A spiritual investment

nextgen at chinese churchBy Chip Henriss

The Commission for Mission’s Next Gen tour to China has inspired its participants to build upon their life in the church.

Throughout 11 days in September the tour took 19 young people to locations in China including Beijing, Shanghai, Yellow Mountain and Nanjing.

The youth represented 14 cultures within Australia. They were accompanied by seven leaders from the synod, the Commission for Mission and Uniting World.

Fie Marino is the NextGen resource and development officer with the Intercultural unit. He said the trip challenged participants to live their faith every day.

“We were quite surprised. Church services in China included the things you would hear in church on a Sunday in Australia but with more of an emphasis on your duty to the community and your duty to family.

“The sermons and messages were acting out Christian life, rather than just talking about it. I think we like to talk about those sorts of things but then we go to work and forget about it. Whereas I feel in China there is this push to become more Christian, more community minded, more orientated towards people,” Mr Marino said.

He said the group also had a lot of their preconceived ideas challenged and, in many cases, overturned.

“I expected the things that I had seen in western media. China is portrayed as a very controlled country that has a lot of regulations and rules and that sort of thing.

“I’m not saying that isn’t the case, but I did see something very different. It is very modern and progressive. I suppose because we spent most of our time in major cities so we saw that side of it. It is a very developed country,” he said.

Their Chinese hosts also had some of their preconceived ideas shattered as they were confronted by the most culturally diverse group in memory to visit their churches.

“Their expectations were that the majority of us would be Anglo Australians. It was quite interesting for us there because we were quite famous.

“At first we really enjoyed it. People stopped us on the street and took pictures, like loads of pictures, but then it was happening every day, all the time.

“I could tell that it was starting to annoy some of our younger people, but there was one guy in particular who absolutely loved it. Every day he would dress up as something different for example: he would pretend that he was a famous basketball player.

The first stop for the group was Shanghai where they were able to visit sites around the city and attend a packed church the following day.

“The Chinese church is very full, it even flows out into the street. There are people standing in the street listening. I just found it amazing.

“They’re not actually allowed to proclaim the Gospel, so the way that they do proclaim the Gospel is through actions.

“The church does a lot of outreach work, a lot of mission work without mentioning the Gospel. Feeding of the poor, helping with education – they have no secret model or anything. It’s all the things that we have here in Australia, like fresh expressions of faith.

“Over there it’s all about the things that you do.  It’s their actions that make them Christians. I think that’s what I find so amazing. They just act on the Gospel itself and try to become more like Jesus,” he said.

It was this living expression of faith that had the greatest impact on the Australian visitors. Many are now working to strengthen their spiritual lives.

“I think a lot of us came back pretty much knowing ourselves in a different way.  I’ve heard a few people that, after going to China, now believe that God is calling them into ministry. They are talking about becoming candidates for the ministry in the Uniting Church just through this experience of seeing the church in a different way.”

At Nanjing the group visited a theological seminary and country congregations, where they also saw similarities with congregations in Australia.

“Visiting the country congregations was something that really touched us immensely because they had the same kind of issues that country people have here.

“The young people are moving towards the cities and it’s mainly just the elderly there. One of the experiences we had was singing.

“We sang ‘Amazing Grace’ and we sang two verses and then we didn’t know the third verse but the elderly people stood up and they sang the third verse in Chinese.

“We felt there was a cultural bridge there. It was unintentional but it was one of the events that touched a lot of people.

“We saw the poverty and the work which they do every day just to maintain their church and community it was really touching.

At Yellow Mountain they were inspired by the work and dedication carried out by women within the Chinese Church.

“We were able to stay with a group led by an amazing woman named Reverend Ma.

“She was very inspirational it was really good to see how influential women are in church; we heard was that there were more women ministers in China than there are men.

“You could see that she had such a great connection with people The people loved her and she went out of her way to do so many things even for us.”

At Beijing they visited a church where Uniting Church minister and manager of Church Partnerships, Asia Rev Dr Ji Zhang preached. It was here they came together to sing and pray together for a sick child.

“There was a young girl who had a skin issue and it was just outside the church courtyard where Mr Zhang had preached.

