Old and new idols in Taiwan

by Angela Lu Fulton
Posted 1/27/15, 08:30 am

TAIPEI, Taiwan—The street market of Raohe comes alive at night, with swarming crowds wandering from food cart to food cart. Each cart entices customers primarily with its smells—garlicky stir-fried chicken, sweet red bean-filled pastries, pungent fried tofu. A long line snakes around a stall baking black pepper meat buns in an open oven, as visitors with food in hand rummage through rows of shoes and chunky knit sweaters at nearby shops.

Tourist and locals always have something to do in Taipei. Popular 24-hour bookstores, gargantuan department stores, hipster coffee shops, and karaoke parlors line the main streets. Residents of Taiwan’s capital often eat out three times a day—food is inexpensive, accessible, and delicious. An immaculately clean subway (food and drinks are prohibited onboard) zips people across the city, with lines and stops added yearly. Every block, 7-Elevens provide the ultimate convenience: Buy a tea-flavored hardboiled egg for breakfast, bug spray for an afternoon hike, and even pay electricity bills at the counter. 

Taiwan is a haven for American and European visitors wanting to learn Chinese without leaving the freedoms and convenience of home. And yet, one thing isn’t thriving in the land of free speech, religion, and press: Christianity. 

At a local church, I asked the Southern Baptist missionary sitting next to me how much he’s seen Christianity grow in Taiwan in his 20 years here. He lifted up his index finger and his thumb, a wisp of space between the two.

“Very, very little,” he said.

According to official figures, Christians make up less than 5 percent of the population, and only half of those are Protestant. In some areas of Taipei, the number could be as high as 10 percent, but in other cities of Taiwan, the number is closer to zero. The contrast is especially stark when placed next to the explosive growth of Christianity in mainland China. Christians there are expected to total 160 million by 2025, according to Purdue University professor Fenggang Yang. The difference is evident in the houses of worship: In mainland China, young and old pack into apartments or registered churches on Sundays with a tangible hunger to hear the Word of God preached. In Taiwan, stragglers wander in late and regulars leave church discussing where to eat lunch—not unlike in the United States.

Pastor Joel Linton of New Hope Church in Taipei ascribes the island’s lackluster response to Christianity to “old idols and new idols.” Buddhism and traditional ancestral worship have deep roots in the region, as evidenced by the ornate temples filled with visitors taking selfies and newly opened stores burning fake money and laying out tables of fruit to appease the spirits.

Many of the younger generation perform rituals out of respect, rather than earnest belief. They worship the new idols of convenience, materialism, and education. Ads on the subway advertise plastic surgeons that promise pearly white skin, enlarged eyes, tiny waists, and big breasts. After-school tutoring programs with names like “Harvard” and “MIT” promise their students will one day be admitted to their namesakes. Endless restaurants promise the best beef noodle soup, the most authentic Japanese ramen, the unforgettable experience of a Hello Kitty-themed cafe. (I went. It delivers.)

On the other hand, Linton noted that in China, communism wiped out all the old idols and placed itself as the new idol. And when that failed to deliver, a generation of people started searching for something to fill that spiritual longing. For a growing number, it was the Trinitarian God. Oppression and suffering only strengthened the church and stoked the fire in its belly.

Living in the electric city of Taipei reminds me of the words Jesus had for a certain rich young man: “Truly, I say to you, only with difficulty will a rich person enter the kingdom of heaven. Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God.” (Matthew 19:24)

Angela Lu Fulton

Angela is a senior reporter for WORLD Magazine and a part-time editor for WORLD Digital. She is a graduate of the World Journalism Institute and Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism. Angela resides in Taipei, Taiwan. Follow her on Twitter @angela818.

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  • marchfam
    Posted: Fri, 04/15/2016 05:54 pm

    Why do you and so many others refer to China as 'mainland China'?  Taiwan was never part of China, so China is simply China.  They are and have always been 2 separate countries.  Thanks for the reminder of the need to pray for Taiwan.

  • Martin Franke
    Posted: Fri, 04/15/2016 05:54 pm

    Whenever I'm in Taiwan for work, I always attend Evangel Bible Church of Taipei that meets below an apartment in the center of the city and always hear God's word preached well. (They speak English as well which is nice for me). But it is sad how few people attend of so many.... Lord, bring your Gospel to the nations!

  •  phillipW's picture
    Posted: Fri, 04/15/2016 05:54 pm

    When physical blessings increase, spiritual blessings decrease.  Just like in the United States, the "Christian" church is nearly dead.  Parishioners going through the motions out of tradition mostly.  We've got too many physical comforts that secure us and protect us.  Why would we need God?