(Editor’s note: Paul recently returned from a trip in which he studied the multiplication movements of the Asian church for a book he’s writing. This blog, and Part 2, which will post next week, explore some of his observations during the trip.)
THINKING ABOUT WHY THE WEST NEEDS TO PAY CLOSE ATTENTION TO THE RISE OF THE CHURCH IN THE EAST
The jet lag has subsided finally, and I am fully back in the world of North America after an April in Asia that will haunt me for a good season. So much of our American perception of the world beyond our borders is rooted in a mixture of out-dated reality, media-reinforced cliche and cartoon over-simplification. The world has changed and is changing faster than some of our notions and ideas. Nowhere more than China! If you think the main storyline there is still “sinister government persecuting courageous Beijing congregation,” you are missing the story in an odd side-show. There is a much bigger story unfolding.
I am old enough (barely) to remember when another fellow named Nixon surprised the world by suddenly appearing one morning with Mao Tsetung in Beijing. That moment was akin to when one hits restart on a computerized device. After centuries of a seriously dysfunctional western presence in China, distorted and often guided by western economic, political and religious bullying, there was a quarter century of vastly reduced interaction between China and the West.
Slowly that began to shift in the 1970s, picking up steam in the years since. China is now flooded once again with western influences, from Paris fashion (with mostly European models) to American music to every sort of religion you can imagine – and then some. Jimmy Carter pleaded with the Chinese premiere in the late 1970s to allow its churches to reopen. Amazingly, they decided to return to the very old tradition of Chinese religious freedom that long pre-dated Communism.
Today, China has 56,000 registered Protestant churches with an average of about 500 participants each. Add in Catholics and the underground (unregistered) churches, and you are looking at possibly 80 million human beings, up from around 2.5 million in 1980. Currently, we are talking about 7 percent of the population. The underground churches are hard to count, and many of them would be classified as quasi-Christian or as cults by
Americans. But there remains a pent-up demand for spiritual exploration in this country of 1.3 billion so that every time a new church opens, it fills up with almost no evangelistic strategy or special effort.
In Shanghai, we were given a private tour of the former Anglican cathedral, freshly renovated, and still locked up – but set to open for worship again in June of this year – for the first time since the Cultural Revolution. It will be full by Christmas. We would expect a church with over 200 million nationwide adherents by the year 2030, the largest group of active Christians in any nation on earth, perhaps half a billion by my 100th birthday. We have never seen a church grow this large this fast in any time or place. China is now the cutting edge of the 29th chapter of Acts. We are now entering a phase of Christian history when Asia forms the heart of the Christian movement.
More on that next week…