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Taking the narrow path

Young Chinese Christians are living unpopular lives that counter both hedonistic peers and traditional-but-unbelieving parents

Taking the narrow path

Worshippers at Early Rain Reformed Church in Chengdu (Jiang Zhongming)

CHENGDU, China—A layer of smog lies heavy on the gleaming city of Chengdu, blotting out the sun and leaving residents with throats they constantly need to clear and phlegm they need to spit out onto the sidewalk. It’s toxic proof of the economic growth in the past few decades that has pulled millions out of poverty and crowned the country the second-largest economy in the world. Yet it came at a price beyond pollution: broken families as parents leave children behind to work in the cities, an all-consuming appetite for wealth, an unhinged moral code, a widening generation gap between parents and children.

Those born in the 1980s and ’90s, who have only seen China rise, live lives radically different from their parents, who survived the murderous experiments of Mao Zedong, silently watched injustices unfold before them, and went to bed hungry. Millennials who profess Christ face even conflicts with their parents, especially as their faith begins to transform their lives and their worldview. I talked to five unmarried millennials who attend Chengdu’s Early Rain Reformed Church to get a sense of how they try to be salt and light in China, alien to both the traditional views of their parents and the hedonistic pursuits of their peers.

As Grace Guo sat down to eat Chinese New Year dinner with her extended family in late January, relatives bombarded her with the usual questions: “Why aren’t you married yet? Why do you spend all your time at church?” The questions stung Guo, a usually cheerful 35-year-old, yet the aunts and uncles persisted. “You say your God is good? But how come you’ve gone to church for five years now and you’ve gotten nothing? You’re still single—look at your cousins!” Traditional Chinese beliefs place enormous pressure on working-aged women to find a successful man to marry and bear children. Parents with unmarried children are shamed among their family and friends.

Guo’s father, a former soldier, was a strict and terse man. Growing up, Guo felt lonely, as her parents were busy working and didn’t take time to get to know their only child. At school, she was a top student but still faced the wrath of her teachers. One time her history teacher rapped her hand with a stick until large welts appeared because she answered a question from her own knowledge, rather than regurgitating the answer in the book. The teacher said she had to discipline Guo so other students wouldn’t start thinking for themselves.

Jiang Zhongming

Grace Guo (center) (Jiang Zhongming)

When Guo professed faith in 2011, her relationship with her father became extremely tense. Yet her mother saw the changes in her life and started to attend church, getting baptized herself a year later. So at the Chinese New Year dinner, relatives turned to Guo’s mother, accusing her of exacerbating the problem: “As her mother, you need to take control of your daughter and tell her not to spend so much time at church. Instead you actually join her in going to church!” Grace retorted that their faith wasn’t based on the tangible things they could get from it, but on the invisible—eternal life and spiritual strength.

All the talk agitated her typically reticent father. After leaving their relative’s home, he turned to his daughter: “You should be ashamed of yourself,” he said. “You are weak and don’t have much going for you: you don’t have a family, you don’t earn much money, and you don’t have a good job.” Guo had recently left her job to apply to an overseas program in Christian education, as she saw the growing need in China’s Christian schools and didn’t want children to go through the same terrible experience she had in public schools.

After a pause Guo responded: “Yes, I am weak. I’m not very powerful, I agree with that. But when Jesus went to the cross, many people also disrespected and shamed him. Perhaps I am in this situation so that I can know that while I am weak, my Lord is strong.” Seeing her daughter’s courage, her mother laughed in delight.

June Cheng

Li Xiaolan (June Cheng)

Li Xiaolan, 36, also felt enormous pressure from her parents to get married starting at age 22. She says in one year (2007) her parents set her up with upward of 100 potential suitors, none of whom interested her. Yet once she professed Christ in 2011, her parents switched their complaints from her single status to her newfound faith.

The soft-spoken Li said her entire personality changed when she accepted Christ. Before, in her sales job, she had never had the courage to say “no” to her boss, even when she knew he was asking her to do something immoral. Moreover, she often didn’t even know right from wrong.

