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Reflection on the Amity Easter tour in China 2007

by Necta Montes Rocas

Seminary students at the Henan Bible School
Seminary students at the Henan Bible School.

The Amity Easter Tour 2007 is an annual activity of the Amity Foundation in cooperation with the China Christian Council (CCC). The Tour aims to strengthen links between the Chinese churches and the international ecumenical community through a 10-day visit to the different churches, church educational institutions and seminaries, government offices working with churches and other religions in China, and Amity’s project sites and programs.

This the year, the trip brought together twenty two (22) individuals from churches and institutions from across different countries and cultures to China’s capital Beijing and to Zhengzhou, Louyang, Zhoukou, three areas located in the central province of Henan. The focus of this year’s trip was to examine and enhance ecumenical sharing in responding to the problem of HIV and AIDS in the rural villages in China.

In Beijing, the visiting team met with representatives of the Institute of World Religions of the Chinese Academy of Social Science, a think-tank institution that advices the government on matters related to religious affairs. The Visiting Team also met with representatives of the Ministry of Religious Affairs, who gave a briefing of the Chinese government policy and work with religious groups in China. A visit was also arranged with Rev. Xinli Yu, Principal of the Yanjing Theological Seminary (regional seminary) and President of the Beijing Council of Churches. We also attended a Youth Fellowship at a local church in Beijing.

Much of our time was spent at Henan Province, the most populous province in China, where majority of mainland Christians lived. Here we met with the leaders of the Henan Christian Council and visited the Henan Bible School at Zhengzhou, the capital of Henan Province. We also traveled to Zhoukou Gospel Church and Training Center and visited the Jian Kang Zhi Nam Clinic in Zhoukou. One of the highlight of the trip was a visit to a village Clinic in Yizhuan Village to visit the HIV/AIDS projects sites of Amity Foundation.

Another highlight of the tour were visits to cultural and historical sites which includes the Great Wall at Ba Da Ling, the Forbidden City, the LongMen Grottoes, the Shoulin Temple, and the tomb of the great Fu Xi in Hauiyang.

Culture Christians, Potential Christians and the Faith Community

This trip has provided me with an opportunity to understand the contemporary life in China as well as an appreciation of its historical past, and the link between the two eras which has mostly been interpreted through the lens of western media. I must say that I am not an expert on China and neither was the topic of this reflection the intention of the visit, hence my reflections are drawn purely from my observation as member of the visiting team.

At the beginning of the trip, we were introduced to the Institute of World Religions of the Chinese Academy of Social Science in Beijing. The presentation given by our host was fairly academic and intellectual. One particular idea that caught my interest was a description made by the speaker about some of their members called “Culture Christians” or young intellectuals who are attracted to and have become interested in Christianity through literature, the fine arts, philosophy, history and other cultural and social disciplines. People who found the meaning of life in Christianity as an academic discipline and intellectual discourse without the spiritual and faith dimension. Perhaps this is similar to the term called Nominal Christians, where the dichotomy between the spiritual and intellectual dimensions of faith exist without contradiction.

Mid-way into the trip, my questions became more practical than philosophical. I wanted to understand how ordinary Chinese people practice Christian faith, their relationship with God and Jesus Christ in today’s China. From this trip, I was able to understand the marked difference between how the people in the villages and the educated people in China contrast and differ in their practice and understanding of Christian faith.

In our visit to the Zhoukou Gospel Church, church members numbering nearly a thousand, greeted us enthusiastically as we enter the Church gates. I found out later that many of them where farmers and villagers who come regularly to the church service and partake in the community lunch provided by the church every Sunday. In the evening, a musical presentation with Chinese gospel songs was prepared by young people studying at the nearby Gospel Bible School to celebrate our visit. The welcome was a hearth-warming and overwhelming experience for most of us who were first-timers in China.

The resident pastor of the Zhoukou Gospel Church Rev. Ma Xin explained to us that many of the people who attend his church are so-called “Potential Christians”, or people who are not yet baptized as Christians but whose family members, friends or acquaintances are Church members. This I believe describes clearly of the situation of the Christian Church in China today. There is a groundswell of “Potential Christians” who are attracted to the growing awareness and influence of Christianity in the people’s daily lives.

It is estimated that there are between 40 million to 100 million Christians in China (or 3% to 4% of the Chinese population). The biggest protestant group belongs to the post-denominational institution called, China Christian Council (CCC). Christianity is growing in China according to the pastors and church workers we met because of several reasons: first, people are looking for something that will fill-in the spiritual void brought about by the rapid changes in the economic life of the people; second, people are attracted to learn new things as evident in their enthusiasm in learning the gospel; third, belief that by becoming Christian is becoming a good citizen; and fourth, the social service work that the Churches and Christian groups attracts people.

This situation however poses great challenge to the likes of Pastor Ma Xin and the other Church ministers in China. The rapid growth of Church membership requires more trained and educated pastors and lay-leaders to cope with the growing number of Christians in China, with the current ratio of 1 pastor to 65,000 members. At the same time there is a growing expectation for Churches to respond to the social needs of the people, especially in the countryside.

As an outsider, I cannot help but worry about where this groundswell is going? Can the Church cope with this great expectation? My worry grew when one of the project that a local Church has embarked on was the construction of a church that copied the architectural design of St. Paul’s Cathedral in London. When asked by one of the member of our visiting team why they wanted to construct the church, the pastor politely answered that he wanted the local people to see and appreciate beautiful structures without having to leave the village. Earlier in this visit, I took pictures of replicas of several statues from a well-known seminary in the US that were copied and displayed on a playground of a seminary in Beijing.

Church members of Zhoukou Gospel Church greeted the visiting team enthusiastically
Church members of Zhoukou Gospel Church
greeted the visiting team enthusiastically.

The demand for the Church to respond to the call of the faithful and converts is indeed overwhelming. In this process, there is a tendency for the Church to lose its identity by downplaying the influence of the Chinese indigenous tradition and culture in the Church life and ministry. Like my new found understanding of the so-called Culture Christians, the churches in China can contribute more in expanding Asian Christians understanding of Christianity from the perspective and experience of the Churches in China. I hope that in the coming years effort will be made to strengthen the interpretation of a truly Chinese theology, one that highlights the experiences of the Chinese people in their faith journey and encounter with God.