Chinese Conviction & American Apathy

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In 2018, the Chinese government acted to crack down on unregistered Christian churches. These churches are sometimes called “house churches,” which is a misleading term, since many of these churches have hundreds, even thousands of members and own their own buildings.

Chinese law requires Christians to worship only in congregations registered with the Three-Self Patriotic Movement, a government-sanctioned organization which manages churches. Millions of Chinese Christians meet in unregistered churches which defy these government regulations, seeing them as compromising the church, especially considering the Communist government’s atheistic agenda.

Over the past few months, the Chinese government has stepped up their persecution of Christians by destroying crosses, burning Bibles, confiscating religious materials and closing churches, even demolishing their buildings, as can be seen in this video:

In December 2018, more than 100 Christians who attend a Reformed church in Chengdu were arrested and charged with “inciting subversion of state power.”

Chinese Conviction

The pastor of that church, Wang Yi, a former human-rights lawyer and law professor, who has been an influential intellectual in China, issued a statement along with other Chinese Christian leaders titled: “My Declaration of Faithful Disobedience,” in which they stated that they would not cease gathering together for worship and studying the Bible.

Additionally, around 500 Chinese Christian leaders have signed a document called “A Declaration for the Sake of the Christian Faith,” in which they stated that they were prepared to bear all losses, even the loss of their freedom and their lives, for the sake of the gospel.

For Chinese Christians, gathering together for worship and Bible study is an act of resistance and social disobedience. It brings with it the possibility of arrest, punishment and persecution. And yet – believers are resolute: they will not stop gathering for public worship services, no matter what the cost.

American Apathy

At the same time, on the other side of the world, the American church is seeing a rising wave of apathy.

Some of the reports of the decline of Christianity in the United States are misleading, as I’ve written about here: Is Christianity in Decline? Yes and No. – Part 1 & Part 2.

However, other reports show that while reports of the decline of Christianity in the US may be overstated, there is a growing sense of apathy in regard to church attendance.

Christianity Today recently published these infographics based on data from Pew Research Center:

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Read the full report here: Pew: Why Americans Go to Church or Stay Home

Two significant things that these infographics reveal: 1) Americans view Christianity as being important for the purpose of moral formation, 2) Americans tend to think that church is superfluous when it comes to Christian faith.

The Irony

Comparing the Chinese situation with the American one, what we see is that the people who stand to lose the most from going to church (the Chinese) are the most resolute in doing so, even though doing so will likely hurt them financially, socially, and even physically. Conversely, those who have the most freedom and stand to lose nothing are the most apathetic about public worship.

Whereas many Chinese Christians see gathered worship as central to their faith, something they absolutely cannot give up or do without, and an act of resistance – many American Christians see it as extraneous.

Who is Right?

I believe that we in the West can afford to learn something from our brothers and sisters in the East.

Christianity was formed and grew in the crucible of persecution, and perhaps the worst thing for Christians is to experience such ease and comfort that we lose the understanding that following Jesus is a radical and subversive thing in this world.

Perhaps the greatest danger our faith can face is not direct persecution, but patronizing “pats on the head” and people thinking that Christianity is “nice”.

Sinclair Ferguson has put it this way:

“We are not saved individually and then choose to join the church as if it were some club or support group. Christ died for his people, and we are saved when by faith we become part of the people for whom Christ died.”

Recently I read an article by Simon Chan from the theological journal Pneuma, in which he very astutely wrote this:

[Western Christians] have a very weak sociological concept of the church. This has two negative consequences. First, the church tends to be seen as essentially a service provider catering to the needs of individual Christians. Rarely are individuals thought of as existing for the church. When the church is seen as existing for the individual, then the focus of ministry is on individuals: how individual needs can be met by the church. But when individuals are seen as existing for the church, the focus shifts from the individual needs to our common life in Christ: how we as the one people of God fulfill God’s ultimate purpose for the universe, namely, to glorify and enjoy God forever.

Chan is challenging us to ask the question: Contrary to our consumeristic mentality, isn’t it actually true that the church does not exist for us as much as we exist for the church, and the church exists for God?

I believe that we in the West can afford to look to the East and learn from our Christian brothers and sisters in China about the importance of gathered worship.

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Keeping Your Faith a Secret

Yesterday I taught on the famous sayings of Jesus to his disciples, that they are the salt of the Earth and the light of the world. (You can listen to that message here).

Jesus makes his point there, that no one lights a lamp and then hides it under a basket, but they put it on a lamp stand, so it can be seen by all.  Just as a city on a hill can not be hidden, Jesus’ disciples are not meant to keep their faith a secret.

Yesterday in Pakistan, 10 more Christians were killed in the bombing of a Christian church. This makes for 25 total deaths of Christians in targeted attacks over the past few days. ISIS is going around systematically targeting and murdering Christians in the Middle East. Christians in the West have little concept of the implications of Jesus’ words for these Christians!

In the West, the greatest persecution we face for not hiding our Christianity, is that people will think we are religious fanatics. But for the most part, being a Christian is still a perfectly acceptable thing to be in our society. There is honestly not a great temptation, unless you are an extremely insecure person, to hide the fact that you are a Christian.

However, if being a Christian, and not hiding it, means that ISIS is going to come for you and your family, if not hiding the fact that you a Christian means that you might face fatal attacks at any moment, then the temptation is HUGE to want to hide your light under a basket – because if you put it on a lamp stand, then you become a target.

In the Beatitudes Jesus describes the kind of people who will be his disciples: they will be meek, they will hunger and thirst after righteousness, they will be peacemakers, they will be pure of heart. When you read those characteristics, you might thing: Wow, those sound like the greatest people in the world! That’s the kind of person I’d like to have as my best friend! But, surprisingly, Jesus then says   that these kinds of people will be persecuted by the world. (Matthew 5:11-12) You might wonder: Who would want to hurt these kinds of wonderful people?   But you have to look no further than Jesus. He embodied all of those wonderful characteristics, and people beat him and nailed him to a cross.

The situation with Christians around the world facing increased persecution, especially in Muslim-majority countries, should be a wake-up call to Western Christians – and should teach us something about the nature of what it means to be a Christian.

Western Christianity, in my opinion, faces a more insidious form of attack than the physical attack facing those in other parts of the world.  Here, our culture pressures us to make Christianity a private thing, that we are free to do, but only behind closed doors. As a result, we have ended up with a form of Christianity that is very introspective and less mission-focused.

In other words, Western society has sought to domesticate Christians, remove their claws and potty train them. They are not trying to scare us into hiding our light under a basket, like ISIS and other radical Islamists do, but rather to coax us into putting a basket over our light, so as not to disturb others with it.

We must remember the words of Jesus: that to hide our light is to betray our very design and purpose as Disciples of Jesus in the world.