China Overture

China Overture II: 7-16th April 2010

China is the world’s most populous country and also the most rapidly urbanizing nation on earth. That’s why I was eager to participate in the Spring 2010 Bakke Graduate University tour of China. The focus of the BGU China Overture was on urbanization and the challenges of Christian mission in China following the Cultural Revolution.  The religious policies of the Peoples Republic of China, along with exposure to registered churches and non-registered churches, seminaries and NGOs were analyzed through face to face contact and firsthand experience.

Hong Kong, Macau, and Shanghai were visited. Hong Kong was a former British colony. Under the British rule, Hong Kong developed into a world class city. Since the change of sovereignty back to China, the churches are reorientating themselves in the light of the new challenges and opportunities. Macau was a colony of Portugal, a Catholic enclave where Robert Morrison first landed and then began the modern missionary era in China. Shanghai is the largest commercial centre in China, adopting with great enthusiasm, the free market economy in a communist country. Shanghai is also the power centre of the Christian Church in China.

Questions we raised during the China Overture include:

1.    How do you effectively engage the diverse development of cities within China, and the ministries arising from that development?

2.    What are the essential differences between a missiology for the city, and a theology of the city?

3.    How do we celebrate the “whole church of Jesus Christ” when congregations and leaders are so incredibly different?

4.    What does it mean for urban churches in China to be signs of and agents for a Kingdom agenda?

5.    How do churches ministering in the context of poverty work without falling into the “charity trap,” or are they?

6.    How do leaders sustain themselves as Christians when the culture is not so favorable?

7.    Is the incarnation our model as well as our message?  What is the difference?

8.   How are churches handling pluralism in worship, leadership or other aspects of community life?

9.    Specifically in Macau, how do the Protestants witness in a Catholic society with gambling as the main source of income for the city?

10.  How are you preparing yourself for globalization?  How are you accommodating to the fact that more than 80% of the world’s Christians are non-white, non-western and non-northern?  How is Christianity being re-defined in China?

11. What are the real issues facing pastors in these strategic cities?

Day 1: Wednesday 7th April
Our first full day in Hong Kong. We are staying on Noah’s Ark. That’s right. Noah’s Ark is an imaginative multi-million dollar creation-based theme park built around the blue print God gave Noah for the Ark in the Book of Genesis. The hotel inside the Ark is run by the YMCA. My bedroom window and patio looks out over the deck of the Ark. The perspective is rather surreal. I wake up to see animals, frozen in the act of departing the open door of the Ark. Above us is not a rainbow but a giant motor way bridge connecting Ma Wan Island with Hong Kong Island. The Ark looks as if it has come to rest under the bridge on the island as the flood receded. Maybe this is the real Mount Ararat.  Apparently, in the present economic climate, Noah’s Ark is doing better that Disney over on Lantau Island.  The YMCA have a big presence here, with 50-60 different centres, they employ around 1500 staff in Hong Kong. Twenty four churches are accommodated in other YMCA buildings around Hong Kong.

Most of the other participants of BGU’s China Overture are studying for a Master’s degree or PhD. They are expected to undertake two overseas trips, such as this one as part of their course. We represent churches and mission agencies drawn from the USA, China, France, Holland, Nigeria, Kenya, Ethiopia, Ghana, South Korea, Myanmar and the Philippines.

After an orientation morning in a local church school (50% of schools in Hong Kong are church schools), we visit the Urban Peacemaker Evangelistic Fellowship working on the Po Tin Estate in Tuen Wan in the New Territories. China is about 5 miles away to the north. This government built estate houses around 30,000 urban poor in 8,000 housing units in high density tower blocks with 30 or more floors.

The UPEF employ six staff who care for around 1,500 of the poorest families. We spend some of the afternoon visiting families and a homeless shelter for men. Everywhere is very clean and orderly. One resident is heard to say “Are you the Christians who have come to talk to us?” We visit one lady living alone in a flat just big enough to put a bed and set of drawers. The kitchenette is large enough for a sink and portable stove. The toilet is, well, small. The flat is crowded as four of us try and squeeze in with her, three on the bed. It is tidy because she has very few possessions and typically eats just one meal a day. She has a handmade cross on the back of her door. She is pleased to show us and share her testimony.

