July 10, 2008

Frontline: Jesus in China

Posted in church, tv at 9:24 am by jimazing

chinese-church.jpgI just watched a Frontline video report called Jesus in China, which was about the state of the Christian church in China.  The report was about how the Chinese government relates to the modern Christian church in China.  They address how the government has created a state sanctioned church and how the government is persecuting underground “house churches” and arresting their pastors.  However, it was something else altogether that stirred me.  In fact the thing that bothered me was never mentioned in the program.  I was bothered by how western the Chinese church looked.  If you ignored the obvious language difference, the state sanctioned church might have been any large traditional protestant church in the US, and the underground churches all looked very much like any of a number of more charismatic churches that I have been a part of.

chinese-house-church.jpgI hesitate to write about this for fear that others will take this as a critisism of how a particular group of people “does church”, but that is truly not what’s on my mind.  This not really about how to “do church”.  I just expected the Chinese church to seem more… well… Chinese.  I was excited by the title to think that I would get to see how the message of Jesus is being lived out by people from a different culture than mine.  What I saw was my own culture being lived out in a different group.  From the architecture of the church building to the clothing, the state church looked just like First Baptist of Smalltown America.  From the the bouncy dancing while singing repititious choruses to the few young folks with microphones leading the singing in a line on the stage… it could have been any one of a thousand trendy new evangelical or charismatic churches.  I don’t necessarily see anything wrong with “doing church” like that, I just wonder why church gatherings are not more expressive of the people who are gathered.

God created us as individuals with many varied talents, interests and experience, and I believe that everything we touch and create as Christians should naturally be a unique expression of who we are.  “…Each of you should use whatever gift you have received to serve others, as faithful stewards of God’s grace in its various forms…” I Peter 4:10.  It seems to me that using “whatever gift” would look differently for every believer.  Individual church gatherings ought to look very different for people from very different cultures. For me, it just doesn’t add up.

Again, I feel compelled to go overboard in saying that this blog entry is not about the Chinese Church.  I think it is wonderful that people who have been oppressed by their government are experiencing a newfound (or newly fought for) freedom to worship God.  If anything, I want to see them free to worship God as Chinese, not as westerners.  God is God and western society is western society and they aren’t the same thing.


  1. mjh said,

    I don’t think that the relatively new Chinese church is going to do church this way forever. I suspect that the official church will have a harder time changing than the house churches.

    The Chinese Christian church is relatively new. Whenever people do something new, the first thing that they do (wisely) is look around at how someone else is doing it, and imitate. Over time, however, they find things that they don’t like and change them. Sometimes it takes a while to figure out what you don’t like. And even more time to figure out what change you want to put in place.

    The key, however to this dynamism, is freedom. If the Chinese Christians have constraints on their ability to try something new, something that might even fail, then change will become difficult. That’s why I suspect that the official Chinese Christian church will be less dynamic than the grass root house churches.

    But even the house churches are under constraints that we are not accustomed to. Any house church that does something that’s really successful is likely to draw more attention from the government, limiting how much growth a good idea can create. Since the churches with good ideas get stamped out of existence, there’s no effective way for those good ideas to get communicated to other churches. One can say, “Hey this is a good idea” but it’s a much more powerful message when it’s backed with “and look at how great it’s working over here”.

    Until the Chinese government gets out of the job of regulating religion, creativity will be slow. Much slower than would happen in the US. Here, freedom of religion is the first right expressed in our constitution. So we’ve come to expect a highly dynamic environment. In China, the government is under a different mandate. We should expect change to be slow. I have thoughts on our government on my blog. The Chinese government, is much much worse than ours.

    There is another possible answer to the question of why churches in China organize and behave similarly to churches in the West. Maybe it’s what I said above, but maybe it’s that doing church that way is the most effective for the most people. I don’t know the answer. I suspect that there are better ways, but maybe that’s just me.

  2. ded said,

    Kind of begs the question does a Christian sub-culture exist which automatically replicates itself regardless of the at-large cultural status-quo?

    Why would that be? If it is efficient as you suggest, that would explain it. What if it were something else? Perhaps in desiring to be what others expect (bouncy dancing while singing repetitious choruses to the few young folks with microphones leading the singing in a line on the stage…),do we limit what we may become? If so, does this weaken the experience of the Spirit? If the Spirit of Christ is evident and growing, is the format a problem? Probably not.

    I appreciated this post, Jim. I’ve always admired your purposeful thinking!

  3. jimazing said,

    mjh – thanks for sharing your thoughts. I hope you are right about the future creativity in the church Chinese or otherwise. I have a friend who blogs at Musings of a Postmodern Negro. As a black man his stories have greatly influenced my perspective to see that we have a very western view of Jesus. Whether that is bad or not, is debatable, but the danger in it all to me is that we begin to think that the way we see it is the way it is. It has always bugged me that Jesus is portrayed as a white guy in all the movies and art throughout the ages. Even in the Passion of the Christ a few years back, all the disciples were clearly Middle Eastern, but Jesus was a Caucasian. Maybe it doesn’t matter, but it seems to be indicative of an arrogant attitude that I don’t find to be Godly. I think that is what bothered me in the Frontline report.

    ded – thanks for your thoughts. You asked (and answered), “If the Spirit of Christ is evident and growing, is the format a problem? Probably not.” I don’t disagree with your conclusion… and my purpose (as stated) was not to be critical of how someone “does church.” Just wondering out loud… and maybe trying to figure out how to “do church” myself. 🙂

  4. ded said,

    I didn’t hear you being critical. I understand the spirit of your musing. I was just joining in.

  5. David Arbogast said,

    I was very privileged to be able to spend this past March in China. I was invited by Chinese Christians to teach the Bible in two underground Christian schools in large cities well off the beaten path. Both cities numbered in the millions and I was the only foreigner that I saw there and I was told that I would be the only foreigner that many of the people there would ever see in their lives.

    If you wish, I will share my perspective on the state of Christianity in China. You may email me.

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