But after professing faith and studying the Bible, she started to speak out boldly at work, refusing to cook the books. She even performed a skit about the gospel story for her co-workers, something she would never have done before.

Her truth-telling faced the test in 2015 when her boss placed her on a project that involved shady dealings with a supermarket chain. She refused to condone the behavior, and her company responded by cutting her pay. The supermarket also refused to place her product on the floor, so she personally had to move the product from the storage to the shelf. After four months, she quit. When she interviewed for a new job, she was up-front that she wouldn’t engage in such practices.

Word spread that she had become a Christian, and the topic often came up with clients. They often asked a lot of questions, and Li would eagerly evangelize. When she couldn’t answer their theological questions, she’d go home and study the Bible or talk to church leaders, which helped her own spiritual growth.

Li says she wants her life to reveal her reliance on the Lord: Rather than flashing brand names or the latest tech gadget as her peers do, she wants to live a simple life, perhaps teaching left-behind children in rural areas or as a stay-at-home mom. Although China’s current policy allows only two children per family, Li hopes to one day have at least three children.

June Cheng

Anna An (June Cheng)

Li’s roommate, 23-year-old Anna An, also bucks the trend by wanting to have more children in the future. How many exactly? “There’s no upward limit,” she replied with a laugh. “I think four would be nice.”

An grew up as an only child, moving from city to city as her mother went through two divorces and three marriages. She remembers being very rebellious and harboring a hatred toward her mother for causing so much instability. In college she started pondering the meaning of her existence, reading books on philosophy and psychology. One day her professor, a Jehovah’s Witness, invited her to a Bible study, and she was intrigued—the Bible seemed interesting and the people were kind.

But after two years, she felt something was missing from the message of the Jehovah’s Witnesses. Because the group viewed Jesus as only a man, she felt “salvation by grace” was meaningless, and she eventually left the group.

Emptiness gnawed at her, so she chased adventure and excitement. She scaled snow-covered mountains, toured Hainan island, and rode a motorcycle 1,200 miles from Lhasa in Tibet to Qinghai in Sichuan. All the while, she feared the empty feeling that she knew would encompass her once she returned to her silent apartment. “I felt like I needed to accomplish these things to sustain me,” An said. “Without it, I didn’t know why I existed.”

A co-worker invited An to Early Rain last July, and she agreed to come. That Sunday, the pastor shared at the pulpit about how he too had left Jehovah’s Witnesses and discovered the real Jesus. Intrigued, An kept going to church and began to see how the sin inside her ran so deep that she couldn’t save herself. She needed Jesus.

After professing Christ, An watched as the chasm between her lifestyle and that of her peers grew. As former classmates chased satisfaction by sleeping around (at times with married men), having abortions, and cheating on their significant others, An spent her time attending Bible studies, visiting the sick, and joining the church’s pro-life ministry. She wanted to learn more about the Bible’s teaching on the sanctity of life and help friends facing unplanned pregnancies.

Before professing Christ, all of An’s friends predicted that with her hedonistic and hopelessly romantic personality, she would likely continue to marry and divorce as she found better men—not unlike her mother. “Now I find that frightening,” An said. “Thankfully, that’s no longer me.”

Jiang Zhongming

Jonny Fan (Jiang Zhongming)

The leader of the pro-life ministry, Jonny Fan, 29, has worked as the church secretary for the past two years, sitting at the church’s glass-enclosed front office with a direct view of trends in China’s church.

Just as the high-rises in Chengdu seemed to have sprung up overnight, so have new believers and churches in China—yet what cropped up so quickly may not have the roots needed to stay standing. Every week Fan’s church sees about 15 first-time visitors, yet the number of converts in China is a challenge: Most Christians in China are first-generation believers, so the church lacks mature mentors. Fan professed Christ while in college in 2008, and already he’s been a Christian longer than most parishioners at his church. “You can see urgent issues in every level: The church is growing quickly, and it needs more leaders and pastors,” Fan noted. “Kids are growing up, and they need more Christian schools.”

