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Bricks to jade: After century, Chinese church growing

   
 

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Kevin Xiyi You speaks at the Council on International Ministries meeting in January. Myrrl Byler, director of Mennonite Partners in China awaits at left.

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April 28, 2009
- Mennonite Mission Network Staff

CHICAGO, Illinois - A century after Mennonite mission workers first arrived in China*, many observers see the Eastern power as atheist and communist.

Xiyi Yao disagrees.

Religion in China, Yao told a group of North American mission personnel during the Council of International Ministries gathering in Chicago, is experiencing a revival and is one of the primary influences on Chinese society. The question, he continued, is what form Christianity can and should take in China's future.

Yao, a professor of church history at the China Graduate School of Theology in Hong Kong, and a partner of Mennonite Partners in China (MPC), said some Chinese Christians and many international supporters - especially Westerners - hope for some sort of Christendom to evolve within China. Instead, he said, he can see Chinese churches as "a Christian community with a prophetic voice and a loving witness in a not-so-friendly world."

The Council of International Ministries is an annual assembly of representatives from all North American Anabaptist-related mission agencies. During its meeting in January, the group focused on China, using the phrase "Turning bricks into jade" and marking 100 years since the first Mennonite, church-supported mission workers arrived in the country.

That phrase, explained Jeanette Hanson, a Mennonite Church Canada Witness worker, and Myrrl Byler, director of MPC, is a familiar Chinese expression indicating humility. It acknowledges that the input of others can often turn our own humble contributions - or bricks - into something valuable. Mission and the church in China, they said, is an example of value arriving from something modest.

Mennonite Church Canada currently provides English teachers to China through MPC - a partnership of Mennonite Church Canada, Mennonite Mission Network, Eastern Mennonite Missions, and Mennonite Central Committee. Currently MPC has 13 workers in China.

Yao said that as many as 100 million Chinese may believe in Christ. An estimated 60 to 80 million of them are Protestants, including both the state-approved Three-Self Patriotic Movement churches and house churches. Another group of Chinese is fascinated by Christianity as a philosophical and cultural phenomenon, Yao said. These cultural Christians often do not believe in Christ, but believe the religion is important for China's history.

In the last 30 years, the government moved from condemning religion to acknowledging its positive and stabilizing force on society, as long as it is controlled, said Yao, noting that most changes in the relationship between the church and authorities have come from internal discussions, not external pressures.

China's limited religious freedom, combined with the rapidly diversifying culture, has raised questions about the legitimacy of the official church. Members of the house church movement, especially, believe the Three-self church is too closely tied to the government.

Yao said the two movements differ more socially and historically than theologically, though younger, urban house churches bring new social and cultural consciousness to their expressions of faith. While older house churches lean toward confrontational approaches for reform, the newer house churches prefer Christian education and reform over revolution.

Some North American Christians, Yao continued, seem to view radical movements as the only true Christian expression in China, but at local levels, many Three-self and house churches work together.

Byler and Hanson said that China's size - its population equals all of Africa, Central America and South America's combined - affects everything. And its rate of change is astounding. The West had 200 years of adjustment between the industrial and technological revolutions; in China, the two are happening simultaneously.

With amazement, Hanson and Byler report that even as pastors discuss the issues they face in the midst of these changes, people just keep coming and coming, and the church keeps growing, like bricks into jade.

*Henry and Nellie Bartel, members of a Mennonite Brethren church, arrived in China in 1901 but without the support of a mission agency or denomination. The first church-supported mission workers, Henry and Maria Brown, arrived in 1909. Foreign evangelists first entered China in the seventh century A.D.