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Fenggang Yang: “Xi Jinping is Not Trying to Make Christianity More Chinese”

Missionary-scholar Robert Menzies looks at what one China scholar says about recent changes in religious policy in China: this is not an attempt to make churches more Chinese. Rather, this is a move to politically domesticate the church in China. Despite this, there are reasons for hope.

 

Fenggang Yang, “Xi Jinping is Not Trying to Make Christianity More ChineseChristianity Today (Jan 16, 2024).

I warmly recommend this well-written and informed article on the current state of Christianity in China. Professor Yang’s candid assessment of the current religious policy of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and what it means for the Christian church are, in my view, on target. Yang’s main thesis is clearly stated in the article’s tagline, “The primary goal of Zhongguo hua is not cultural assimilation but political domestication. Yet I’m more confident than ever that house churches will survive.”

Fenggang Yang, Professor of Sociology at Purdue University, makes several important points: First, he astutely argues that the term “Sinicization” (often used to translate the Chinese phrase, Zhongguo hua) is inaccurate and misleading. Yang insists that a new term is needed because the goal of Zhongguo Hua is not the faithful contextualization of the gospel in contemporary China—the Chinese church has actually been quite good at this—but rather it’s political domestication. Thus, Yang proposes the term, “Chinafication,” as a helpful descriptor of the CCP’s attempt to co-opt the church. Second, Yang provides important historical context for understanding the Chinese Church’s “bitter Winter” that actually began in earnest at the beginning of 2018 when new, restrictive religious policies were enacted. Persecution is real and Yang offers numerous concrete expressions of the CCP’s attempts to muzzle and control the church. For example, churches are required to display “patriotic posters” such as “Love the party, love the state, love the religion” (note the priority assumed in the sequence of commands). While the CCP has attempted to eradicate the house church movement, the resulting wave of persecution (including the imprisonment of vocal house church pastors) has simply forced the church to move “underground” by operating more discretely and in smaller groups. Finally, Yang seeks to answer a question he raised five years ago, “Will Chinese house churches survive the latest government crackdown?” His answer today is a “resounding yes.” He describes the proliferation of meetings of small groups of believers (numbering in the dozens rather than in the hundreds) and the growth of online meetings. The essential point is that house church Christians have “held on to the teaching of ‘not giving up meeting together’ (Heb. 10:25).”

The Chinese church has been good at faithfully contextualizing the gospel in contemporary China.

Professor Yang concludes by pointing to the power of prayer. He notes that during the revivals of the 1980s and 1990s, many Chinese Christians rose early to pray. More recently, the Early Rain Covenant Church of Chengdu, the church home of imprisoned pastor Wang Yi, “has organized an online daily prayer meeting at 5 p.m. Pastor Wang Yi and other prisoners usually get their yard time then, and are thus able to pray simultaneously with those outside the prisons.” Yang notes that many Christians in other parts of China and around the world “have joined the 5 p.m. prayer meeting. They believe the concerted fervent prayers will change hearts, minds, churches, communities, nations, and the world.” If we take the record of Acts seriously (Acts 4:24-31), it would appear that this belief is well-founded. Afterall, an earlier generation of Christians were described by their opponents as having “turned the world upside down” (Acts 17:6, ESV).

Reviewed by Robert Menzies

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Category: Ministry, Winter 2024

About the Author: Robert P. Menzies, PhD (University of Aberdeen, Scotland), has lived and served in China for over twenty years. Robert is currently the Director of Synergy, a rural service organization located in Kunming, China. He is editor at the Asian Center for Pentecostal Theology and the author of Speaking in Tongues: Jesus and the Apostolic Church as Models for the Church Today (CPT Press, 2016), Pentecost: This Story is Our Story (Gospel Publishing House, 2013), Making Pentecost Your Story: 50 Days of Reflection and Prayer (Xanesti Creative Solutions, 2015), Spirit and Power: Foundations of Pentecostal Experience (Zondervan, 2011), The Language of the Spirit: Interpreting and Translating Charismatic Terms (CPT Press, 2010), Empowered for Witness: The Spirit in Luke-Acts (Sheffield, 1995), and co-editor of Pentecostalism in Context: Essays in Honor of William W. Menzies (Wipf & Stock, 2008), and The Spirit and Spirituality: Essays in Honor of Russell P. Spittler (Bloomsbury T&T Clark, 2004).

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