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Mary Li Ma and her husband Jin Li collaborated to write Surviving the State, Remaking the Church: A Sociological Portrait of Christians in Mainland China. Through hundreds of interviews with Christians all across the country, Ma and Li show how Christianity transforms the lives of believers, including their views on education, marriage, charity, and nationalism. Here are edited excerpts of my interview with Ma, who grew up in China and professed faith while earning her Ph.D. in sociology.
How did you come to Christ?
God brought me to Him while I was pursuing a Ph.D. in the most secular academic field at a top Ivy League university: I was not looking for faith. To many people, entering Cornell’s doctorate program with a full scholarship would be the height of one’s self-fulfillment, but during that time I experienced an existential crisis as I was disillusioned by the lack of integrity and the hypocrisy of academia. I realized academia could be as corrupt as politics or business, so I started to doubt the meaning of life and academic pursuit.
But then a few Christian friends reached out to me, including Paul Lee, who is now the chair of business and economics at Wheaton College. He modeled for me how someone can lament at evil and remain sympathetic to individuals, something I struggled with. Paul had a moral and intellectual integrity that intrigued me. I started to wonder what he had that I didn’t. So we started talking more about the Christian faith. He’s an academic, but to me he’s a true missionary because his moral example is consistent with the gospel.
What surprised you the most when you interviewed Chinese house church Christians?
People were eager to share how deeply God transformed their lives. When I first embraced the Christian faith in the United States, many of my American colleagues were shocked. Some very kind friends would say: “I know Christianity is very new to you, but this has been around for many, many years; it’s very cliché to us.” This shows the gospel can be surprising and new to the Chinese. There’s a freshness when the power of God’s Word first penetrates hardened soil and first enters a context where things are the opposite.
‘There’s a freshness when the power of God’s Word first penetrates hardened soil and first enters a context where things are the opposite.’
What is the biggest difference between older Chinese Christians who have faced persecution and younger ones who haven’t?
The old generation lived in survival mode. The younger generation today has more space to witness personally and professionally, but faces more temptations than the old: materialism, consumerism, and very subtle types of state co-optations. Government strategies to infiltrate the church are becoming more diversified, latent, and high-tech.
What’s the draw of having a Christian worldview in modern-day China?
When people who are used to being taught an airtight system of thought have exposure to a competing worldview that gives more satisfying answers, the general disillusionment soon gives way to curiosity and a willingness to learn more about the other worldview. That’s why the Christian worldview—which the West might think is cliché—became really fresh, new, and powerful in China. It gives answers to major life issues like purpose, meaning, and direction. But Christians also need to bear witness to that kind of worldview because if your witness is contrary, then it’s not credible to people. For instance, under Mao conversions happened when the power of the Christian worldview was delivered through Christians whose testimony withstood the harshest tests—imprisonment or labor camps.
In the book, you mention some of the drawbacks of short-term missions for local Chinese believers. What challenges have you seen?
In modern times, short-term missions has become almost a consumeristic or fast-food style of engagement. As human beings, we know that when we interact with people within a short time frame, we tend only to notice the superficial things like cultural differences or dietary habits. That may be intriguing for learning about the culture, but mission work really requires people to invest in each other’s lives for a long time and to nurture real relationships. Because of the limits of time, short-term missionaries sometimes intentionally water down the gospel.
There’s an unintended consequence: Their presence may draw an audience more interested in their American culture or Americanized version of Christianity. I’m not saying short-term missions are all wrong. I was blessed by short-term missionaries, as there is an advantage for strangers to come into your life and tell you a fresh message—but more regularly a type of Americanized Christianity is projected to the audience.
You write that the Shanghai churches often make newcomers attend small groups for three months before they can join Sunday service. Does that deter seekers from learning about God, or does it make church members more committed?
Many churches in Shanghai are in a survival-coping strategy because the Shanghai government controls the city more tightly due to its international status. This method deters seekers because all visitors need to go through these screening mechanisms. But given the massive needs for spiritual resources in China, even these very self-selected small groups grow at an exponential rate. So in reality, the deterring effect of this setup is not at all worrisome: Church members are actually more committed because it requires a higher cost, and people generally long to worship together. It becomes a very treasured time for them.
What do Western media get wrong about the church in China?
Journalists tend to write case-by-case reports focusing on individual groups or incidents. Not many go deeper beyond impressionistic stories to analyze the deeper causes. Some focus on the persecution narrative when the reality is more complex than that. Sometimes the issue isn’t directly religious persecution, but right to assembly: The government is not only closing down churches, but controlling other kinds of groups, too.
Do you have an optimistic or pessimistic view of the future of the Chinese churches?
I tend to be optimistic: I’m not optimistic about human nature, but I’m not that pessimistic about what will happen in the church in China. People worry about China regressing back to what it was like a few decades ago, but I think China’s economy has become so embedded in the global economy that it’s difficult for China to retreat. China is absolutely redrawing the boundaries of political power, but it will be hard to retreat to what it was like a few decades ago because China and the rest of the world are interdependent.
Having said that, China now has the technology to aid its control and that’s something I’m pessimistic about. The worst-case scenario is we go back to the type of persecution experienced under Mao. But even if that looks like the worst scenario from an outside view, internally it would strengthen believers. I don’t think it will go that far: This kind of power tug of war will intensify, but the government has many other issues to deal with that are more urgent than the role of the church in China. The church has always been very peaceful, so it’s not a top priority for the government.