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Still taking the narrow path

Chinese Christian millennials are living out the challenges and opportunities of Christian life in the communist country

Still taking the narrow path

Jonny Fan and his wife, Xiang Meng (Jiang Zhongming)

This is the second story in a series about Christians born in the 1980s and ’90s in Chengdu, China, and how their faith influences their lives and livelihoods. I visited four of the millennials mentioned in “Taking the narrow path” (April 1, 2017) seven months after our original interview to see how they were doing now and added a new character, Zheng Xianghuang (the seminarian). The believers all attend Early Rain Reformed Church and represent the next generation of leaders in the Chinese urban church.

The Pro-Lifer

Slices of pork, straw mushroom, and fish balls swim in a bubbling pot of Sichuan peppercorn and hot chili oil at the center of our table, as I chat with Jonny Fan and his wife, Xiang Meng. As we use chopsticks to fish out the cooked meats and vegetables, the newlyweds discuss the joys and struggles of their 5-month-old marriage as well as Fan’s work in pro-life ministry.

For the past five years, Fan has led one of the country’s first grassroots pro-life ministries at Early Rain, handing out flyers on Children’s Day urging pregnant women not to abort, holding signs outside local hospitals (where abortions typically happen), penning a denominationwide statement affirming the sanctity of life, and helping women dealing with unplanned pregnancies.

Lately more good news: The ministry is working with a government-run project called Post-Abortion Care (PAC), which works in hospitals to educate abortion-minded women about their other options before entering the operating room. If a woman decides to go through with the procedure, PAC teaches her how to prevent future pregnancies. Created in 2011, PAC reflects the government’s desire to decrease the number of abortions in order to prevent a demographic crisis. Yet few doctors take part in the project because they don’t make money from the counseling. This provides an opening for Fan and his pro-life team to step into the hospital and volunteer.

Fan and the other group members all have full-time jobs and devote free time to pro-life work, but Fan has started raising money to create a pro-life organization that would provide resources for churches to start their own pro-life ministries and create a safe house for mothers. Once his contract at Early Rain ends in February, he wants to devote all his time to the organization, which would not be registered due to the sensitive nature of religious groups.

Fan admits he doesn’t have experience starting a nonprofit but sees this as the necessary next step. “We are unique in that we didn’t first have the organization and then start working,” Fan said. “This NGO didn’t start out with professionals, but grew up from the ground up with ordinary Christians passionate about this issue.”

Fan wants to raise $20,000 to pay for his salary, administrative costs, and translated materials. And if he can’t reach that amount by February? “Then I’ll have to find other work,” he said.

The Seminarian

I sat nervously at a hipster coffee shop as 23-year-old Zheng Xianghuang spoke openly about taboo subjects: The Tiananmen Square massacre, the Chinese Communist Party brainwashing its citizens, and the possible crackdown coming for house churches. Although we sat in a private room, I kept glancing around, afraid someone would overhear our conversation over the whir of the coffee grinder.

While most young people in China try to stay away from the topic of politics, Zheng is an anomaly. The apathy of his peers traces back to the tanks rolling into Tiananmen Square in 1989, silencing the student democracy movement with gunfire, Zheng noted. The result: An entire generation conditioned to keep its head down and focus on earning money, and parents passed that fear down to their children.

Jiang Zhongming

Zheng Xianghuang (Jiang Zhongming)

Zheng’s family was no different. He grew up in Wenzhou, the most Christian city in China with more than 1 million believers. Zheng is a sixth-generation Christian, yet the persecution of the Cultural Revolution weakened his grandparents’ faith, and his parents did not attend church. Zheng professed Christ after a friend brought him to Sunday school in middle school, and he found the Bible so compelling that he returned week after week.

Still, it wasn’t until he left the government-sanctioned Three-Self church, moved to Chengdu, and heard Pastor Wang Yi preach that he realized Christianity affected all aspects of his life, his country, and the world. Zheng felt convicted about the Chinese government’s encroachment on religion, believing “our soul is God’s … this is something that the secular government should not have control over.” And when the government tries to take control of the church “we need to follow our faith and tell the government where their limit is.”

