A view from China: Part I (guest post)

Having read my book review of ‘Knowing our Times’, an individual picked up on the comment, ‘John contrasts this with the phenomenal growth of the gospel around the world in places such as China’. What follows is part I of a guest post by an individual based in that country.

The following is not a criticism of John Stevens nor of the other substantive points made in your review (or his book). It’s just a reminder that next time you hear about China, to remember that we face the same gospel challenges here as those in the UK, just wrapped in different packaging.

I wouldn’t use the words ‘phenomenal growth’ about China. There is a tendency to look at the country through rose tinted glasses. It’s important to understand the context of mission here before coming to sweeping conclusions. There is certainly growth to a point but let me offer some further background.

First, statistics suggesting there are 100 Million believers should be taken with a large pinch of salt. Even if they were true, it would only equate to approximately 6% of total population. This 100m figure includes the whole spectrum of ‘Christendom’, which as we know is rather wide and includes lots of people we would not consider ‘born again’. Nonetheless, there is doubt about the 100m figure. In a country where the state presides over the levers of an official church which is fighting for resources to build new buildings – can we really trust their numbers and definition? I think it more likely that 100m is the number of those who regularly attend a place of worship which is, in some form or other, related to the worship of Jesus.

Much more plausible is the relatively conservative estimate of c. 60m believers. Now, due to the large population size of China, this is almost as many people as live in the UK. Out of that, however, you still need to subtract other parts of Christendom, giving you a rough figure closer to 30-40m Evangelicals in the country. However, even this figure only tells us the number of people who attend an evangelical church of some sort – around 2.5% of the population. The simple point is this: the absolute numbers sound great, but as a percentage they’re no better than the UK.

In my experience – having lived here for more than a decade – people here are very responsive to spiritual things, at least outwardly. This, I believe, is one of the major reasons for all the Western Evangelical excitement. It’s as if there is a vacuum and people are searching to give their life meaning following the breakdown of the planned economy. People have seen the hypocrisy of the state system which tells them one thing, whilst the leaders go off in the opposite direction. They also see a government, which claims to be Atheistic, encouraging things that simply don’t add up with this position.

For example, when disasters strike people are encouraged to ‘pray for blessings’ on the victims. When people die, they are wished a ‘good Journey’. Even in the everyday language used by the state, there are phrases which express how ‘I was brought into the world, so I must be a useful being’. These are all very strange phenomena for a country which believes there is no god, that death is the end and officially teaches that we evolved from apes.

When we try to live in God’s world which he created, without acknowledging him as creator, contradictions abound. Here, these contradictions are openly flaunted, giving people real pause for thought. Nonetheless, we mustn’t conflate interest in spiritual things with actual interest in the gospel of Jesus Christ. People may be willing to talk about God, even to believe that he exists, but when it comes to admitting that they are a sinner in need of salvation – that’s a different story.