: and moreover we saw the children of Anak there. 29 The Amalekites dwell in the land of the south: and the Hittites, and the Jebusites, and the Amorites, dwell in the mountains: and the Canaanites dwell by the sea, and by the coast of Jordan. 30 And Caleb stilled the people before Moses, and said, Let us go up at once, and possess it; for we are well able to overcome it. 31 But the men that went up with him said, We be not able to go up against the people; for they are stronger than we. 32 And they brought up an evil report of the land which they had searched unto the children of Israel, saying, The land, through which we have gone to search it, is a land that eateth up the inhabitants thereof; and all the people that we saw in it are men of a great stature. 33 And there we saw the giants, the sons of Anak, which come of the giants: and we were in our own sight as grasshoppers, and so we were in their sight.
Chapter 14:1 And all the congregation lifted up their voice, and cried; and the people wept that night.
The choice, then, is not about which reality is true but how will we chose to act. Will we go in boldly and take the land? Or will we have faint hearts and timid mouths?