Sometimes when our plans fail, we want to shake our hands in God’s face and say, “Hey! What in the world are you doing? Why in the world are you allowing this to happen to me?”
I was only a child in the early 1950s and not even remotely Christian. But now I can imagine Christian churches around the world questioning why God would allow Communism to sweep into control across China. Churches and church institutions were systematically confiscated and the government took over the “business” of religion.
“Hey God, don’t you know that there is a gospel to preach to China?”
Since hindsight is better than foresight we can see that Communism did Christianity and the Seventh-day Adventist Church a huge favor. Please don’t misunderstand my next statement because I’m not all that keen about seeing the devil win souls for hell (eternal nothingness), but sometimes I believe God does things to “cut His losses.” Then He starts all over again with better results. The flood during Noah’s time is a classic example of this.
Communism leveled the playing field of religion in China. Religion was out and atheism was in. What some people call “the God-shaped center” in each person was filled with the tenets of Communism. Fear and distrust became the modus operandi of daily living. Then the grinding years of the Great Cultural Revolution (1965-1975) destroyed the remnants of optimism.
Bear with me for a little historical diversion:
Historical note #01: When Communism took over in China most Christians, including Seventh-day Adventists, turned their backs on religion. Later analysis would reveal that Christian missions had raised a generation of “rice Christians.” When the “rice” (jobs, or any other benefits) failed, a majority of these Christians kissed religion goodbye. Please understand that there were faithful believers but they just seemed to disappear. After the Cultural Revolution, religion and spirituality seemed to us in the West to have virtually disappeared.
Historical note #02: In the 1990s I was privileged to travel into China many times on church business. I had the opportunity to quietly talk a number of times with Elder David Lin in Shanghai. Elder Lin was the last Executive Secretary of the long defunct China Division. He is still alive in Southern California but his health is failing rapidly.Imagine my shock to hear him say that the number of Adventists hovered around 20,000 for the last 20 years before Communism took over. The Christian church and our church were in the business of institutional religion but they were not growing substantially.
Incredible things began to happen. At the darkest moment in 1975, we began noticing little groups of Adventists popping up all over China. First there were a few, then more and more. The only way this can be explained is that God took over: “Not by might nor by power, but by my Spirit, says the LORD Almighty” (Zech. 4:6).
What is the state of Adventism in China today?
There are nearly 400,000 known Adventists. The facts are that getting statistical information is far from rocket science. There are more than 3,000 congregations. Some are large and some small. Others are more open and some are more quiet.
The period of rapid expansion has cooled off somewhat but there still seems to be about 10,000 baptisms a year. In a country of 1.3 billion that number is still rather paltry. But compared to the pre-Communist times, there is impressive church growth. Nowadays people choose to become Christians for better reasons.
Here are the challenges that the Adventist Church faces in China:
1. Technically there is no organized Adventist Church in China, at least not by western standards. But they are well organized in their own way.
2. The government still “controls” religion but it’s a far “looser” control than the past. As long as congregations register with the government TSPN there is plenty of wiggle room.
3. The loudest voice crying “foul play” about Chinese religious liberty is Falun Gong. I’ve received their magazines displaying the maimed and persecuted in gory detail. But my interest in listening to their cries is tempered. They are on the warpath with the Chinese government and go out of their way to irritate officialdom. A few years ago they even “hijacked” a government satellite. Now that is really putting technology to work!
4. There are many versions of Adventism in China (“Old Adventists,” “New Adventists,” “Wilderness Adventists,” and others), and the world institutional Adventist Church works with all Seventh-day Adventist groups, even though the various versions do not cooperate well among themselves.
5. There are really wild religious groups like the “Lightning from the East” that have devastated Christian churches and even Adventist churches.
6. The Adventist Church struggles in China because there are no Adventist seminaries to train workers. However, we do have Internet online training through Griggs University Asia where hundreds of individuals increase their understanding of Adventism.
7. Evangelism is not officially allowed but this is loosening up in ways.
8. Some local churches have their own websites. By the year 2009, there will be 210 million Chinese on the Internet.
There is so much more to say.
China is a complicated place. The culture is foreign to a person from North America. I have said for years that the most consistent thing about China is its inconsistency. The church is growing, and though it might appear that growth is slowing down, I believe there is ample evidence that the Holy Spirit is working. Jesus once said, “My Father is at work to this day and I am working” (John 5:17). Before Jesus returns I believe that there will be a huge harvest of Chinese for the kingdom of God.
Let me conclude with what the world Adventist Church is doing.
The Chinese Union Mission (CHUM), based in Hong Kong, handles Chinese affairs around the world. Our official position is one of cooperation with the government’s “three-self” principles (self-supporting, self-governing, and self-promulgating). We do not control the churches in China, we’re only consultants. We make resources available. We’re the biggest producers for AWR Asia and are starting up an Internet VOD ministry. We remain low key in all that we do. The government seems to appreciate our stance and, at least for the moment, all is well. But I’ve always said to be cautious. Someday when the “dragon” awakens, we’d better watch out. See Revelation 12:17.
There are matters of controversy, though.
Some people wish to invade China for Christ. They neither care for heaven nor hell. They just want to get the gospel into the country. There are many versions and forms of this attitude. What happens is that when the government reacts violently, they blame the Chinese Union Mission because the problem-makers were “Seventh-day Adventists.” Furthermore, local Adventists are compromised.
In this area there is no black and white rule to go by. The gospel must be preached but we need to do it carefully. And yet, we would never want to allow undue caution to prevent us from spreading the gospel.
So there you have it. My wife and I have worked in and among the Chinese since 1970. I recently retired in Hong Kong but as long as my wife and I can contribute, we will continue to live among and work for the people we love.
John Ash writes from Hong Kong.