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Growing diversity in China’s churches
January 30, 2009
VANCOUVER, British Columbia — When we first arrived in China in 1991 we noticed little diversity in the body shapes and sizes of our new acquaintances. We saw small hips, thin legs, flat abdomens and slim shoulders. My husband Todd could easily rest his hymnbook on the heads of the much shorter people in front of him in church (not that he did very often) and I easily won the distinction of having the largest thighs in town, for which Todd feels I was never properly acknowledged.
With support from Mennonite Church Canada Witness and Mennonite Mission Network via Mennonite Partners in China, we spent a number of years in China. By 2008, before we left for a two year return to Canada, we noticed that there was a growing physical diversity among the Chinese. A friend’s 14-year-old son has feet the size of Todd’s. Female students worry about their weight. Health clubs, diet fads, heart disease, and diabetes are all on the rise. It is easy, as a well-nourished Westerner, to mourn the passing of the “good old days” where obesity was unheard of and the heart disease rate was very low. But knowing that children have enough nutritious food and milk to grow strong and healthy is much more satisfying than seeing the model-like Twiggy slimness of the past.
Similarly, diversity within the church is alive, well, and growing. In 1991, we heard many stories about the reopening of church buildings and the return of church property. Stories like the discovering old church benches that had miraculously been hidden during the years the church was closed or, more often, stories of having to find wood to make new ones. We heard tales of pastors released from prison – or from hiding – and of regrouping congregations who had courageously taken a stand by worshipping God in a public place. The experiences and practices of churches in that time were surprisingly similar.
Today, diversity is evident in worship style, evangelism methods, and church administrative structures. Congregations are becoming their own entities. I spent an evening with a pastor from near Nanchong who shared some of the changes that have occurred in the Nanchong church. He was particularly concerned about methods of evangelism. He likened the most common approach currently used in Nanchong to standing on the street outside our campus and handing out a piece of white steamed bread, mantou, to every passer-by, and encouraging them to eat it.
“Most of those people aren’t even hungry, and if they are, they don’t want to fill up on mantou. Why not find people who are hungry and invite them to a banquet?”
This particular metaphor resonated clearly with me; after years of trying, I have yet to develop a taste for the bland, heavy bread. A banquet, on the other hand, is a thing of beauty in my mind. It’s a coming together of people, often a diverse and intriguing mix of people, sharing food in a wonderful array of flavours and styles, with graciously abundant hosting. I think of the “hot and noisy” atmosphere of a good banquet and the instant camaraderie and community that is built around the table. This is the gracious gift offered to hungry people who are seeking.
But then again, who am I to tell the sisters I met on the bus last week that they didn’t offer nourishment in their park evangelism? “Teacher Zhang ,” they said to me, “we shared Jesus with a hundred people this afternoon.”
That’s a lot of mantou!
While I may mourn the passing of the “good old days” where divisions were few and Christians rejoiced together in public worship, there is something healthier about the present situation of struggling for unity amidst differences of interpretation and styles.
May God continue to guide this growth and allow His face to shine in new and exciting ways from these faithful ones, whatever their differences. May God work in new ways to bring reconciliation and healing to us all, as we struggle for unity in the diverse parts of the body of Christ.
Jeanette Hanson and her husband, Todd, served with the Mennonite Church in Nanchong from 1994 to 2008. They are currently living in Canada until 2010 while Todd studies for his doctorate in Languages, Cultures and Literacies at Simon Fraser University. During this time, Jeanette will continue working with MC Canada Witness and Mennonite Partners in China, focusing on connecting interested individuals and groups in Canada with ministry and exchange with Chinese partners.
Sichuan earthquake letter of appreciation
Like many other churches in Sichuan, the Anxian Church is struggling to cope with the aftermath of the 2008 earthquake. It is located in northern Sichuan, in one of the hardest hit areas. The new church building suffered extensive damage from the quake and whether or not it can be repaired is still undergoing assessment.
As the congregation struggles to cope with their own challenges, they are embracing others who have flooded into the area from mountain valleys virtually wiped out by the quake.
In a recent prayer letter, Todd and Jeanette Hanson shared a note of appreciation from Anxian Church earthquake survivors for those who supported the congregation in the aftermath of the 2008 earthquake:
Greetings in our Lord!
At this time the serious earthquake in Wenchuan has affected many areas of Sichuan, and the people have suffered great difficulties. The churches in Sichuan have also suffered from this disaster, we here in Anxian perhaps the greatest. In our time of great need, through your prayers and help, we have been recipients of God’s love. Your love and care has not only moved the believers but also has touched the lives of those in greatest need to whom the believers here have reached out. What a beautiful, glorious witness to God has been seen by these people with your help passed along through our hands! You, as hands and feet of our Lord, have prayed for us, and we have received strength upon strength and grace upon grace. We now have faith and confidence to fight this natural disaster, to use our hard work and love to spread the Gospel of God, to spread the love, joy and peace of God to these people in need, together with you. May God bless you and your loving hearts.
May God bless you and your families, and give you joy and peace!