Chinese Theological Review 13

The Chinese Church in a Transitional Society

Chen Xida

The environment. Since the end of the Cold War, there have been considerable changes in global politics, economics, culture and religion. The political hegemony of the superpowers is now past history and cooperative relations between nations have replaced political confrontation. A blending of cultures and economic cooperation are now fact. Some people predict that in the 21st century, religion in the global arena "will be marked by dynamic new forms so fascinating that they will bring to an end the secularism of the new world order."

In China, Deng Xiaoping's initiatives in thought emancipation have brought about gigantic changes in society and people's understanding of politics, economics and culture. Society is now experiencing a phase of "societal transformation" (including movement in society, economics, shifts in political control, cultural development, etc.) "societal transitions, changes in family patterns, even individual transition." Moving toward the 21st century, religion in China will also face the development of "secularism" (becoming increasingly inseparable from general society) and "pluralism." This is an inevitable trend in the future of religion. In such an international and domestic atmosphere, the church in China has an opportunity to develop in ways previously unknown.

On the other hand, in the conflict between idealism and realism, tradition and modern pluralistic values, such societal changes mean people do not know which way to turn. The direction society is taking is difficult to discern, which means it is difficult for the individual to situate him/herself, so that an apparent "aimless spirituality" and an individual bent towards "marginalization" create a societal and individual loss of heart, a proliferation of short term actions, decadence and all sorts of irrational behavior. All of this seriously impedes the healthy development of the church.

Challenges. A society in transition compels the church to re-examine itself in a timely fashion and to respond promptly to the needs of people in different sectors for the gospel, making itself able to supply ultimate concerns to the faithful, "to provide ethics and models for human life," and "entering into the world to serve those in difficulties" and moreover to be able to provide "a holy guarantee for laws of value," in ways society expects, fusing these into a new type of culture. Thus, social transition requires that the church strengthen itself and respond positively to society's needs for the Gospel as well as to the calling of the Spirit.

A transitional society can function as a positive impetus for the church, at the same time as it impacts the church in many negative ways. Secularism in society influences the church's faith and standard of values: individualism is destroying the church's unity, utilitarianism is rampant in church decision making and the market economy threatens the church's very existence. In the marginalization of the individual in society, the church, too, tends towards marginalization, and a great number of unwelcome contradictions, conflicts and rottenness have appeared during the stages of initiating and building up the church.

Results of an opinion poll among a group of seminary students revealed that 53.65% believe the greatest problem facing the church today is "relationships among co-workers;" 41.46% believe the greatest problem is "quality of leadership;" emerging "organizational bureaucracy in the China Christian Council and Protestant Three-Self Patriotic Movement; intellectualization of theological education (removed from believers' concrete situation); that urban churches have become showplaces and rural churches are full of superstition. These phenomena of marginalization in the church seriously threaten unity in the church, affect its witness and impede its healthy development.

The church's response. According to Professor Chen Zemin, "Since the church in China today is young and conservative and has a foreign image, since it is small and backward, faced with the dangers of division, unable to be self-supporting, is poorly equipped theologically and must witness to Christ's Gospel amidst China's modernization..." it is therefore too early to speak of the church's contributions to China's modernization. However, the church must squarely face reality and build itself up in order to meet the challenges and demands of society. It can respond on a number of fronts:

In faith. To face the challenges of society, the church in China must "Let the church become the church." The church must reflect the "heavenly vision," and meet the spiritual needs of people, just as the earth is nourished and moistened by nature, enabling crops to grow. This is to say the church must have life, God's presence and action. The late Rev. Peter Tsai (Cai Wenhao) used to criticize some churches for being "more like an office of the feudal government than like the church" and some church workers for causing their churches to deteriorate. Rev. Tsai also raised the point that: "Our Three-Self and church affairs organizations should be assisting local churches to transform church buildings into churches. Three-Self and Christian Council organizations should themselves become church-like, thereby preventing any tendency towards institutionalization." This is the demand of the mass of believers. A church building which transforms into the church will certainly be able to unite many more believers on the path of loving country and loving church.

