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I recently revisited China with the Voice of China and Asia Missionary Society, Inc. Their mission is to proclaim the Gospel, make disciples and leave self-sustaining Churches in the fields they serve. It was founded by missionary Albert Reiton in 1909, who traveled on a one-way ticket to Hong Kong and founded the organization’s first Peniel Church. Since then they have started multiple Churches, Bible schools and orphanages in several East Asian Countries, including South Korea, the Philippines and Taiwan. After their internment as prisoners-of-war during WWII, in a two-fold outreach to the foreign field, Albert’s son-in-law, Bob Hammond began the Voice of China and Asia Radio Broadcast in the USA and Canada to support the expanding work on the foreign field. Following Mr. Hammond’s death in 2001, his nephew, Jonathan Brooks took over the ministry. Soon afterward, Jonathan, heard that China was opening again and has been maximizing what can be legally and openly accomplished there.

There are so many misconceptions of the state of the Chinese Church that it would do some good to discuss them. The first is that the “true” Church in China is underground. This is false. Christianity is openly practiced in China through the Chinese Christian Council (CCC) which is the Chinese Protestant church. The underground church is active as well, but it captures so much of our imagination in the west that we sometimes forget there is an open Church. The second misconception is that the open church is nothing more than a government puppet that teaches heresy. Nothing could be further from the church. The CCC does have to abide by certain restrictions including regulations of where churches can be built and prohibitions from actively preaching against the government, but from my time in these churches, I saw only fervent worship and sound doctrine. The third misconception is that open and legal evangelism cannot happen in China. The truth is that there is likely more evangelism in China than in the United States. It is illegal for foreigners to evangelize (so forget street witnessing and dramas in the public square.) The restrictions in place limit public evangelism by the Chinese to designated church property locations and registered house preaching points. Personal sharing between adults is not restricted. I personally witnessed a Chinese pastor openly and casually walk into a restaurant and give some patrons Bibles and encouraged them to come to his church.

The CCC is required to adhere to the Three-self Patriotic Movement standards which require the church to be free from foreign influence and to be self-supporting, self-propagating and self-governing. Foreign support is not allowed if it has strings attached. Basically the Church can receive support but it doesn’t want any outside influence.  Any monetary transactions are heavily scrutinized making outside support very difficult. As mentioned before, evangelism is strictly the job of the CCC which is self-governing and does not fall under the authority of any ecumenical body.

China’s Church has seven levels of organization emanating out from the population centers to the rural areas: Provincial, City, County, Town (district), Village, community, and rural preaching point. Chinese society has a sharp bifurcation between the prosperous cities and poor rural areas. The further away from the cities you go, the fewer resources the church has. The CCC has a strict policy that a city church cannot open without an assigned pastor who is officially trained and certified by a seminary. While this ensures solid training and consistent Doctrine for church leadership, enrollment at seminaries is suppressed and falls short of keeping up with demand. Pastors regularly service multiple churches with and rely on “preachers” (leaders with the equivalent of a Bible school certificate) to lead services pastors cannot attend (which is most). In addition, there are elders (no formal Bible training) who lead gatherings at “preaching points” (rural places where public ministry is allowed to take place, generally a home) serviced by the churches. The leader of a district in one costal province with 30,000 Christians said that there were only four ordained pastors (assisted by 70+ preachers) to serve their community of 46 churches and over 300 preaching points. Only when further considering that only a pastor can baptize and only those baptized are officially recorded as members of the Church is the true force of the shortage realized because actually church attenders are much more numerous than officially reported.

The Voice of China and Asia fulfills its mission by helping China’s rural church through open and legal Bible distribution, Bible Training and by providing preacher transportation in the form of motor bikes. There is a severe shortage of Bibles in rural China. Public bookstores do not carry Bibles and only Provincial and City Churches offer Bibles for sale. This is devastating for Bible ownership because the rural Chinese have neither ready cash nor transportation to the nearest city church (maybe 15-20 miles away) to buy them. To the millions of Chinese in the rural areas a bicycle is an upgrade in transportation and that even the paltry sum of $5 dollars for a Bible is a week’s salary. The official position of the CCC is that they have no need for outside assistance with Bible distribution because they have a program for anyone who writes to receive a free Bible.  Few ever write. To my understanding, we exceeded the total amount their entire program on this trip alone.