First impressions? Hong Kong is a colourful, bustling, densely populated, polluted, international 24/7 city that never sleeps. I wonder if this is because it is afraid to fall asleep and wake up to find it has lost its cherished independent status within China. Young people I talk to are afraid of China and what life is like there (they mention crime, etc). The reality is many of the youth of Hong Kong will never leave the colony. The official title of the government here gives a clue to its fluid if ambiguous status.  It is called “The government of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region of the People’s Republic of China.” I am glad I don’t have to have that written on my business cards.

Many of the shops are still open at midnight and the trams, buses and MTR run well into the early morning. The air is heavily polluted, which, combined with high humidity and hundreds of open cafes and restaurants, makes for strong, pungent aromas as well as a sticky existence day and night. Air conditioning in some of the shops is heaven.

Day 2: Thursday 8th April
Hong Kong has 7 million residents. Christians represent only 6% (475,000 registered) but church based agencies provide 60% of social welfare provision, 50% of schools and 20% of hospitals. There are 1,250 churches in the former British colony and 400 Christian para-church organisations, many of which operate in mainland China. After a morning learning about the history of Hong Kong and the Christian presence here, we visit a ‘Missional church’ which has a marketplace ministry among Hong Kong’s business community. Supper is in a revolving rooftop restaurant with stunning night scenes of Hong Kong.

Day 3: Friday 9th April
Today we visit a group of former teenage drug smugglers and addicts on Lan Tau Island, Hong Kong. The drug problem among Hong Kong’s young has been growing at an alarming rate. Social workers and academics speak of encountering addicts as young as 9 and point out that there were 8,306 reported psychotropic drug users in Hong Kong. The most popular drug among the young is ketamine, an animal tranquilizer produced illegally on the Chinese mainland and in Hong Kong.

The Christian Zheng Sheng Association (基督教正生會有限公司) was founded to help drug addicts in 1985. The Chinese characters “Zheng Sheng” (正生) mean, “repent to live”. And independent surveys show that 90% of the teenagers who spend up to three years in the school do indeed repent and break free of their addiction. In the world of drug rehabilitation this is unheard of. What makes this work unique however is that it is the only project for child addicts in the whole of Asia and costs half the amount of money spent on equivelent projects among adults.

Children as young as 11 who have been charged with possession, smuggling or use of drugs are sent to the school by Hong Kong Social Services or assigned by the Juvenile Court. Zheng Sheng also take children from other Asian countries as far away as Thailand and Indonesia. Christian Zheng Sheng College bases its drug rehabilitation therapy on creating a climate of mutual respect and self-reliance. No pharmaceutical products are used in the treatment.

There are presently 115 pupils cared for by 35 full time staff who share the same facilities as the children just like an extended family. The facilities are very basic because most of the investment is made in the future of the teenagers who learn to excel in sports, technical skills and further education. Most have little problem finding jobs when they graduate. Detoxification is the easy part. Pupils typically stay for three years during which time they learn to become children again. The focus is on the future not the past, and on developing life skills that will make them attractive to future employers. It is the only young person’s drug rehabilitation centre in Asia and takes teenagers from many other countries.

Alman Chan Siu-cheuk, is Principal of Christian Zheng Sheng College. He is one amazing guy. Not without its critics, Christian Zheng Sheng is an amazing testimony to the transforming power of God’s love found in Jesus Christ. For more information see Wikipedia and also this article from the People’s Daily. If I were younger, I would apply to work here.

Day 4: Saturday 10th April
Today we catch the jetfoil to Macau, the former Portuguese colony, across the Pearl River Estuary. Smaller than Hong Kong, Macau has nevertheless become the Las Vegas of China. The government benefits from a healthy 70% tax on the casinos. The port of Macau aspires to be the Monte Carlo of Asia, complete with a Le Man’s look-a-like race control tower. It comes close. The bridges that seem to span the horizon link Macau to Taipa.

There are also 12 universities here, including a tourism college, funded from gambling profits. Nobody complains. Chinese students are allowed to study here (unlike Hong Kong which is still kept at arms length for fear of corrupting the youth). Macau is becoming a training centre for Chinese leaders. Campus Crusade for Christ has a strong presence here. Lunch is in the University of Macau student union and it brings back vivid (read ‘bad’) memories of my own long forgotten student days.  We soon regret it. It is claustrophobic inside and raining outside.

In presentations later that afternoon in the University, we learn a lot about life in China and the contrast between rural and urban life. China is now a mix of socialist constitutionalism and relatively free market capitalism. There are, for example, 50 different airlines in China competing with each other. With a population of over 1 billion, there are only 78 million Communist party members and most are government workers (who have to be members). There are a further 35 million members of the Communist Youth League. There are, however, estimated to be over 100 million religious believers which include Buddhists and Muslims. China is hardly a secular state. In Macau there are 70,000 migrant Chinese workers in the construction industry. It is hard to see where they can be hidden (housed) in such a small place.

