The strong growth of Christianity in China has aroused interest around the world. But recently we have been hearing reports of a crack-down on the church. Is this a big concern?
Dr Carsten Vala is an associate professor at Loyola University Maryland, a research fellow at Purdue University’s Center on Religion and Chinese Society and a recognized authority on the growth of Christianity in China. He kindly agreed to answer a few questions.
There are several reasons. First, rapid economic growth has led to serious psychological dislocation, as many have not taken part in its benefits. Others have been drawn to Christianity because wealth has not satisfied them, and they see how wealth has corrupted society.
Still others are impressed by the example of prominent leaders in the arts, human rights, law, not to mention the rise of the United States. Those who wonder at why the US has gotten so powerful sometimes arrive at the conclusion that Americans have a Judeo-Christian religious culture which China lacks. Lastly, churches provide needed social benefits and an encompassing value system that is a stark contrast to the surrounding moral decay of society.
Why are the authorities cracking down on the church right now?
This crack-down is happening primarily in one province, where the provincial leader is said to be sympathetic to Buddhism, despite his atheist Communist Party credentials. He dislikes the prominence of crosses and of Christianity and has vowed to reduce its public visibility at least.
Might the crack-down be counter-productive? Could it in fact – eventually – end up strengthening the church?
This is much of the lesson of the attempts at earlier Chinese governments to suppress Christianity. Its core doctrines teach believers to expect suppression, and that suppression can be helpful in “winnowing the wheat from the chaff,” by purging churches of weakly committed Christians. When the truly committed remain, they often grow in faith in God and solidarity with each other, becoming ever more devoted to seeing that others experience the same transformations they have.
Christianity has spread strongly in South Korea, and now South Koreans are a force in church and mission groups globally. Might Chinese Christianity one day exert an international influence?
I think it already does. The recent Lausanne Conference invited only unregistered (“house”) church leaders but nearly all 200 were blocked from leaving the country. Chinese are founding churches all over the world, in part because Chinese workers are now all over the world (in Italy, where small textile and clothing factories have sprung up, or in African countries, where workers are building roads and other large construction projects) and in part because Chinese are doing business as entrepreneurs all over the world.
Chinese missionaries are also reaching out to Central Asian and Muslim countries albeit in small numbers, seeking to open up countries that Americans, Canadians, or South Korean Protestants find it difficult to reach. Because Chinese come from a non-Western (or West-aligned) country, they have an easier time gaining entry to such countries.
Dr Vala, thank you very much.