Younger and freer than you think: UCA NextGen get to know China’s emerging Christian Church

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NextGen outside Chinese churchNoel Debien

China is frankly fascinating.

In my professional capacity as a journalist I’ve long followed stories of China closely. I’ve examined Chinese astrology and medicine. I’ve investigated acupuncture, Chinese art and politics. I’ve pored over Chinese demographics. And I’ve long had a particular interest in Chinese Christians in a rapidly changing modern society.

The Christian Sinologist, Fr Cyril Halley was my teacher in my days as a Catholic seminarian. He made sure we understood the “Chinese Rites” controversy – the sad history of 16th Century Jesuit Matteo Ricci who tried to introduce Christianity to China. Ricci learned Chinese, wore Chinese clothes and taught astronomy to the Chinese Imperial court. He kow-towed as Chinese custom required, and he had great success. But ultimately, the Vatican rejected his cultural adaptations and insisted Latin be imposed on Chinese Catholics.  The outcome was an  Imperial wipe-out of thriving Chinese Christian communities because they were considered “foreign”. Was it Santayana who said “Those who do not learn history are doomed to repeat it?”

Well, when the opportunity arose this year for me to go and see China for myself with a NextGen group from the Uniting Church in Victoria, I jumped at the chance.

As some of my young travelling companions might put it. Mind. Blown. I knew it would be interesting. But I had so underestimated how interesting and revealing it would be.

Four-hundred thousand baptisms each year is the official estimate in China. Thirty million Protestants (officially). Mega-churches filled with thousands of worshippers at multiple services each Sunday. A catechumenate so large that the typical church has communion after the main service, so the unbaptised can leave before the sacrament is celebrated. So many churches and meeting points in fact that the church is in urgent need of more ordained native ministers and catechists.

Was this the Chinese church we were expecting to see? No, but it was what we found as we travelled from Shanghai through the countryside to Huangshan, to Nanjing and Beijing. After reading worrying Australian news reports of crackdowns on unlicensed house churches in China, with crosses reportedly being pulled down and churches reportedly demolished, there was genuine surprise and even shock in our group at the size, dynamism and prosperity of the legally approved Chinese Christian churches. In fact “we have been lied to by our press” was said more than once during the trip. For the cynics who think we Aussies may have been lulled into false impressions by a carefully planned official itinerary: Nope. Our bus took off to Chinese country towns, and drove freely across thousands of kilometres. We got a good look at what’s going on there. We walked past the pigs to get to a country church. We met the country Christians, and were warmly welcomed in communities like Huangshan where we saw organised and enthusiastic ministry groups, parish plants and beautiful worship spaces.

That’s not to say everything is perfect for the Christians of China. The Cultural Revolution saw the suppression of all churches, as well as Buddhist and Daoist traditions. It was a time of immense suffering among all religions. These days Chinese Christians must follow regulations on religious affairs established by the State Council. Their 30 million members are actually a very tiny minority in China. And they face a common Chinese (non-Christian) suspicion of being the tools of “foreign” interference and influence.  That said, our Uniting Church travelling group was simply gobsmacked at the size, vitality and organisation of the Protestant churches in China. Many Chinese congregations make our Australian churches look like Christianity is in a palliative care ward.

China is simply exploding in terms of growth. The scale of its massive urbanisation is simply staggering to witness. And its Christian church is part of that growth. To the Christian eye, there can be little doubt that the Spirit is active and blowing through China. A Spirit attentive to Chinese law, but an active and energetic Spirit nevertheless. A Spirit is very alert to its requirement to embody Chinese culture, but one determined to flow through areas where traditional values are going through the deepest changes – such as in the countryside.

worship service in Chinese church

Our travelling group was in itself a reflection of contemporary Australian churches. Nineteen young leaders from the Uniting Church from 14 ethnic backgrounds: Aboriginal, Filipino, Sudanese, Vietnamese, Tongan, Cook Islander, Mauritian, Fijian, Chinese ethnic congregations of the Uniting Church in Australia – as well as two fellow Caucasians. We “skippys” were the minority. There was plenty of theological diversity too – evangelicals, progressives, and more than a few inbetween.

Part of my off-duty journalist’s delight in the trip was eavesdropping on bus conversations as young ethnic Australians spoke with other young ethnic Australians. In the melting pot of our tour bus in a totally foreign land, friendships were formed and forged, as people discovered unexpectedly shared issues and challenges across their distinct Aussie Christian communities.

Even though I had previously known it in my head, it became utterly clear to me that the Uniting Church in Australia is not only a post-denominational Christian church, but also is now coming to grips with the genuine challenges of multiculturalism. Nineteen young people who had left their familiar ethnic silos (aka home churches), were busy relating to one another – as young people do. At the end of each day we downloaded and reflected together on what we’d seen.

There was plenty of unexpected ethnic curiosity directed at us too. We really did not see many Caucasians as we travelled. But it seems that Chinese crowds simply don’t see many Indigenous Australians or Pacific Islanders in person. In some places crowds gathered to photograph our racially diverse group, but it was the Aboriginal, Tongan, Cook Islander, Fijian and Samoan tour members who kept being asked for special photo ops. At the tomb of Sun Yat Sen – the Christian founder of modern China- it became frankly hilarious as scores of Chinese tourists gawked at our group and begged for selfies with our Indigenous and Islander groups members. The Africans got special attention too. To the point that the rest of us started to feel a little left out. And there was an absolutely crystal-clear awareness among the Chinese we met with as to who Australia’s Indigenous people are. We found real curiosity, but also knowledge and interest in Australia’s First Peoples.

We also had the privilege of worshipping at many Chinese Christian churches including the oldest church in Beijing. All packed, singing Chinese hymns so loudly it seemed like a musical leviathan. Our group even learned and sang a hymn in Mandarin – to the delight of the congregations. All seemed curious about us. Almost as curious as we were about them. Our young people formed quick friendships with young Chinese Christians who were keen to try out their English. Several of our group spoke good Mandarin as well.

What astounded me most was the willingness of our Chinese Christian hosts to share with us. We met leaders of the Three-Self Patriotic Movement and the China Christian Council – saw its massive printing presses for Bibles, its communities, its seminaries, its theologians, and spoke freely with its highest levels of authority. This is the approved organisation that oversees the Chinese Protestant churches. After all we had read about China, we Australian Christians imagined they would be less than free in their approach. But it was not so. They are post-denominational, just as the Uniting Church in Australia is. They were open in their opinions, while obviously respectful of the Chinese Government’s requirements for religious organisations. We saw that they have formed a unique and close relationship with the Uniting Church – one which allows conversation and exchange at an extraordinarily trusted and intimate level.

There is, frankly, a lot Australian Christians can learn from Chinese Protestants. We learned confidence and determination from them. This group of young Australian Christian leaders and even this jaded journalist seem to have emerged from the trip with the scales lifted from our eyes.

Whatever you might already think you know about China, Uniting Church NextGen has a first hand view to share with you. Invite them to your congregation and talk to them! They have a great story to tell.

Noel Debien from the ABC’s Sunday Nights program travelled to China with a NextGen team of ministers and young people from the Synod of Victoria and Tasmania. He took part in a private capacity and funded his own travel.

Several members of the NextGen group that visited to China shared their experiences on ABC Radio. You can listen to their stories here.

The trip was organised as part of UnitingWorld’s InSolidarity Exposure Program, which connects UCA members with our overseas partners through short term visits. They’re a great opportunity to experience Christian faith in a different culture and make new friends. 

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