In the early evening we visit a casino – we are told – in order to observe and make notes on how business is conducted, who the clientele are and who works in the industry. The casino is one of several Disney castle-like structures that fight with each other for height, luminosity, gravity-defying design and general gaudiness. The Venetian, the one we are dropped off at, is actually a giant multi-story shopping mall with various casinos thrown in. A map is essential. GPS and a golf-buggy would be nice. Apparently extra oxygen is pumped in to minimise tiredness to shoppers and gamblers. The whole place is bathed in artificial light to simulate daylight so that gamblers will lose any sense of the time. Even the ceilings are painted blue to look like the sky. I withstand the temptation to have a flutter but energised by the extra oxygen and fooled by the light, lose all track of time and nearly miss the bus home. I get some amazingly surreal photos of mock Venetian canals and very real gondoliers. This is the ultimate in virtual reality.

Day 5: Sunday 11th April
Although we are billeted in the five star Royale Hotel, breakfast is not included but an expensive extra, so we walk down the road to a cafe and have a simple egg on toast. The tea comes strong, sweet and milky. We attend a church service entirely in Cantonese so I use the hour for a very quiet time. The afternoon includes a walking tour of Macau, the famous ruins of St Paul’s Cathedral, the city museum and Morrison (Anglican) Church and graveyard. It is very moving to sit for a while in the churchyard and see how many young European colonisers, seafarers and traders died from shipwrecks, disease, drowning or in battle.

While Ray Bakke is giving us a presentation about the Church here, a lady wanders in. Someone begins a conversation about Christianity. She replies “I don’t want to rush into being a Christian. It’s like rushing into a marriage.” Very thoughtful. Churches here are small. This may be the Catholic influence. A hundred members would be considered large. Half the Protestants attend a church founded by Campus Crusade for Christ. Apparently they are rather self contained and don’t engage with the Macau Seminary. At least that is one side of the story. Sadly, only two of the seventy local churches are addressing the issue of gambling and prostitution.

Day 6: Monday 12th April
We take the ferry from Macau to Shenzhen back across the Pearl River Estuary and then travel to the airport for our flight to Shanghai. Shenzhen has grown from a small village into a booming trading city because of its strategic location near Hong Kong and Macau. The airport is impressive. Security is light. I spy the new MG 6 saloon on display and get permission to take some close up photos. Whether Rove (the name Rover is owned by BMW) decides to export the car in the UK has yet to be seen. The old Rover 75 (and my ex-MG ZTT estate) are now for internal Chinese consumption only.

We are flying Shenzhen Airways. One of the 50 now competing for internal business in China. I am surprised to see eight very large tempting empty leather first class seats at the front of this socialist aircraft.  We land safely in Shanghai at the ‘domestic’ airport. It makes Heathrow’s Terminal 5 look positively provincial. It has only been opened a month in readiness for the International Shanghai Expo. China is anticipating 70 million visitors to Shanghai between May and October.

Day 7: Tuesday 13th April
In presentations on China we learn that despite the State embracing Communism, China is a multi-faith society with large followings of Buddhism, Daoism, Christianity and Islam.

In 1996 there were 100 million religious believers. In 1998 there were estimated to be 10 million Protestants, 4 million Roman Catholics and 18 million Muslims. Ancestor, hero or patron worship if common. Outside people’s doorways its common to see small shrines with incense sticks burning. The gods are very much alive in China. In a 2005 survey, 300 million people claimed to be religious. According to the 1998 White Book, there were 10 million Protestant Christians, an official figure considered by many too low. The more recent 2007 World Christian Database claims there are 99.9 million Christians in China, a figure many consider too high. A more accurate survey of 2005, based on a sample of 4,500 participants estimates 40 million Christians. In 2008, the Three Self Patriotic Movement which regulates the official church in China had 20 million members. Numbers within the unregistered ‘underground’ house church movement are impossible to estimate.

We visit Shanghai International Church. There are separate services for expats and Chinese Christians. They are not allowed to mix. Expats must show their passports to attend the English speaking service. It is a beautiful building but stands as testament to the segregation of the Body of Christ within the registered church in China.