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Our first stop was near the birthplace of Mao Zedong. There we had the pleasure of visiting a Church founded by Hudson Taylor and also saw the graves of several of his group there. Several local patriarchs there would hold up their hand while touching their index fingers and thumb together showing the sign that they were a third generation Christian. It is impressive how much imprint he had on inland China. The liturgy of church services were remarkably similar to my Methodist upbringing. I even recognized most of the hymns they sang. The Voice of China and Asia itself carries the imprint of Hudson Taylor as Albert Reiton went to China in response to Taylor’s call.

We traveled to the east for our next and longest stop. In the three full days we were there we visited 8 churches and a Bible School.  We went to a newly built church in the country and witnessed a Chinese communion and baptism service. It was the first time our host had been there and I suspected it may have been the first time for any pastor to be in the community for some time. In the congregation of about 300 there were 21 baptisms.  At one point we asked how many baptisms a year that had in a particular district of 30,000 and they said 1,000. That seemed low until they told me that they make a convert work in the church for at least one year and take a training program similar to a catechism before they are worthy to be baptized. When asked how many converts or “believers” were added to the church every year  the pastor was puzzled at the question and his response was along the lines of “Why count them, they are not baptized yet?” When asked again he said, there were too many to count. I was left with the impression that in China discipleship is the focus, as “unbaptized Believers” are not even counted. This impressed me while reflecting that American Churches who would count anyone who merely raised their hand to an invitation seem to be always looking for ways to make Church membership easier.

In true Chinese fashion, we were initially shown successful larger city churches. We had asked to see the rural churches but noticed that we still spent about half the time in the city, later we found out that the local leaders would not only take us only  rural churches but wanted to also show us the best of the city Churches. They were embarrassed for us to see only the impoverished areas because they did not want us to think poorly of the Chinese church. We eventually did visit and see what the church really looked like in all the rural areas. All-in all, I think this gave us the full spectrum of the condition of the  Chinese church City and rural. but made us wonder what the church really looked like in all the rural areas.

We delivered around 6,000 Bibles in this area. In the rural areas we would not see anyone with a Bible. From the mixture of smiles and tears from those receiving their new bibles we could see how meaningful receiving one was. My overwhelming feeling was that the Bible was so ubiquitous in the United States we take it for granted. Jonathan shared that there is some criticism for printed Bible distribution programs because it seems more efficient to provide a downloadable Bible application for their phone. I made a point to research this question and can tell you that in rural China there is no penetration at all for Bible applications.  Maybe 5% of the people we saw in the rural areas have smartphones and there was no internet access for miles for those that did have them.  Also, there is no awareness of Bible applications within China. Our college educated interpreter said she just started using the You-Version application on her I-Phone only after her American Christian friends told her about it. A last concern is that the Chinese government is so proficient at controlling the internet that they could simply block any application if they chose to do so. A printed Bible in the hands of the people would be impossible for the government to reclaim, even if it wanted to. For these reasons I am convinced a printed Bible is a more effective and secure way to ensure rural China is saturated with God’s Word.

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One of the key principles of the Voice of China and Asia is verification. It is not enough to simply send resources to China (or anywhere else for that matter). Also, without verification there really is no accountability.  It is not that they are bad people but, as on many foreign fields, there are simply too many other distractions to make sure they get to those who really need them. Also, the study Bibles we delivered came with an instruction course on how to use it and prepare a sermon. Amazingly, even the Bible school students (who perform the majority of the actually perching that happened in China) who had study Bibles said that they were never given any training. Preaching at many preaching points consisted of just reading the Bible and singing hymns. This is why training how to use a Study Bible and prepare sermons has become a focus for the Voice of China and Asia.

