Reformed Quarterly Volume 8, Issue 2
Each month 1 1/2 million people in China die. Most go to a Christless eternity. With 1.1 billion people ( 22 percent of the world’s population), the Chinese are the largest group of unreached people in the world.
Were you able to worship at the church of your choice last Sunday and hear a sermon centered on Jesus Christ? If so, be thankful. The majority of the five million Chinese Christians attending state-controlled churches did not, while the 20-50 million Christians worshipping in “house churches” risked prison or torture to hear it.
Do you own a Bible –or two or more? If so, be thankful. Chinese Christians are begging for Bibles; in one area of China only one Bible is available for every 1,000 believers.
The fact is that thousands are becoming Christians in China every day and suffering for it. China is probably one of the most important mission fields in the world. Its house churches — groups of Christians worshipping illegally in homes to escape government control — are some of the fastest growing churches. In one district of about 100,000, every village had a house church and every family had at least one believer.
Beginning in early 1987, the Holy Spirit began to move. In one village, children were holding Bible studies every day after school. In another village, eight and nine-year-olds were preaching door-to-door.
In contrast to the secular materialism and idol worship of Hong Kong and Taiwan — conditions which make ministry difficult — Mainland China is very receptive to the gospel. Why? During the Cultural Revolution, all churches were closed, Bibles burned, and pastors sent to work in factories or on farms. Communism became the religion, eradicating all folk superstitions to which the Hong Kong Chinese and Taiwanese still cling. Today the Mainland Chinese are seeing that Communism cannot make good on its claims, and a real spiritual vacuum exists, particularly among the young. People are so hungry for the gospel that if they know you are a Christian they will stop you on the street to ask about Christ.
In recent years the Chinese government has shown a new openness toward religion, allowing some 5,000 churches to reopen. But these congregations are not free to worship as they choose and must follow strict government guidelines. Called “The Three Designates,” these main guidelines state that: 1) One can worship only at an open church or a house church approved by the government. 2) Only government-approved pastors can lead these groups. 3) Pastors can work only within a certain geographical area and meet at certain times. Evangelists and pastors are not to go to unevangelized areas but are to remain in their places of appointment.
The controls do not stop here. Pastors are forbidden to preach on the resurrection, the Second Coming, the casting out of demons, or the healing of the sick. No one under eighteen is to be in church. There can be no evangelism outside the church walls. However, the government does not carry out these policies uniformly. Consequently, some churches adhere strictly to the rules, while others hope they will not be caught. But caught they may be, and the government may clamp down on an offending church which then has no recourse.
The teaching in open churches ranges from good to poor. Most of the pastors are in their seventies and eighties, men who have had good, biblical training and, after suffering much in the Cultural Revolution, merely want to minister to their people in whatever way they can.
On the other hand, specially selected Communist party members do infiltrate some churches. Their task is to collect information for the government, win others, and train themselves to manage a church and gradually take the place of older pastors and leaders.
RTS President Luder Whitlock made the following observation after a trip to China in 1987. “The approach of the government regarding the Christian church in China seems to be one of containment and appeasement. Although some latitude for growth and development has been allowed, it has been very carefully controlled and seemingly designed to placate believers into an acceptable pattern of behavior.”
To escape the strict control, ninety percent of the Chinese Christians have fled to some 200 – 300,000 house churches which are springing up like mushrooms all over China. But the price for freedom is meeting in secret. Although the Communists deny it, house church members have been reported jailed or tortured if caught.
RTS alumnus Jim Stewart is one of the world’s most knowledgeable men concerning the Chinese church (see inset). After extensive research done recently at the Chinese Church Research Center in Hong Kong, Stewart feels that the Western evangelical world has an inaccurate understanding of the religious situation in Mainland China. The Chinese government wants the West to think that the government-approved church is the voice of the church in China.
“The truth is,” explains Stewart, ” the more evangelicals who side with the Chinese Communist government, the more leverage it has to pressure the house churches to come under their supervision. It also alienates China ministry groups like ours from other evangelicals by depicting us as radicals who don’t know what we are doing. Other evangelicals accept what they say, and it divides the evangelical church.”
“Western evangelicals may not understand Communist ‘divide- and-conquer’ strategy,” continues Stewart. “Characteristically, they classify people in three groups: their friends, the neutral group (western evangelicals), and their enemies (house churches and China ministry groups). In this case, they are attempting to make the neutral group their friends and turn everyone against their enemies, the house churches and China ministries. This puts tremendous pressure on the house churches to throw in the towel and come under government control.”
This divide-and-conquer strategy is part of the Chinese Communists’ broad united front effort to modernize China. Unity is the front’s strong aim, and it assumes a person is patriotic and will work to unify the country. Those who will not work with the government to “unite” the country are considered the enemy.
