Chinese churches face challenges of growth - news from ekklesia

By staff writers
May 11, 2005

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Chinese churches face challenges of growth


China's fast-growing churches are facing the task of making the Gospel authentic to a culture that has historically seen it as 'foreign', a world gathering of church and mission leaders heard yesterday.

The message came from the Rev Cao Shengjie, general secretary of the China Christian Council, as part of the ësynaxisí programme of workshops and
meeting spaces at the thirteenth Conference on World Mission and Evangelism
(CWME) meeting in Athens, Greece.

Protestant Christians are said officially to number around 16-17 million. Researchers suggest the real number is more likely to be around 50-70 million. There are about 12 million Catholics.

The Rev Cao said that the extension of grassroots education, social witness, personal evangelism and the renewal of theological thinking would make the next phase of the development of the Protestant church possible.

The challenge facing Chinese believers today is to discover a distinctly Chinese perspective on mission and evangelism, she explained. But there was a warning, too. ìEvangelism will not meet its goal if the methods of mission are not in accord with the truth of the Gospel.î

In the case of China, said Ms Cao, this meant respect for the desire of the churches to be self-propagating, self-supporting and self-supporting (the 'three-self' principle).

The backing and prayers of Christians all around the world was very welcome, she added. But it should not mark a return to the colonial past, which harmed the reputation of Christianity in China and contributed to its subsequent suppression during the Cultural Revolution (1966-1977).

The China Christian Council (CCC) was formed in 1980, after the re-opening of churches in 1979. There are also Christian Councils in each of the provinces. They seek to organize and service the life of local congregations, which form part of the post-denominational Protestant church.

Official relations between the churches and the government are handled through the Three Self Patriotic Movement. This is closely allied to the authorities and, like the CCC, cooperates with the State Administration for Religious Affairs.

All civic bodies, including churches, are required to register with the government. There are many unofficial churches that decline to do so and who face regular clampdowns.

Answering questions from CWME participants about state regulation, the Rev Cao said that religious freedom required a legal framework to guarantee security
and stability for both the churches and the government.

She added that the China Christian Council, especially through its Bible ministry, aimed to support all Christians in China, not just those who recognized the
three-self principles.

The Chinese delegation also noted the historic nature of their presence. ìThis is our first visit to Athens, and it is also the first time we have been part of the Conference on World Mission and Evangelism through this gathering,î explained the Rev Cao.

She emphasized the need for Chinese Christians to seek unity among themselves and peaceful relations with other faiths, including Catholicism -- which is defined by the state as a separate religion in China.

The late 1980s saw a hardening of Chinese government policy towards religion. In the 1990s and 2000s there has been a more pragmatic approach. In 2001 the then Chinese premier declared that religion was not only here to stay but that it might even outlive the Communist Party.

Even so, there continue to be crackdowns against 'unofficial' religious groups in many parts of the country, and observers are concerned that the Chinese government is tightening its hand on the recognized religious bodies behind the scenes.

Along with Buddhism there has been an exponential growth in Christianity recently, though it is still a minority faith in a huge country. Religious expansion has made some state officials nervous.

To an extent there has been a move away from stereotypes about 'official' and underground' churches. But the degree of actual flexibility depends upon local conditions, and harsh treatment is meted out to those seen to be acting in ways harmful to the interests of the government.

A new religious law has recently been promulgated, and the government is strongly emphasizing the need for faith groups to contribute actively to the stability and harmony of Chinese society.

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