Preacher transportation is another area Voice of China and Asia helps the Chinese church. We heard stories about preachers being responsible for preaching points as far away as 12 to 15 miles. Their schedules are set ahead of time so rain, sleet or snow they either walk or ride a bicycle to their assigned location. With a motorbike, a preacher is able to go farther and service more preaching points in any given week. We delivered seven motorbikes, to pastors who openly wept upon receiving them.

Churches in the urban area are very nice and have a distinctive colonial style of architecture with a Red Cross on top. Their auditoriums are large and can hold several thousand. Interestingly, most were well off the main roads. We would wind through some small alleyways and look up and there would be an impressive five story church building. Parking, however, consisted of only a small courtyard that would hold only twenty cars because most members walked to church.

Our Last stop was in a central coastal province. There we gathered miracle stories for a book Jonathan is writing. Our hope  was to see what connection, if any, miracles had to the growth of the church there.  The first night, our host told the story of his mother who had a dream that Jesus would heal her of breast cancer if she would seek him. She said she did not know who Jesus was and asked her village if anyone knew. In time she met older man who was a Christian from before the Cultural Revolution who explained that Jesus was Christ and brought her to the faith.  Through this event her whole family became Christians though they did not have a Bible. He said that when he married in 1980, his father-in-law who owned a Bible that survived the Cultural Revolution gave it to him as his wedding gift. He said it was his most prized possession.

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As we gathered in a unique European-style church there, we were asked to prioritize the stories we were going to catalogue. We responded that we wanted to first hear the stories that led people to salvation. The answer I received was that they didn’t know what to do because all of  their stories led to salvations. As I heard story after story of miraculous healing I was impressed both by the expectation and the meaning the people read into their experiences. It was obvious that God would heal them and that they should share their stories for the sake of the gospel, I wondered why this was not so obvious at times to us.

Traveling to inland China is surreal and full of extremes. As expected, you will see poverty and harsh conditions. I saw houses and churches with no indoor plumbing, rice farmers plowing with water buffalos, and wheat farmers drying their wheat on the asphalt streets. Fortunately, we stayed at their best places and ate their best food. The hotels are new and nice. The food is excellent as long as your host understand you only want to look at the giant salamander and cicadas displayed at the front of the restaurant and not eat them. You will also learn that Americans have a passion for three things that the Chinese don’t: Ice, Air conditioning and Coffee. The temperature could be in the mid-eighties with 80% humidity and your host will be wearing a jacket in the car because he expected that you would ask him to turn on the air-conditioning. I woke up six straight days in hotels where there was no coffee available in the building and I don’t think I saw an ice cube the entire time I was there. The denial of my American creature lay comforts should not distract from the fact that I also saw Massive train stations with 200 MPH bullet trains, unreal numbers of sky scrapers and city parks as big as Central Park in cities a tenth of the size. China is modernizing and  I wondered if within a generation many of these traveling curiosities will Disappear.

I got the feeling when we went to the rural areas that most people there have never seen foreigners before. I am relatively tall and had grown my beard out for the trip and felt that all eyes were on me wherever I went. The oddity of  a foreign face only added weight to our words as we addressed the crowds. We were seen as special messengers from Christ sent from halfway across the world to bless them with a Bible. We have too many daily blessings to really understand what this meant to the people of rural China. Only when you see their joy and tears can you really understand.

There is so little English spoken that travel without our seasoned interpreter and guide would be impossible. She was also vital in helping us avoid making cultural faux pas by asking sensitive or inappropriate questions. Unlike Americans who say whatever is on our minds, the Chinese will rarely directly tell you no. Your host may pretend he didn’t understand you or blow off your question. These are cues to read between the lines  that you are getting a “no” (and don’t bother trying to get an explanation). I got used to having my questions or comments go uninterpreted with the understanding it was better left that way. Still, summer had a direct American wit and sense of humor about her that made it easier to adjust. Usually by saying “that is a sensitive questions, I don’t want to ask it.”