Fan believes the cutthroat competition within Chinese society permeates into the church as well. For instance, business fellowships intended to help businessmen seek the Lord in their work have become a type of status symbol and a place to network. Fan knows seminarians who see studying theology as merely a badge of intellectual superiority, especially as it’s considered a Western subject long suppressed by the atheistic government.

After his contract as church secretary ends next year, Fan wants to find a job outside the church. It would likely be wise for him to leave his current position off his resumé when seeking some jobs, as the church isn’t registered. He had considered starting a Christian pro-life organization but realized it may be impossible in China: Not only did he lack the experience to run a nonprofit, he doubted it would pass the stringent regulations for registering NGOs. Without registration, it would be difficult to collect donations.

Fan, who is engaged to a young woman he met at church, noted that his expectations for marriage as a Christian contrasts greatly with what he saw growing up—a broken home lacking in love. In the past, his parents’ divorce caused him to place grandiose hopes in his own future marriage, hoping to make up for the things he didn’t have as a child. But through talking with church friends, reading books such as Tim and Kathy Keller’s The Meaning of Marriage, and going through premarital counseling, he says he now has a healthier view of marriage and is excited for this new adventure.

Jiang Zhongming

Jiang Zhongming (Jiang Zhongming)

Fan plans to hold his wedding ceremony at Early Rain and hopes his good friend, photographer Jiang Zhongming, will be able to document the special day. Jiang, 29, knew he wanted to become a photographer since he was young: He remembers that while his cousins played, he’d immerse himself in books and movies, take photos, and ponder the bigger questions in life.

But after he graduated college and started his career shooting wedding and engagement photos, he was struck by the superficiality he saw among secular couples: “In the dressing room, the bride and groom would be fighting, yet the moment they’re in front of people they would fake smiles and tears of happiness,” Jiang said. “It all felt like a façade, and I didn’t like it.” Some couples would invite people they barely knew to the wedding in order to receive more red envelopes stuffed with cash.

In contrast, he found that he enjoyed photographing children because of their authenticity and innocence. And in order to understand these children, he wanted to photograph them in the context of their family. While most photographers in China shoot family portraits in sterile studios, Jiang preferred to enter into the family’s home to see how they naturally interacted with each other. So he started the photography company Family Diary, which is housed in an airy, minimalist loft on the 12th floor of an enormous office building.

Jiang Zhongming

Young people worship at Early Rain Reformed Church in Chengdu. (Jiang Zhongming)

In visiting different homes, he found that many of the families reminded him of his own—parents controlled, bribed, or completely ignored the children. Jiang’s parents had divorced while he was still a toddler, and his grandmother raised him.

The loneliness Jiang felt as a child led him to profess faith in Christ in college, and often he’s able to share this hope with customers during photo sessions. Some open up to him with their problems and are genuinely surprised when he patiently listens. Jiang says this becomes an opening to tell them about the gospel and send them a Bible.

Jiang’s also careful to examine his own motivations for the work he does: Is he working to build up his own kingdom or the kingdom of God? He sees his office not just as a workplace but also a place to host Bible studies, show films, and invite artists and authors to give talks. He wants to spark discussions with others in his generation, encouraging them to look beyond the desires for wealth and to seek beauty and purpose.

The idea of finding a purpose in life has weighed heavily on Jiang as he’s attended seven funerals in the past few years. Standing in the funeral home, he realized that “even if you’re successful with a lot of money and fame, you’ll still end up lying here on this cold bed, your body placed into the burning furnace,” Jiang said, as the Chinese typically cremate the dead. “Man needs to do something meaningful with their lives and souls.”

June Cheng

June Cheng

June is the East Asia correspondent for WORLD Magazine. Follow June on Twitter @JuneCheng_World.

Comments

  • aredshaw
    Posted: Thu, 03/16/2017 11:21 am

    Wow, this really give perspective to the way we live in the U.S. Running after all the things in the world can't make up for a relationship with Jesus, and meaning beyond this life.