In theology. The church must strengthen theological construction. The church must give serious attention to reflection and the study of ecclesiology and to raising believers' church consciousness. Professor Chen Zemin thinks the church in China has seriously neglected ecclesiology. Before 1949 the church focused exclusively on spreading the Gospel; after Liberation Three Self was concerned simply to maintain the existence of the church, not with the union of the church itself. Following the Cultural Revolution, the Three Self Patriotic Movement and China Christian Council have become service organizations; they are not a church in theological terms. Chen hopes that "when the time is ripe (perhaps before the turn of the century), Three-Self can complete its historic mission, and the China Christian Council can become "The Protestant Church of China."

Chen believes that the church should "first of all, be koinonia, a kind of mutual spiritual fellowship. Secondly, the church should be ecclesia, an organization called out from among the people." He further notes: "The ideal church should consider all the people of the world as brothers and sisters."

In polity. The church in China must pay close attention to Chinese social, political and cultural issues. Bishop K. H. Ting believes the ideal Chinese Church should satisfy believers and find favor among people outside the church. From his perspective, the church should give priority to ethical questions. Ting feels that "we clearly do not want antinomianism to grow within the church; we can only strive to help religion reform." This is the purpose of theological education. lie says: "Raising the political awareness [of theological students] has yet to influence their religious faith; nor has it yet brought an ethical dimension to their faith, so it is not yet enough. Because in the depths of their hearts, their faith is still a matter of the contradiction between belief or unbelief .... therefore I believe that theological transformation is very important and this is what I am putting my energies into now."

In administration. The church must strengthen administration. Amid the competitive atmosphere of the market economy, greater stress must be given to this, fully utilizing limited human and material resources and steadfastly running the church well. The Sixth National Chinese Christian Conference called on the church to "seize the moment, do our work well, and speed up our efforts to run the church well." We must "resolve to put all our efforts into this, beginning with real needs and making solid progress . . ." Rev. Su Deci, while speaking about the task of building up the church, also pointed out that "the post-denominational era Christian Council is as yet only a transitional organ, the organizational and administrative functions of the church are still in a vacuum state, therefore we must 'fill' this 'vacuum' as soon as possible-this is the urgent task our church faces today."

Further points for consideration. In short, faced with the challenges of society, "The church should not simply sigh over changes," but rather affirm and proclaim even greater change: proclaim a "new heaven and a new earth" and the vision of a "New Jerusalem, the Holy City." Just as the early church kept to its "heavenly vision", not assimilating into the secular world in good times or losing hope in bad, this heavenly vision will enable the church to welcome all the challenges of society.

On the other hand, the church must squarely face the realities of today's society and communicate the church's faith, values and standards amidst the concrete realities of life today. It must realize its own potential in society by achieving wholeness and unity and by a concern for church polity, planning and program implementation.

This is also to say that the church must be concerned about people's quest for faith, ethical orientation and moral standards from a faith perspective. It must view unity and peace in society from the perspective of what benefits the whole, identify its own place on the basis of the mission of the church and be concerned about what people need for existence from the perspective of the material life. At the same time, the church must resist the influence of secularization on the church's faith and values, resist the harmful effects of individualism on the unity of the church, resist the influence of utilitarianism on decision making in the church and resist the threat to the church's administration and existence posed by market forces.

Therefore, in order to face the challenges of society, the church in China must "see the present according to God's future." On the one hand the church must maintain its own faith and vision, secure in itself. On the other hand the church must integrate into and bond with the realities of society as it spreads the Good News of the time. The church must go up and down the "ladder to heaven" carrying God's will and blessings to the people and people's needs and praise of God to the Lord. This is the fundamental task of the church in China today.

Nanjing Theological Review, No. 2 (1998), p. 29.

Translated by Ewing W. Carroll, Jr.