China (MNN) — China has been making the news recently in Christian circles thanks to increasingly tighter restrictions and crackdowns on the local Chinese Church. These efforts to make the Church more “Chinese” have worried some outsiders, but how will it affect ongoing ministry?
China Partner’s Erik Burklin reports that at least according to their contacts, this is just business as usual.
Finding Out For Themselves
At the beginning of April, China Partner took a 10-day trip to China to visit five cities in as many provinces. They traveled to Guangzhou, Naming, Kudning, Nanjing, and Shanghai.
The finale of their trip saw them meeting with the newly-elected National China Christian Council in Shanghai. There and throughout the trip, Erik interviewed believers about their response to tightening policies.
According to them, this is really just more of the same.
“It didn’t matter where we were, whether that was in the south, or in the far west, inside of Yunan province, or on the East Coast in Shanghai, where it’s more liberal or open, they all were consistent in saying that, number one, there are no new religious regulation,” Burklin explains. “They always have existed, and that was new to us. The difference is that now, it’s being enforced.”
Burklin’s contacts say many of these regulations were already on the books; President Shi-zu-ping is simply following through on them.
“The term the rule of law came up everywhere we went, and a lot of the Chinese Christian leaders were, while they were somewhat perplexed with this enforcement, they were not nervous about it,” Burklin says. “The Chinese government is enforcing for the first time the existing religious policies that have always existed.”
It is about nationalism, but none of this is new.
‘They’re trying to make sure that every Chinese, whether they’re believers and unbelievers, obey the law of the land,” Burklin explains.
So why is the global Church worried? Burklin thinks there are two main reasons. First, people outside of China might simply be unfamiliar with China’s policies.
“At one point there was one individual pastor who was kind of saying smiling at us saying ‘yeah, that’s interesting that you guys think that this is all new over here. For us that there’s nothing new under the sun,’ Burklin recalls.
There also might be misconceptions based on China’s past restrictions on religious freedom.
“They have been dealing with the communist regime forever, ever since Mao Zedong took over in 1950,” Burklin says. “In those days, when the cultural revolution happened, it was very strict, and it was very restrictive what the Chinese Christians could do, and not do, and many of them had to go into the underground because all the churches were closed down, but today, that’s shifted now.”
That’s what Burklin thinks is important to remember; comparatively, Chinese believers now have far more freedom than they once did.
“Under the existing regime, you can now register a church, you can now buy a Bible, you can order a Bible,” he says. “While you cannot do it online, you can go to any Christian bookstore (they’re normally located in any of the register churches) and buy a Bible there.”
Challenges for the Unregistered Church
But there’s another reason Christians are nervous about the situation in China. Most of Burklin’s unconcerned partners are part of the registered Church. The unregistered Church, on the other hand, will likely experience more drastic changes.
“Those individuals are those churches that have chosen to not register and become therefore legally accepted by the Religious Affairs Bureau, those are the churches that are really most often going to have problems or already have experienced problems,” Burklin says.
In fact, while they were in China, Burklin’s team learned that three churches, one in Chengdu and two in Beijing, have been closed down already. At the time of their trip, there were raids happening in Shanghai.
“It’s something that we have known for many, many years, but now it’s being forcefully enforced by the government,” Burklin explains. “Unfortunately for those house churches that refused to register, they’re going to be going through a lot of tough times over the next few months until everything settles down again.”
That means that although China Partner works with registered churches and should be fine, organizations that collaborate with unregistered churches are understandably anxious about the future of their ministry efforts.
“They have always done everything clandestinely in China, and those kind of clandestine operations are now being very strictly… controlled, and more so than ever before,” Burklin says. “Therefore, foreigners who work with the unregistered churches or the underground church are very nervous.”
The Church’s Mission
At the end of the day, registered or unregistered, the Church has a mission; share the compassionate truth of God’s love and the Gospel message. And when it comes to that goal, China Partner’s contacts plan to continue to pursue their ministry.
“They did not feel any threats that would change what they are about, namely, Christians that love Jesus Christ and want to continue to declare his glory by presenting the Gospel to people wherever they are, and wherever they serve.”
Pray for the Chinese church and the organizations that work with them as this situation continues to unfold. You can also find out what China Partner is doing right here.
Header photo courtesy of China Partner.