30.12.2018

39,7 Million – not 200 Million

Report on a visit of Chinese journalists to Moscow

M o s c o w -- Evangelicals in the USA and in Russia have something in common: Both view the Christian church of China as persecuted but growing rapidly. Yet according to two young Chinese journalists who visited Moscow in mid-December at the invitation of the Russian Evangelical Alliance, both perceptions are essentially false. Westerners speak of as many as 200 million Christians in China. But these journalists’ English-language news service, the “China Christian Daily”, reported on 1 November that China may have no more than 39,7 million Christians (see “chinachristiandaily.com”). CCD was citing Professor Lu Yunfeng from Beijing University; yet this modest number is not acceptable to all Chinese. (The Christian populace at the founding of the People’s Republic in 1949 is listed as four million.) The visiting journalists, both members of unregistered, Calvinist congregations, also described the current growth rates as stagnate, others even speak of “negative growth” following the upsurge of the 1980s and 1990s. CCD has reported on churches – particularly in rural areas – suffering from closed attitudes and an uninviting atmosphere. This news service covers both the registered and unregistered scenes from its offices in Beijing and Shanghai.

In Moscow, the two visitors reacted with dismay after being asked repeatedly about the persecution of the Chinese church. They view such incidents as only a small portion of the much larger whole. Massive church buildings in major cities and the state-sponsored seminary in Nanjing point to a more complex realty. (The Three-Self-Movement’s Nanjing seminary may well enjoy the most imposing and impressive Christian campus in all of Eastern Asia.) The guests’ frustration is understandable to those Russian believers who also do not want their reality reduced to reports on church closings and the repressive Yarovaya Laws of 2016.

The guests rejected the assumption that congregations belonging to the official Three-Self-Movement and its “China Christian Council” (CCC) were automatically subservient to the state. Overlapping with non-registered congregations is apparent: “The CCC also possesses deeply-spiritual, growing congregations. We know some.”

On its website, this independent news service occasionally portrays an amount of candor rarely apparent in Russia or even the West. One report attributes the closing of a church to the congregation’s refusal to pay local taxes. In some instances, the persecution of pastors has been linked to their intentional political activities and statements. Reporting such details can bring with it the accusation that the reporter is siding with the “oppressor” instead of the “victim”.

The similar and scanty information on Chinese church life in both Russia and the West can be attributed to the fact that both rely on the same Western news sources. Mission societies will tend to report in a fashion determined by the wishes and expectations of their local, Western audiences.

The peoples of the Far East are separated by a significant cultural gap between themselves and European-oriented Russia. The waves of Protestants emigrating from Russia during the last 150 years have nearly all ended up in the cultural West. It is nevertheless clear that direct cooperation between the Christian organisations of China and Russia – without a detour through North America – is now politically opportune. It makes sense for churches and their media to avail themselves of the current possibilities. The direct exchange of church information between Russia and China has not yet gotten off the ground - which was a major reason behind the recent visit.

Chinese congregations on Russia soil can well serve as a bridge between these two neighbours. One basement congregation in southern Moscow claims to have 500 participants, some of which are clearly middle-class. It is active under the umbrella of the traditional, Pentecostal “Russian Church of Christians of Evangelical Faith”. Its female pastor reports that her congregation belongs to a network of 20 such congregations within Russia.

Postscript: One positive result of a terrible event
Russian society has been visited – or inflicted - with Beverly Lewis’ novels of Amish gossip and scandal. In China, developments have been different. The two journalists reported that the film “Amish Grace”, which appeared in the US in 2010, made a profound impression on many millions of Chinese. The film tells the story of the Amish reaction to the killing of five and the serious injury of five more of their children by an armed assailant in an Amish school in Nickel Mines/Pennsylvania on 2 October 2006. The victims were all girls between the ages of six and 13. The perpetrator, Charles Roberts IV, committed suicide at the scene. The Amish quickly forgave the shooter’s widow and one of them comforted his bitterly-weeping father. The widow was invited to one of the funerals. The Amish even collected money for the murderer’s family. They were clearly worried about the well-being of the murderer’s family, too.

Conclusion: It is often not those Christians with the best TV shows or the most private jets that readily win the ear of a global audience. The most effective missionaries may be those with no intention of being such. It’s the personal credibility that counts.

William Yoder, Ph.D.
Berlin, 30 December 2018
“kant50(at)web(dot)de”

A journalistic release for which the author is solely responsible. It is informational in character and does not express the official position of any church organisation. This release may be reprinted free-of-charge if the source is cited. Release #18-14, 829 words.