Chinese Theological Review 13

The Development of Rural Christianity in China and its Challenges

Ma Jianhua

It is now nearly twenty years since the churches in Chin were restored in the 1980s. As we look back at the last two decades we are filled with gratitude to God. Although the Chinese Church has gone through the valley of the shadow of death, God has indeed led us to green pastures. Many who are hungry and thirsty have been filled and found rest by the still waters. The growth of the church in recent years has been phenomenal, especially in the countryside. God has added daily to the church the number of people who are saved. Christian faith has become) known to and accepted by more and more people. In this paper I would like to share two points: 1) The development of Christianity in rural China and 2) the challenges faced by rural churches and their response.

1. The Development of Christianity in Rural China

In the 1960s China went through ten years of "Cultural Revolution" which affected all sectors of Chinese society, not least religion. During this period, churches were closed or torn down, Bibles were destroyed and pastors could not preach or serve their people openly and were forced to seek other employment. In these years of darkness Christianity seemed to have vanished from Chinese soil. At that time many people, including pastors and church leaders, were pessimistic about the future of the church in China. They thought the institutional church would never reappear. No one dreamed that so many devout Christians would not give up their faith. These Christians tried every means to preserve the Bible. If they did not possess a Bible, they copied it by hand.

In recent years, I have heard many moving testimonies from Christians in the farming areas and mountainous regions who never stopped worshipping God, though they had no place to meet publicly. They would gather together in secret to read the Bible and pray. They felt deeply the need to spread the Gospel, "in season or out of season." Thus, through these people and by these means, God's word was spread. Indeed God did preserve a remnant of God's people. This is the important reason why, when the Cultural Revolution ended, the number of Christians not only did not decrease, but in fact increased. I myself have been to the ethnic minority regions of Yunnan Province to assist in training church workers in the villages. The Christians there told us that they had never stopped worshipping together during the Cultural Revolution era. Since they would go up to the mountain to meet and pray in those days, even today when they built their new church building, they built it on that very same site where God's presence was so keenly felt.

At the close of the Cultural Revolution, the Chinese government restored its policies and implemented reform and liberalization. The government has restored freedom of religious faith. This was indeed a historical turn for the church in China. The door of the gospel was once again opened. The hitherto occupied church buildings and property were slowly returned. Bibles and Christian literature are again being published. Seminaries are reopened or newly established. And meeting points in rural China are being set up one by one. We can say that the church in China is in a period of "rising from the ruins." Improvement of the external environment has brought great opportunities for the church. There are vast numbers of church leaders and lay Christians, all of one heart and mind to glorify the gospel by diligently and cooperatively doing the work of the church, with little concern for personal gain or loss. Moreover, these Christians went out to seek out those former church members who had gone astray, to bring them back one by one. Whenever specific needs (such as furnishings) arise in rural churches or meeting points, Christians take the initiative to provide them, often by bringing needed items from their own homes. This loving spirit and dedication have been an inspiration to the growth of the church. However, the greatest felt need was for an adequate place to meet. Therefore in the villages there has been a "fever" to erect new church buildings. Brothers and sisters in Christ willingly contribute both their money and their labor. Many sell their pigs and grain in order to contribute towards the building of the church. This is how many country churches were built using simple, practical, rural Chinese architecture. Such construction is continuing today and will continue as an important task of the church, since the number of Christians in rural China continues to grow. Observing the care and concern that these Christians show in their church construction, people have been greatly moved by their love and commitment. Thus even in the process of erecting a church building, God's name is glorified. In some villages the Christians had no resources to raise a church building, but made use of their own houses, or built an extension onto a courtyard. We can see many meeting points today with such simple facilities, especially in areas of extreme poverty. In general, by these means rural Christians in the Chinese countryside have been able to solve the problem of finding a place to meet.

About 70% of China's total number of Christians live in rural areas, while the majority of the clergy is concentrated within the cities. This situation is likened to that of a vast number of sheep in the countryside where few shepherds are to be found. It is a very serious situation, but we thank God who provides in wondrous ways. In response, teams of church volunteers have naturally evolved and formed. These volunteers take responsibility for worship and other tasks of the church, though they themselves have not had any formal theological training. They do study the Bible hard. The farmers are sincere and down to earth and their faith is an uncomplicated one. Although many do not have high aspirations, their love for God is genuine and deep. These volunteer church workers have partially addressed the situation in which "the harvest is great but the laborers few" that exists in the rural churches of China. They serve God in the church all the while carrying on with their own tasks of farming, and their ways are pleasing to the Lord.