One example of the pressure being put on house churches is the scarcity of Bibles. Church leaders not aligned with the government say it is almost impossible to get Bibles, some waiting years to get them. The Chinese government maintains that Christians have enough Bibles, since 2.3 million have been printed since 1980. But the government only counts five million Christians, not the 30-50 million people in the house churches.
The government will not accept Bibles from any foreign source. However, they accept financial aid for other things, such as construction of churches and books for seminary libraries. Some believe the government’s real aim is to use Bibles as leverage against the house church Christians whom they seek to control.
Another area of control is seminary enrollment. Although leaders are desperately needed in the Chinese church, only ten per cent of the applicants for seminary education are accepted and enrolled. While facilities and professors are inadequate for a much greater number, larger classes or double sessions could be held if so desired. It seems there is a deliberate effort to control the flow of seminary students.
Ultimately, Stewart believes the Chinese government’s goal is the death of religion in China and the extinction of all Chinese ministries. Realizing that coercive measures will only arouse religious fervor, the Communists have developed a long-term religious policy which they feel will facilitate the death of religion. While educational and economic reforms are breaking down the need for religion, Christianity will be tolerated, since religious people are needed to bring about the modernization of China. Having a policy of “religious freedom” has other benefits–it promotes friendly relations and cultural exchanges between China and other countries while strengthening unity and cooperation between China and third world countries. However, when China becomes totally “modernized” and Communistic, religion will no longer be needed.
At the moment, the Chinese government claims to have sole sovereignty over China; any Protestant Christian church must come under their supervision. No one outside of China may enter and engage in any religious work without their permission. The government maintains it can evangelize China by themselves with the five million Christians in the state-approved churches.
“But they can’t do it,” says Stewart. The Chinese must not only evangelize China, but also Christianize the Chinese society and nation. To do this, they surely need the help of the universal church.”
“Presently,” he continues, “there is no itinerant evangelism in the open churches. The Chinese house church Christians are sending out missionaries to unreached parts of the nation; right now, that’s our best hope for evangelizing China.”
Stewart: Stalwart Servant of Chinese Christians
Jim Stewart (RTS ’72, ’88) peered anxiously through the pelting rain. The street outside his mission home in Taipei, Taiwan, was flooding. Would he and his wife be able to get their desperately ill daughter to the hospital in these conditions?
They did, but for ten anxiety-ridden days, four-year-old Esther lay critically ill with an undetermined disease which was finally diagnosed as typhoid fever. By God’s grace, she recovered. The Stewarts later found out that their other two children narrowly escaped death when the flood waters inundated the home in which they were staying; rescuers discovered them atop a dining room table watching the water rise uncontrollably.
Upon the Stewarts’ return home from the hospital, they were greeted by flood waters in part of their home and six inches of filth and debris left in the street by the deluge — garbage through which they would wade for several months to come. Jim was forced to haul water from a neighbor’s house by bucket for days before their water was restored. On the mission field barely two months, Jim began to ask himself some serious questions, like: Did I become a missionary to do this?
There were other troubles. Learning to live in a crowded, polluted city and learning to read and write an entirely new (and difficult) language at age 35 were almost overwhelming tasks. For about six months, Jim sank into severe culture shock.
“I wanted to leave Taiwan,” he remembers vividly. “There were days I did not even want to see a Chinese. Sometimes when I took people to the airport, I wanted so much to go with them. But I knew God wanted me in Taiwan, and I wanted to stay in His will.”
Humbly trusting in the Lord’s grace, Jim let God change his attitude and ultimately overcame the culture shock. He even began to like Taiwan, and the Lord gave him a fruitful ministry there.
A BURDEN FOR MAINLAND CHINA
But Jim’s burden had always been for Mainland China. His heart went out to this beleaguered nation whose people are so oppressed. So, in 1986, in order to get closer to the mainland, he left Taiwan for Hong Kong, only twenty minutes from the Mainland Chinese border.
There he became a research assistant for the Chinese Church Research Center (CCRC). The Center’s aims are to keep the Christian world informed about the condition of the Chinese church and to help mission organizations plan strategies for reaching China. Stewart contributes articles regularly to two of the Center’s publications — “The China Prayer Letter” and “The China News and Church Report” — both of which are sent around the world.
Stewart has just completed his dissertation for the D.Min. degree at RTS. The work, which he is trying to publish, is an excellent, detailed analysis of the church situation in Mainland China today and contains information he feels all Western evangelicals should know.
In addition, Stewart has recently helped create the new Chinese Mission Seminary, where he now teaches missions and Christian doctrine.” With fifteen students, the school is unique in that it is the only seminary in the Chinese world designed to train Hong Kong Chinese for ministry in Mainland China. Seminary students have already made field trips into China and led many people to Christ. They must witness secretly since it is illegal.
