Rob Moll’s Portrait of Chinese Christianity

Posted: August 25, 2009 by Scott Kistler in Missional Thought

Christianity Today editor at large Rob Moll gives a general history of the modern Chinese church in this article from May 2008.  Like some of the other articles that I’ve read on this subject, Moll describes the repression of the Cultural Revolution and the massacre in Tiananmen Square as important points for the Chinese church.  Here is Moll’s description of the three major church movements as well as some factors in the growth of Chinese Christianity:

First, the official associations (subdivided into Three-Self Patriotic for Protestants, and Catholic Patriotic) that are registered with the government, which must approve pastoral, academic, and top-level administrative appointments.

Second, the traditional house-church movement that has rejected oversight and registration. It has been the strongest in rural areas. When the government loosened religious and economic restrictions starting in the late 1970s, the house-church movement exploded in size.

Third, the urban house church, which is not part of either the state church or the traditional “underground” church.

Along with Chinese Christians’ strong emphasis on church planting, several additional factors are driving huge changes in the makeup of Christians in China. First, rural Christians have moved to the cities, causing the growth of the once-burgeoning peasant Christian movement to level off. A second factor is the Chinese who have been educated overseas. As China opened up, many went abroad to study, and in the West, many became Christians. These students have returned to China with prized degrees from universities in America and Europe, and are ready to use their influence for the good of society and the church.

A third factor feeding Christian growth is Westerners who have taught English in Chinese schools. Through individual relationships, these teachers shared the gospel with their students, who became Christians and are now part of China’s elite.

A final factor is China’s moral vacuum. The Tiananmen Square massacre of 1989 left many people questioning government values. The killing of unarmed protestors destroyed China’s pro-democracy movement, but it also destroyed the nation’s soul, says one Chinese leader. As a result, the academic study of Christianity became a maverick discipline in intellectual circles and a curiosity for others.

The urban house church movement seems to be quite dynamic right now.  Moll writes that 70 of its leaders met in April 2007 and “identified seven core values”:

• Practice “kingdom first.” They acknowledge and work with other churches in each city and across China. Urban Christians, like most Chinese believers, are intentionally nondenominational. [My note: How do Protestants and Catholics relate to each other?]

• Be “Bible based.” Theologically, they are conservative and evangelical.

• Believe in the “five-fold ministries.” They acknowledge the roles of apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors, and teachers as spelled out in Ephesians 4:11.

• Equip the saints. Rather than relying on the emergence of charismatic leaders, they follow a mentoring model to disciple people.

• Receive the “abundant life.” While rejecting the prosperity gospel, they believe God can bless Christians materially, and that blessing can be used to influence others to build the kingdom. [My note: I’d like to see more explanation of what this means.]

• Desire to “establish the church.” They are missionary, including a strong desire to take the gospel “back to Jerusalem.”

• Seek “to bless the society.” They are newly engaged in social ministry.

Chinese Christians, or at least their leaders, believe that God wants to do great things through them.  They believe that their faith can impact Chinese society for the better, and they believe that they can bring the gospel from China to Jerusalem and everywhere in between.  Check out the article for a much more in-depth portrait of the church than I’ve given here.

As I mentioned above, I’d like to see Moll and the other authors address Protestant-Catholic relations.  The articles I’ve read on Chinese Christianity don’t seem to address this, dealing mostly with one or the other.  The dynamics might well differ between China and the West: Mark Noll and Carolyn Nystrom’s Is the Reformation Over? discussed how Protestants and Catholics outside the West have worked together more than their Western counterparts, so perhaps a similar phenomenon is occurring in China.  But it’s hard to tell from what I’ve read so far.

Hat tip: Seth Magnuson

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