For historical reasons and the fact that the educational level has been low for several generations, the quality of work among rural churches has been greatly affected. The urgent task for the church is to improve the quality of rural church workers by establishing various forms of lay training programs. The church can make use of the time between harvests to provide these courses for the farmers. The duration of such courses is from one week to six months, with a whole course stretched over a three-year period. The content is primarily Bible, with practical training such as preaching. Many of the students have returned to become active workers in their own congregations. We give God glory and praise for this wonderful growth in the rural churches.

2. Challenges Faced by the Rural Church and Its Response

As we look back over the last twenty years, the growth of the church has given us great encouragement. We are thankful for the continuing growth in the number of Christians. We cannot, however, be blindly optimistic and take things for granted. We should be cool-headed in analyzing the difficulties faced by the church and seek ways to solve its problems so that the building up of the church will be more suitable to God's will and more acceptable to our people.

Most of the volunteer church workers in the rural areas have very heavy responsibilities. Because of the low level of education of people in the meeting points, these congregations are quick to grab anyone with a little knowledge to preach to them, even though these would-be preachers may themselves be new Christians. This trend can be a dangerous one. Because of the lack of proper training, such preachers inadvertently lend themselves to allowing false teachings and errors to seep in, leading to divisions in the church. Therefore, raising the quality of faith and education of volunteers in the church must be one of our long-term tasks. Strengthening lay training programs to raise their standard and to be more systematic are important goals for us. Even though these workers are volunteers, their training should be well thought out with good lesson plans supplemented by good reading material suitable for this rural ministry. The quality of preaching needs to be improved. At the moment there are more and more church volunteers, but their educational backgrounds are quite uneven. We need to assist them in acquiring and improving skills in church management. These have been priorities of the Commission on Rural Ministries of the China Christian Council and much of this work is being implemented.

On the other hand we can see that in economically depressed areas people do not even have the basic necessities of life. Often church volunteers in these areas have to travel elsewhere to seek employment. An important issue, then, is how to make them more economically stable. I believe that we need to have more concrete financial measures to hell) solve these problems, so that these volunteers are freer to serve the church without domestic worries.

The influence of heresies and false doctrines is greater in the rural churches as compared to churches in the cities. Many people in the churches only understand the faith partially, and in their enthusiasm may perpetuate errors and misconceptions about Christianity. Some of them have even deified themselves in the name of God, for example, a group that calls itself the "enthroned ones." In reading the Bible, they substitute "the enthroned one" whenever the name of Jesus appears. In villages where church workers' leadership is weak, people are easily swayed by such false teachings. Factions form in many churches and the body of Christ is fragmented as a result. Not only is their witness a bad one, but such believers are a negative influence on society. Rural churches should therefore take every opportunity during the slack seasons to organize study programs that can inform and nurture faith. Only by so doing can they help believers to resist the tendency towards errors and false teachings. Christians need to know how to discern what is the guidance of the Holy Spirit and what is false teaching.

Traditional Chinese culture lays great emphasis on paying respects to departed elders. In recent years, amid feudalism and superstition, the veneration of elders has come back in full force. With relative prosperity in rural China, ceremonies for making offerings to ancestors have become more and more elaborate. The church has been teaching Christians to be filial to their elders while they live, but not to over-emphasize those who have departed this world. This teaching has created a misunderstanding among some believers that to believe in Jesus is to forget or neglect one's ancestors. In some ways the question of proper homage to ancestors has been a stumbling block to evangelism. Contradictions do appear, especially during funerals. The church continues to encourage Christians to differentiate between the essence of filiality and the dross of superstitious practices in traditional culture. Respect, filiality and loving kindness should be given to elders while they are living, rather than waiting to perform these acts during funerals or after death. Christians must bear witness in their family life and live out their faith through acts of kindness and love.

Since its reopening and restoration, the church in China has been striving to be a united church. The younger generation of church workers has very little understanding of the concept of denomination. We cannot deny the fact, however, that denominations are making a comeback in China today. Sometimes this denominationalism leads to mutual attacks and passing judgment on the state of others' souls. Some Christians are confused and do not know which way they should go, or who to follow. I have heard people ask, "How many gods do you have in your church?" All this hurts the church and blasphemes the name of God. We must work hard towards reconciliation and unity in God's love, and leave behind denominational differences so that we can be of one mind and heart to witness to the gospel of the Lord.

We bear a heavy responsibility for the rural church in China and we have a long way to go. We pray that God will keep and establish the work of our hands.

Edited translation