Reflections on a Wandering Life.....

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Kai County Christianity 

I am on the train to Lanzhou now. I considered several options, because there are no sleeper tickets available, but I finally decided go ahead and get the hard seat ticket, because I could leave from the same station as Tom (he's going back to work in Beijing), and this is the simplest way to get to Lanzhou (although certainly not the most comfortable). The hard seat ticket was for a seat on a summer overflow train. What they do, because of the increased travel, is to bring an old, old train online--one with ceiling fans and no air conditioning--and then charge half price for those tickets. So my ticket from Dazhou (in Chongqing municipality) to Lanzhou cost 76 RMB. Twenty hours in the hard seats. But fortunately, it isn't packed, so it's fairly easy to move around.

Had a strange and troubling talk with the senior pastor at the Three Self Church in Kaixian yesterday. Tom and I had gone to a singing practice at the church in the afternoon. After the singing practice a sister asked me to pray for her. I started to do so, but noticed one of the pastors seemed to be trying to move us out. I assumed that we were probably in the way, so I told the sister to come out into the hallway. Several others joined us. When I talked with Tom about this afterward, he told me that the pastor had actually said, "No. If you need prayer, I can pray for you." I was surprised by this, because I have never had anything like that happen before, but I guess I can understand how it must be a little irritating for a Chinese pastor to see a foreigner who is a complete stranger come in and be treated as if he is something special just because he is a foreigner. I suppose that would irritate me too. But I can't imagine that I would try to stop someone from receiving prayer from another believer. But what happened next was quite a bit more disturbing. Tom had mentioned something to one of the sisters there about getting together for fellowship in the evening. The senior pastor heard this and asked Tom to come to her office. When he did, she said, "How long have you known this man?" Tom told her that he had known me for quite some time. By this time, I had finished praying for the sisters and I followed a classmate of Tom's who assumed I was looking for him and led me to the pastor's office.

When I got there, I started talking to her about the nature of Christianity in China, with China having both family churches and the Three Self Church. She objected to the term "Three Self Church." She told me that the Three Self Church was not a church. I was intrigued by that, because that's usually the line I get from house church Christians. Many of them do not believe that the Three Self Church is actually a church. But this pastor's reason for objecting was different. She seemed to have a thing about distinguishing between the Three Self Patriotic Movement, and the church itself. Talking with her was exasperating, because every time I said, "Three Self Church" she cut me off. It's hard to talk about the comparison between the Three Self Church and family churches if you can't say "Three Self Church." Somehow I managed to continue the conversation, but not without repeated interruption.

I told her about my concern for Tom's home town. There is no church of any kind in that community. Of course I could not expect her to endorse the idea of Tom starting a family church in that community, but her contention that nothing could be done unless there was a request for a church from a group of people in that town seemed ludicrous. So we cannot evangelize people unless they evangelize themselves first? I was certainly not unfamiliar with the argument, because that is the usual approach of the Religious Affairs Bureau. This is because they don't want to encourage propagation of religion, but they have decided to tolerate it and formalize it if it exists. So even though the policy flies in the face of Christian missions, where we introduce the gospel to those who do not know, it does make sense if you understand the priorities of the Communist Party. But for a Christian pastor to be signing on to this idea is horrendous.

Somehow we got into a discussion about the problem of foreigners and Christianity, and I mentioned the fact that the missionaries had been kicked out in 1949. She told me that the missionaries had to be kicked out, because they were helping foreign countries. Right out of the old Communist Party propaganda book. I say, "old," because I haven't even heard that argument even from the Communist Party for quite some time. Then she launched into a dissertation on how much the government and the Communist Party had helped the church. This lady knows what side her bread is buttered on. But I am not sure if she knows for sure whose side she is on. It is sad to hear a Christian pastor talking that way, but I rather think she ought to read some history. The church she is a pastor of was built by missionaries.

Throughout our conversation I kept coming back to the fact that Tom's home community had no church whatsoever. She talked about how there were so many cults that the government had to be very vigilant about any religious meetings that were not sanctioned by the church. But the church she is a pastor of is not the only fellowship. There are also 9 "meeting points." These are legally recognized extensions of the Three Self Church. But there is nothing like that in Tom's hometown. I shared with her about Paul the Apostle--how he repeatedly went to communities where there was no church and started churches. He didn't wait until 30 or 40 people in a given community sort of self-evangelized themselves and then requested that a church be established. But I fear that what I said fell on deaf ears. Finally, in frustration, I shared Matthew 28:19-20 with her. She said every country is different. I also told her that there were many, many family churches in Beijing. She didn't seem to know that. She asked me how the government responded to that. I told her that it varies from community to community. In Beijing, a house church with a hundred members or so will pretty much be left alone. In Wuhan, there are very large family churches that are not officially part of the Three Self Movement, but who contact the police and operate quite in the open. So it's different in every community.

I guess we westerners need to be sympathetic with the position of a Three-Self Church pastor. But I have talked to Three-Self Church pastors all over China who were very different from her. In 2004, I went to a Three-Self Church in Lijiang (Yunnan Province), and the pastor asked me to come up and share something with the people. So my experience in Kai County was a shock. For pastors to tread lightly to avoid offending the party is one thing. But when a pastor is more concerned about making sure that nothing religious is happening that is not under her control than she is about the souls of men, this is a sad day for the church. There is still much spiritual darkness in Kai County.

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