“I cannot go into Mainland China to work with the house churches,” explains Stewart, “because I have too high a profile as a westerner. I might put them in jeopardy. But I can train these Hong Kong Chinese in good basic doctrine, mission principles, and theology. They can then provide leadership, which is the primary lack in the Chinese church. Five hundred thousand ministers are needed presently to have a ratio of one to every one hundred believers.”
Preparing themselves to serve the Chinese church is a great sacrifice for some of the seminary students. Their parents, usually non-Christian, exert enormous pressure on them to get a job and forget such foolishness. In addition, some Hong Kong pastors, looking ahead to Mainland China’s takeover of Hong Kong in 1997, don’t want their men attending the seminary because of its association with the house churches –a position which would put them in disfavor with the Communist Chinese government.
Jim considers one of his most important tasks that of taking Bibles and other Christian literature –greatly needed by the house churches — into Mainland China. Government regulations forbid them to bring Christian literature across the border, but there is no law to substantiate the restrictions. About half the time, the Bibles and literature are taken away at the border and given back upon his return to Hong Kong. While officials cannot jail foreigners carrying Bibles, they have interrogated them for six to eight hours.
A CALL FROM MEDICINE TO MISSIONS
Being so bold for the Lord was not one of Jim’s early ambitions. In fact, he did not even become a Christian until he was in college. Valedictorian of his high school class, Jim decided he wanted to be a doctor and headed for the University of Georgia. There he purposely set out to get in medical school by making excellent grades and garnering numerous honors, among them Who’s Who in American Colleges and Universities and Phi Beta Kappa.
His senior year in college, however, his well-laid plans were thrown awry when months passed and he still was not accepted to medical school.
“It caused me to evaluate my spiritual life,” reflected Jim. “My god during college had been to get into medical school and be a doctor. I had devoted my life to that, and, apparently, it was being taken away; what was I going to do? I was like a rubber band getting tighter and tighter; I didn’t know when I might just snap.”
About this time, he attended a student leadership breakfast at the University of Georgia sponsored by Campus Crusade for Christ. A college girl gave her testimony, through which God spoke to Jim.
“I could see,” said Jim, “that she had a peace and purpose for living, a power in her life that I did not have. And I wanted it.”
A few days later, Jim gave Jesus control of his life, and vowed to do the Lord’s will — whether it meant digging ditches or being a doctor. For the first time in his life, he felt real peace.
Within six weeks, Jim was accepted to all the medical schools to which he had applied. Yet, strangely, even though Jim enjoyed medicine and wanted to go to medical school, he became less and less interested as God began to take away the desire to be a doctor. In addition, greater involvement with Campus Crusade at the University of Georgia gave him exciting opportunities to lead people to the Lord.
“But I still resisted full-ime Christian work,” admitted Jim, “until one day I felt the Lord asking me if I were willing to give up being a doctor if it meant knowing Jesus better. I knew the answer was ‘yes,’ and I closed the door forever on medical school.”
After graduation in 1967, Stewart went on staff with Campus Crusade and worked in their high school ministry for two years, holding city-wide evangelistic crusades and seeing as many as 500 students come to Christ in just a few weeks.
Feeling he needed more theological training, he entered RTS in 1969. During his first two years of seminary, he was on Campus Crusade seminary staff. While in Jackson, he began a high school ministry which grew so big he eventually had to turn it over to another staff member in order to pursue studies.
After seminary Jim was assistant pastor at Fifth Street Presbyterian Church in Tyler, Texas, for three years before being called to Perry Presbyterian Church in Perry, Georgia. During his five years there, Jim’s vision for missions continued to grow and became specifically directed at the Chinese world. Finally, in 1980, Jim left for Taipei, Taiwan, to be a member of the first Mission to the World church planting team in the Chinese world.
WHAT’S THE FUTURE FOR CHINESE MISSIONS?
After 1997, when Britain’s lease expires and Hong Kong reverts to Chinese rule, the future of Jim’s work, along with other evangelical mission organizations, is uncertain. The lease agreement forbids any interference between the Hong Kong church and the Mainland church, which would end the CCRC’s work on the Mainland. No one knows how strictly the agreement will be enforced.
Some mission organizations are already making plans to move, since they feel there will be no ministry for evangelical groups in Hong Kong after 1997. The CCRC is already on the Communists’ black list and would be one of the first to be expelled.
There is one thing, however, of which you can be certain. Jim Stewart will continue to work tirelessly as long as he can.
He’ll also continue praying for and helping house church Christians who are risking their lives for their faith. Let’s follow his lead.
How Can We Help Evangelize China?
For more information about the Chinese church, you may write the Chinese Church Research Center, P.O. Box 312 C.P.O., Shatin, N.T., Hong Kong.