Jonathan Brooks is the most easygoing and kind hearted person I have ever traveled with. I don’t think I heard him utter a word of criticism the whole trip. He has a deep love for the Chinese people that shines through as he ministers. Many times he grew emotional as he told the many smiling Chinese faces listening to him of his family heritage in China that dates back over 100 years. (The story is recorded in their trademark book: Bondservants – The Story of the Voice of China and Asia, and is available on their website.) I can’t think of a better person for God to send to China and I was honored to be with him.

China is very resistant to western influences and ideology. We heard developing stories of children being told to watch out for Western spies and mission organizations being put on the black list for not respecting current policies. Unfortunately, many Christians intermingle Christianity with Western ideology. We fallaciously think that along with Christianity we must also give other cultures our western freedoms and prosperity. This only gets you in trouble in China. The Chinese rightly do not see Christianity as necessarily Western if properly contextualized. Instead, they see Christianity as a stabilizing moral influence in their society. We heard of several large housing projects whose non-believing owners were gifting long-term leases to churches just because they thought it was a good idea to have a church in their project. While I enjoy my freedom and wish all nations to enjoys the same levels as I do, I could see that spreading my American ideology of freedom and personal autonomy is not only distinctly different from spreading the gospel but in fact would seriously impede its progress in China.

Some people think it is best to do an end run around the government regulations with clandestine operations to drop Christian material in public places. Little do they realize that the local open church leaders are questioned and blamed for this material because they are the Christians in that area. This leads to restrictions of legal activities for the local church and ruins the  CCC relations with the government. The Western rogue missionaries return home thinking about how much good they have done and do not realize the hardships they have created for the local church leaders who daily strive to build positive relationships to maintain their independence to minister. It is sad because the foreign missionaries whose zeal overrules common sense may have actually reduced the amount of legal evangelism in the area.

I think it is important for Western Christians to not be compelled to give primarily humanitarian aid to China. Trying to improve the standard of living in China is a financial black hole. You could pour millions into China and help very little. The teach a man to fish principle is at work here. Furthermore, the Chinese are proud people and do not really want the world to help because they don’t want the world to know how poor rural China is. It would be wonderful for the Chinese to have a better life socio-economically, but that is not for me to give them. That is the job of the Chinese government which is modernizing the country at a rapid pace and trying to improve life there.  Organizations that focus on humanitarian  aid in a country that so tightly controls the distribution of resources runs the risk of  certain forces gaming the system.  The program would likely devolve into a food program  like Gregory Peck created in the film Keys to the Kingdom where the peasants would say anything they they needed as long as they got more rice meaning unchristianized people dependent on foreign aid. This is not what we want.

Political freedom and economic prosperity are independent issues and simply not an absolute necessity for the church to grow. While I think the Church in China would be growing more if it did have more freedom and resources , I reflected that the political system in China insulates the Church there from pressures faced by the church in The states. It is true that there is no freedom of speech or religion in China, but this goes for all groups, not just the Church.

In comparing the American Church and the Chinese Church, I would say that we are better educated and have better access to resources, but have grown lazy and cold. It could be that in China you do not have cultural Christians because it is simply not a convenient thing to be a Christian in China. People believe because The gospel is true and it becomes the center of their lives. We made a statement to one of the local pastors that most American Christians rely on the pastor to evangelize and would at most just invite a friend to Church. After his initial look of incredulity he laughed heartily and then commented “everyone in the church has the duty to evangelize.”  It may be that culturally, Americans think it rude to share our faith to others, this thought is non-existent in China so that it may be that there is actually more evangelism being done by the Chinese Church than the American Church.

When all was said and done, I was proud of the work we accomplished and impressed with condition of the Chinese church. I would encourage those who have a desire to minister in China to partner with an organization like the Voice of China and Asia. One just can’t do western-style ministry in China and expect to have an impact because of the political and cultural barriers. It is a little different approach to ministry because you can’t ministry directly. The focus is on helping the Chinese church and encourage the hearts of the believers there (Col 4:8) . Doesn’t it really have to be us who leads the confession of faith? They are doing a good job of bringing their countrymen to the faith and with a little help can do much more. In the words of our gracious host I ask “Isn’t this a better way?”