Zheng experienced this firsthand in 2015, when Wenzhou officials traveled more than 1,000 miles to his front door in Chengdu after a picture he posted of Christians protesting cross demolitions in Wenzhou went viral on WeChat. Netizens shared his post more than a thousand times before government censors wiped it off the site and disabled his account. At his apartment, officials asked him to promise not to post any more sensitive photos, yet Zheng countered that he would do whatever his faith required him to do.

The cross demolitions in his hometown were ultimately good for the church, Zheng says, because they revealed the government’s true intentions. Without the cross demolitions, house churches might have acceded to attempts to get them to register with the government. But now, he said, “even Three-Self churches know working with the government is a bad thing, it’s selling out Christ.” He’s talked to many Three-Self pastors in Wenzhou who plan to leave the government system.

Attending Early Rain, Zheng is constantly amazed at how much freedom house churches currently have compared with other countries in the world: He’s currently attending the Chengdu presbytery’s unregistered seminary and mentoring the first class of college students at its new unregistered liberal arts college.

The Teacher

The past year has been one of uncertainty for Grace Guo, as she contemplated how best to pursue her goal of becoming an English teacher. She considered studying Christian education overseas, took classes at the presbytery’s graduate program, and applied to local Christian schools. Yet none of the options panned out until a church friend recommended she apply to a job as a one-on-one Chinese tutor for foreigners. Although she had no experience teaching Chinese, she agreed and was accepted.

What she didn’t realize was that most of the staff at the tutoring center are Christians, and many of the students are foreigners pursuing ministry in China. Guo started her job a week before our meeting and excitedly told me that by teaching her students Chinese, she was also helping them reach the Chinese with the gospel.

Jiang Zhongming

Grace Guo (Jiang Zhongming)

Spiritually, things have been difficult for Guo. Since she first started attending Early Rain in 2012, her life revolved around her church. Yet in the past year, the church went through a messy split over differences in personality and vision that resulted in two church branches, one led by Pastor Wang Yi and another by Pastor Wang Huasheng (no relation). Accusations flew, friendships ended, and congregants had to choose sides.

“At first, I couldn’t accept it because I thought the church was a family,” Guo said. “It happened out of the blue and I felt helpless and alarmed—I didn’t know what to do.” Many congregants, who had first heard the gospel at Early Rain, felt similar shock: How could this happen when the church had the right doctrine and one of the most well-known pastors in China? Guo wanted to run away rather than deal with the split, so she tried to continue her education overseas. But when God closed those doors, she realized that God wanted her to stay and face the problems at hand.

“It shattered the idol that I had turned my church into in my heart,” Guo said. She says that while she’s hurt, she’s “learning not to follow people but to follow God.” She’s found herself viewing the church more objectively, more cognizant of the sin in church leaders, congregants, and herself. This is one positive that the split has brought, Guo noted: greater spiritual maturity within this young church.

In asking what advice she’d give to a fellow believer going through this type of situation, Guo responded, “I would tell them to lean on Christ and pray to Him. … Fix your eyes on Christ, not on man. If you fix your eyes on man, you will be disappointed.”

The Photographer

Jiang Zhongming admits the church split hurt his faith: “It’s like when parents get a divorce: The ones most affected are the children.” Rather than choose between the two congregations, he’s attending church less frequently as his work has become more demanding. The college Bible study that used to meet in his office moved elsewhere as Jiang doesn’t regularly attend its branch of the church.

I met Jiang in his office, where he had spent the night in a built-in bedroom in the loft. A tabby wandered around the room, jumping onto the kitchen bar where we drank cups of green tea. Since our last meeting, the cat had grown bigger and so had Jiang’s family photography business, Family Diary. More Chinese people are getting interested in authentic family photography taken in the home, which Family Diary specializes in, a stark contrast to the typical posed photos. Family Diary also trains both professionals and amateurs to take their own family photos and capture the relationship between family members.

