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Unlike 30 years ago, persecution isn’t common for most Christians in mainland China today. As I report in a recent feature story in the magazine, Christian millennials are doing pro-life work, attending unregistered seminaries, evangelizing co-workers, and revealing their Christian worldview through their work. Persecution is considered something that an older generation experienced, not a modern-day reality for most of the Christians I talk to.
At the same time, the government continues to demolish some churches and imprison some Christians for their faith. Last month, police arrested 14 house church leaders involved in sending Chinese missionaries to the Middle East. This month, the government implemented strict new religious regulations that will likely lead to house churches losing their meeting places and to greater censorship of religious media online. Some say Chinese society is headed back to the dark days of the Cultural Revolution—yet Christians have grown in number, resources, and opportunities undreamed of back then.
This complicated reality makes it difficult for reporters covering China to accurately portray the situation Chinese Christians find themselves in. In his 2014 book Age of Ambition: Chasing Fortune, Truth, and Faith in the New China, American journalist Evan Osnos struggled with the same issue while deciding how much to report on dissident artist Ai Weiwei: “If the average news consumer in the West read (or watched or heard) no more than one China story a week, should it be about people with dramatic lives or typical lives?”
We could similarly ask, should that one story be about imprisoned human rights lawyers or families who’ve seen their standard of living rise drastically with the country’s economy? Should it be about the Bible-believing, Spirit-filled churches facing persecution or the Bible-believing, Spirit-filled churches that don’t?
In China, as elsewhere, oftentimes what we see bringing down local churches isn’t government crackdowns, but division, power grabs, and poor theology.
It’s easy to visit China, see its historic sites, stay at swanky new hotels, visit open churches, talk to Christians, and come away with the impression that Chinese churches possess the freedom to worship like churches do in the United States. But it’s also easy to read article after article about demolished crosses, arrested pastors, and persecuted churches and imagine that every Chinese church is underground, secretive, and subject to persecution, when the reality is far different.
At WORLD we try to offer a balanced look. A hopeful look, because even if the Communist government does its worst, God will only strengthen His people and grow His church. In China, as elsewhere, oftentimes what we see bringing down local churches isn’t government crackdowns, but division, power grabs, and poor theology.
Even amid church turmoil, God can still use grievous situations to promote spiritual growth and maturity: Chinese millennial Grace Guo said that after a difficult church split, she learned how to encourage others going through similar situations: “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.”
Osnos concluded that even if dissidents like Ai Weiwei were outside the mainstream, their voices still needed to be heard, because “ignoring the impact of a small group of impassioned people struck me as a misreading of Chinese history, in which small groups had often exerted large forces.” In the same way, we’ll still diligently write about human rights lawyers, persecuted Christians, and outspoken pastors, especially as China takes on a bigger and bigger role on the world stage.
Sino-Vatican relations: Reports point to an “imminent” agreement between the Vatican and the Chinese government that could re-establish ties for the first time since 1951. The Vatican asked two underground bishops to retire and agreed to recognize seven bishops chosen by the Chinese government. In choosing future bishops, the deal would reportedly allow the Vatican to propose names and give the Chinese government the final say. As expected, the outspoken Cardinal Joseph Zen accused the Vatican of “selling out” underground Chinese Catholics.
This post has been updated to clarify description of the situation Christian churches face in China.