Day 8: Wednesday 14th April
We visit the headquarters of the Chinese Christian Council (CCC) / Three Self Patriotic Movement (TSPM) in Shanghai, for an informal meeting with the leaders of the movement. It is ‘informal’ to avoid months of negotiation to set up an appointment with the government.

We learn about some of the challenges they face:

  1. A lack of trained pastors
  2. A lack of church buildings
  3. The need for a theology that challenges the inherent syncretism
  4. Overcome its marginalisation. 47% of members are over 50; 56% are female; 11% are illiterate.
  5. Heresy and superstition among rural Christians.

These ‘challenges’ reflect the perspective of the TSPM Church and not necessarily the unregistered House Church movement.

In a recent survey of university students, 20% said they were religious. Of these:

73%      Animist
6%      Buddhist
6%      Catholic
3.9% Muslim

20% said they would be interested
10% said they were not interested in religion.

The survey suggests an increasingly more tolerant approach to religion in China than at any time since 1948.  In Shanghai, we are told there are 20,000 Christians out of a population of 17 million. 70% of the students training in the Seminary are women.

There are several criteria for registering a church with the Three Self Patriotic Movement.

They must have:

  1. a full time pastor
  2. a constitution
  3. regular income
  4. a building
  5. a management council
  6. be non-denominational
  7. be independent and not interfere with their neighbours
  8. agree to the three self principles

This introduction is taken, for convenience, from Wikipedia:

The three principles of self-governance, self-support (i.e., financial independence from foreigners) and self-propagation (i.e., indigenous missionary work) were first articulated by Henry Venn, General Secretary of the Church Missionary Society from 1841–73, and Rufus Anderson, foreign secretary of the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions[1][2]. The principles were drafted formally during an 1892 conference in Shanghai of Christian missions reflecting an almost unilateral agreement that the future of the Chinese church depended on the indigenization of the leadership, and the finding of sufficiently Chinese modes of worship[3]. Dixon Edward Hoste, head of the China Inland Mission was known for putting the same principles into practice in the effort of assisting the Chinese to establish their own indigenous churches during the early 20th Century.

In 1951, a Cantonese Christian named Y. T. Wu (吴耀宗, 1893–1979) initiated the Three-Self Patriotic Movement, which promoted a strategy of ‘self-governance, self-support, and self-propagation’ in order to remove foreign influences from the Chinese churches and to assure the communist government that the churches would be patriotic to the newly-established People’s Republic of China. The ‘Three-Self’ is a characteristically Chinese way of abbreviating ‘self-governance, self-support, self-propagation’ (自治、自养、自传). The movement began formally in 1954 and allowed the government to infiltrate, subvert, and control much of organized Christianity[4].

From 1966 to 1976 during the Cultural Revolution, the expression of religious life in China was effectively banned, including even the TSPM. The growth of the Chinese house church movement during this period was a result of all Chinese Christian worship being driven underground for fear of persecution. To counter this growing trend of “unregistered meetings”, in 1979 the government officially restored the TSPM after thirteen years of non-existence[5], and in 1980 the CCC was formed.

In 1993 there were 7 million members of the TSPM with 11 million affiliated, as opposed to an estimated 18 million and 47 million “unregistered” Protestant Christians respectively.

The TSPM / China Christian Council see themselves as the scaffolding to help local churches come together. Their vision of the church is the one Jesus prayed for – “that they may be one”, except here it is under State control. While this is concerning, I share their desire to avoid the return of free market denominationalism to China.

Agencies such as World Vision, the YMCA and the Salvation Army minister openly in China .

The bookstore attached to the TSPM is full of good Christian literature including copies of the Jesus film, Bibles and books by authors such as John Stott, Rick Warren and Bill Hybels.

Their website is

Behind the bookshop and TSPM building is Holy Trinity Church, the former Anglican Church in Shanghai. It is being handed back in the next few months and uis presently being renovated. I manage to slip inside and take some photos of this wonderful old building – before being politely asked to leave by the builders.

After lunch we visit Moore Memorial Church, a former Weslyan building. It was built in the concession area of Shanghai for the European traders. It presently has 10,000 members, 80% of which are women and only 20% are baptised. Sunday attendance is around 4,000.

We are reminded that Shanghai, Macau and Hong Kong are special economic zones and that 600 million Chinese still live on under $2 per day.

In the evening we go for a walking tour of the city centre and river. The light show is simply amazing, If this was America, I would describe it as ostentatious.