Jiang Zhongming

Jiang Zhongming (Jiang Zhongming)

“I don’t like the fakeness because the environment we grew up in was very fake: Our history is fake, everything we encounter is fake,” Jiang said. “So I’m already fed up with that type of fakeness.”

Yet what he sees when he walks into these homes is often disheartening. Recently a client asked Jiang to photograph her family, yet at her home her husband refused to be in the photos with her and their 2-year-old son. Later when Jiang and the client were alone, she confided in him she considers divorce every single day. Jiang looked at their adorable toddler running around and wondered how things would turn out for him growing up in this type of environment.

After each session, Jiang gives his clients a Christian book, either Gary Chapman’s The Five Love Languages or Emerson Eggerichs’ Love and Respect to help their marriage. Yet Jiang wants to do more, as he realizes he’s in a unique position to enter into strangers’ homes. He’s looking for some professional Christian counselors he could refer these couples to and is even considering getting training as a counselor himself.

Jiang believes the trends he sees reflect an emptiness in Chinese society. Young people either want shallow, pretty photographs or dark, hollow ones. For instance, the photos of Ren Hang, which depict nude bodies placed in inhuman formations, are wildly popular. Ren was the same age as Jiang and recently committed suicide after struggling with depression.

Looking at the photos, “the feeling is uncomfortable,” Jiang said. “The worldview he expresses is absurdist, nihilistic, that man can be deconstructed. On the other hand, Christians see man as valued and honored.”

Jiang paused, then added: “Yet these are the photos that young people like.”

The Saleswoman

The hollowness created by a society focused on material wealth also seems to make the average Chinese citizen more interested in Christianity. Li Xiaolan, a saleswoman, sees this every day as she interacts with clients, co-workers, and bosses.

“Evangelism is easy,” Li told me as we sat on uncomfortable plastic stools outside a local eatery. “All you need to do is give someone a business card and tell them, ‘You can call me anytime besides Sunday because I’ll be in church then.’ Then they start to ask questions.”

Jiang Zhongming

Li Xiaolan (Jiang Zhongming)

Li is soft-spoken and quiet until the topic turns to evangelism. Then she perks up, talking nonstop about how she shares the gospel at work. Every Christmas, she gives small Christian gifts—plastic cross keychains, calendars with Bible verses, plates, and so forth—to everyone in the company from the CEO down to the janitor. The gifts lead to conversations about faith, as few of her company’s 250 employees are Christians.

Once, the chairman of her company found her in the dining hall and began peppering her with questions about Christianity. She pulled a copy of the Bible from her purse and gave it to him, encouraging him to find the answers in the text. Later a co-worker asked about the encounter and then asked if she could also have a Bible. Even after leaving the company, the co-worker still sends Li selfies of herself doing a facial and reading the Bible.

For the past two years, she’s made her faith even more public by putting on 10-minute skits depicting Genesis 1 to 3 during the company’s annual Chinese New Year celebration. The first year, 15 co-workers took the stage acting out the creation account and Adam and Eve’s fall, stories few in her company had heard before. Even though it was Li’s first time writing and directing a play, her co-workers were moved, and Li thanked God for the opportunity to share the Bible story. But months later, she left the company after refusing to pay bribes.

This year she decided to put on the same play for her new company, but with added music, props, and backdrops. Originally, the event organizers rejected Li’s play, as they didn’t think it’d be entertaining enough. Yet a manager who was friends with Li urged them to include it, and the play, titled “The First Love Letter,” was on the program.

But then the co-workers who had agreed to act in the skit didn’t show up for rehearsal until two days before the performance. At dress rehearsal, Li added in the music, which included three hymns, and the actors started getting more excited about the play. The emcee who had earlier written her off thought it would turn out to be the best performance of the night.

The night of the show, Li stood backstage, nervously wondering how it would be received. To her amazement, she heard the crowd erupting in applause four times throughout the play, more than for any other performance that night. “During the entire process I felt very peaceful … I believe God was allowing me to do this for His kingdom,” Li said. She laughed: “This was probably the first time hymns were played inside that auditorium.”

June Cheng

June Cheng

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