“The girl asked Mr Zhang  for prayer and he called our group and the ministers to come and lay hands. I just found it amazing that we were in the middle of Beijing with all these young people plus the ministers of the group all laying hands on this sick person.

“I happened to be standing right next to the girl’s mother saw her weeping as we prayed. I felt this incredible connection. I have children myself so I could just feel her pain,” Mr Marino said.

It is always an adventure to visit countries overseas, but this group feels it was more of a good investment in the future of the Church.

“What I think that it has done for every single one of us is to strengthen our faith. It has given us a new clarity and a new mind on what it means to be Christian.

“What I think we got out of China – and what you really have to experience – is that Christianity is lived every day.

“I’m not saying that we don’t live our Christianity in our everyday lives, but it seems more obvious in China. They are not ashamed to be who they are.

“I’m not saying that we are ashamed here but I think that we do sort of hide our Christian faith.

“It was just good to see the Gospel in action lived through people’s lives.

“I really believe that the church should be doing projects like this as a way of future investment.”

UnitingWorld hopes a Chinese delegation will now come and visit Australia and that theological students will come to study in Australia in the future.

 

Josh Ocampo, NextGen member, reflects on his trip:

I had some preconceived ideas of what it would be like, but just being there for 10 short days, my preconceived ideas changed a lot.

I had thought that maybe the Chinese church would be restricted in what they could say or preach, but it was nothing like that. The only thing I learnt that they couldn’t do was that they couldn’t preach or share the Gospel in public. Whenever we went to the Church services, we found that it was very much like how we worship here in Australia.

The big thing was that the Chinese church was growing so fast, not necessarily because of any programs that they do but the conversations that they had with one another in terms of their faith and their community.

While their church is growing, in terms of ministers they are lacking in that area. What they do that I found really encouraging is to train young people as well as elders in the church.

A lot of their teachings are that the minister isn’t really the whole leadership of their church; it’s very much a shared responsibility and everyone should be able to preach the word.

The highlight of the trip was meeting the seminary students and learning from them and what they have to give up just to be able to study that. I heard story after story about what they had to give up in terms of time and being with their family.

The most interesting thing was that they didn’t necessarily want to be minsters, but what they wanted to do was to learn as much as they could so that they could go back home to their rural church and their local churches and be able to preach the word and share what they’ve learnt.

 

A BRIEF HISTORY OF CHRISTIANITY IN CHINA

Protestant Christianity was first introduced to China in 1807. However, it was not well received by the local Chinese as missionaries were protected by a set of unequal treaties and churches were controlled by foreign missions.

In the three decades after the Chinese Revolution in 1949, attitudes towards religion were influenced by Leninism, which considered religion a tool used in modern capitalist countries to exploit and confuse the working class.

During the Cultural Revolution (1966 to 1976), all churches were closed and religious practice banned. Christians were forced to go ‘underground’ and worship in illegal house churches. During this period, Christians were arrested and sometimes tortured. Bibles were destroyed and churches looted.

Churches began to re-open in 1979 as part of the reforms of the late 1970s, and in 1980 the China Christian Council (CCC) was established.

Attitudes to religion of the Chinese government and among the common Chinese people have gradually changed from antagonism to allowing religion to exist, as long as worship groups register with a government-approved church.

 

CHINA FACTS

  • Every single day, an estimated three church communities are re-opened or newly established in China.
  • Christians are allowed to join government-approved churches – the Three-Self Patriotic Movement, the China Christian Council and Chinese Patriotic Catholic Church.
  • Christians who do not wish to join a government-approved church worship in unregistered ‘house churches’.
  • Between 23 and 70 million Christians worship in China every Sunday. The number of unregistered Christians worshipping in unofficial ‘house churches’ makes it difficult to calculate this.
  • The majority of Christians in China are Protestant.
  • An estimated 70 per cent of Protestant Christians in China live in rural areas.
  • From 1980 to 2014, 70 million Bibles were printed and distributed in China.
  • There is currently only one ordained minister for every 18,000 Christians in China.
  • There are 22 seminaries and Bible schools in China and over 60,000 churches and affiliated congregations.
  • In 1981, there were only 47 theological students in China enrolled by the only seminary in Nanjing. Today, there are nearly 4000 full-time students studying at 22 theological schools.
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