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Making Chinese Disciples PDF Print E-mail
Written by Michael Fones   
Sunday, 05 August 2007 08:17
John Allen has an interesting article on the growth of Christianity in China. If you're like me, it will be a surprise. I tend to think of China as an atheist nation, so it came as a shock to learn that it is the third largest Christian nation in the world. Having a huge population helps, and Christians are still a minority (and an often oppressed minority), but as Allen points out, there is a real hunger for meaning that is turning the Chinese to religion, even as the standard of living for many Chinese is improving.

But the growth of Christianity isn't happening in the Catholic Church, which remains divided between the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association recognized by the government, and other Catholics who were underground during the worst of the oppression. In a nutshell, Catholicism is keeping pace with the growth of the population, while Protestant Christianity, particularly Pentecostalism, is rapidly growing. Part of the reason is in the approach to evangelization. Allen writes,

"Much Catholic conversation about evangelization in China is usually phrased in the subjunctive: 'If China were to open up on religious freedom …' or 'If the Holy See and China were to establish diplomatic relations …' The implicit assumption is sometimes that structural change is required before Catholicism can truly move into an expansion phase.

Pentecostal talk about mission, on the other hand, is very much phrased in the simple present. Most Pentecostals would obviously welcome being arrested less frequently, but in general they are not waiting for legal or political reform before carrying out aggressive evangelization programs. The most audacious even dream of carrying the gospel beyond the borders of China, along the old Silk Road into the Muslim world, in a campaign known as "Back to Jerusalem." As Aikman explains in Jesus in Beijing, some Chinese Evangelicals and Pentecostals believe that the basic movement of the gospel for the last 2,000 years has been westward: from Jerusalem to Antioch, from Antioch to Europe, from Europe to America, and from America to China. Now, they believe, it's their turn to complete the loop by carrying the gospel to Muslim lands, eventually arriving in Jerusalem. Once that happens, they believe, the gospel will have been preached to the entire world.

Most experts regard that prospect as deeply improbable; Madsen said he doubts more than a handful of Protestants in China take the "Back to Jerusalem" vision seriously. Aikman is more sanguine, reporting that as of 2005 two underground Protestant seminaries in China were training believers for work in Islamic nations. In any event, it's revealing as an indication of missionary ferment.

One exception to the general Catholic hesitancy is Bishop Jin Luxian of Shanghai, a controversial figure because of his willingness to register with the government, but someone who enjoys the respect of many senior Catholic leaders internationally. Luxian, the subject of a flattering profile in the current issue of The Atlantic, is revamping his cathedral to draw upon traditional Chinese aesthetics, part of a larger program of forging an authentically Chinese expression of the Catholic faith.

'The old church appealed to 3 million Catholics,' he said. 'I want to appeal to 100 million Catholics.'"

Sherry has reported extensively on the tendency for Catholic missiologists to deny that Christianity is taking root in Asia. Allen's discussion raises an issue for me: what excuses do I give for not sharing how Christ has changed my life with others? Even more to the point - HAVE I been changed by a relationship with Jesus? That was a question raised in our new workshop, "Making Disciples."

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