Day 9: Thursday 15th April
Today we visit East Shanghai Church. It was the first church to be built after the Cultural Revolution. On the balcony as we arrive, ladies are performing traditional dance with music and red flags. Inside, the church orchestra is practising using traditional Chinese instruments. Soon Moses and Ching join in an impromptu performance.

The church apparently has 13,000 members. Although there are no longer any denominations in China, three ‘denominations’ use the building simultaneously at 9.00am on Saturday mornings. The Three Self Patriotic Movement (TSPM) meets in the main part of the building while the Adventists and the True Jesus Church, meet in side rooms.  The TSPM has three services of 1500 each, meeting once on Saturday and twice on Sunday,  while the other two denominations have about 300 in each. The church also is responsible for two ‘Meeting Points’ of 600 members meeting in other parts of Shanghai. The expression ‘Meeting Points’ is also used by the unregistered church to describe their gatherings. East Shanghai has one pastor and five staff. There are 400 in the youth programme. How can they pastor these numbers of people? Through a network of volunteers. I wish I had time to discover how they do it.

East Shanghai Church must be unique in accommodating denominations in a country where denominations do not exist. In 1968, all churches were forced to come together to worship, so that is what they do here, except in different rooms. Very creative. “We try to respect their traditions” the leader says. While in other cities there have been tensions between Adventists and the TSPM, here in Shanghai there appears to be harmony. Perhaps this is also because the building originally belonged to the Adventists and so the TSPM is keen to accommodate them separately. It is perhaps evidence of the TSPM principle of ‘mutual respect’ and Confucius wisdom.

We have some free time to explore the heart of Shanghai’s old town district and discover a healthy trade in counterfeit watches, bags and designer clothes.

Day 10: Friday 16th April
Our last day. It is always hard to say ‘good-bye’ to the friends we have made, especially the YMCA staff in Shanghai who have made us feel so welcome. In one last evaluation session we share what we will take home from this life changing tour. I lead the morning worship and summarise the lessons of the story of the ‘good’ Samaritan.  As we return to our home countries, the temptation is to retreat back into familiar ways of looking at the world. Jesus teaches us to be a neighbour to everyone we meet, irrespective of who they are or what they look like.

It has been a long journey, physically, emotionally and spiritually, first to Hong Kong, then Macau and then to Shanghai. We have begun to empathise with the Church in China, as it has adapted to and risen to the challenges posed first by Communism and then by China’s transforming relationship to the rest of the world.

Unprecedented and dramatic changes are taking place in China. Population growth, rising standards of living, technological advancement and a greater openness to the rest of the world, pose incredible opportunities and challenges for the Church. By this I do not mean simply in how to reach a billion Chinese people with the gospel, but how we partner with the Chinese Church in reaching the world for Jesus Christ. I am convinced that in the next decade or two, Chinese Christians and Chinese mission agencies will take the lead in helping fulfil the Great Commission. If  the 18th and 19th Century were largely the era of European mission and the 20th Century of American mission, I am confident the 21st Century will be the era of Chinese global mission.

Little did I realise my Chinese adventures were only just beginning. News of the Icelandic ash cloud spreading across Europe is beginning to filter through the Chinese media. I relax knowing I am flying back to Hong Kong and have the weekend with my daughter there.

Day 12: Monday 19th April
Its Monday and I should be flying home to the UK tonight, but is am not going anywhere for several weeks. I discover I am grounded in Hong Kong for at least a week as BA, along with all the other airlines, have cancelled their flights to Europe due to the volcanic ash cloud. There’s a sermon illustration here somewhere.

The BA staff in Hong Kong are coping amazingly well given the hundreds of other stranded passengers. The earliest BA can get me a seat to London from Hong Kong is now on the 10th May or in 21 days time. I work out I could get home by train via Beijing and Moscow in just 8 days or take a berth on a container ship and be home in 22 days. I suspect these are all booked by now though. 
According to the BBC, after 4 days, the plume of ash from Iceland has paralysed 313 airports, caused the cancellation of 63,000 flights and affected 6.799.999 other travellers.

Instead, I plan to fly East to Seattle via Tokyo on Sunday to be there in time for the launch of our film With God on our Side next Tuesday. One small consolation is I get to circumnavigate the world in 33 days, and to see Tokyo as well as the Pacific on my way home via seven cities in the USA. Ironically, I should eventually get home on 7th May, three days ahead of the earliest direct flight I can get from Hong Kong and just four days ahead of the container ships also leaving today.