The Church in China: A Constant Teacher over Thirty-Three Years

by Jeff Ritchie

Next month I make my 25th trip to China. This blog is a reflection on what I have learned about life and following Jesus from Chinese believers since 1983.

Devoted to God: One of the constant factors in the witness of Chinese believers whom I have met for over thirty years is their desire to know God, to praise God, and to serve God by making him known to those outside the church. The witness literally bursts out in the welcome our groups have received as we come into a church yard on the way to worship. The above photo depicts one of those warm welcomes, in this case from Christian women in Weifang, Shandong Province.                            

The hunger to be like Christ and extend his loving rule shows through the graduation services I have attended at two provincial seminaries. Often through tears, the graduates profess their commitment to be the Lord’s servants as they go back to serve the churches that sent them to seminary.

Good Chinese Citizens: Another constant factor in the witness of Chinese believers is their desire to be good citizens. They often speak of being “patriotic.” While that phrase has overtones of what we Americans mean by being patriotic, the connotation is much deeper than that. In the pre-Communist era, Chinese Christians were often criticized as not “Chinese” enough. The saying went, “One more Christian, one less Chinese.” That is not the case anymore. 

So how do Chinese Christians demonstrate their being good citizens of China? One government official told a visiting group, “The Christians are among the first to help out in a disaster.” Another official in a different province said, “They are honest and pay their taxes.” The new descriptions of Chinese Christians as government officials see them are “other-oriented” and “trustworthy” – good citizens.

In addition to these things, Chinese Christians have a particular way of demonstrating that they are good Chinese citizens. The greatest Chinese philosopher, Confucius, once told his disciples, “I wish for the old to live in peace and comfort.” Chinese Christians have taken this to heart and made the care of seniors a special focus of their outreach. The woman shown in the photo is part of a senior citizens home in Zhejiang Province. In each of the provinces where The Outreach Foundation has church relationships, there are church-run senior citizens homes. 

A Larger Understanding of What “Church” Means: When Americans hear the word “church,” we have tended to go in one of two directions. We think in terms of our local church or we think in terms of our particular denomination. Chinese Christians have a different understanding of church, one that is more like what we read in the New Testament epistles. Paul wrote letters to the church in Corinth, the church in Rome, etc. The “church” in each of these places was distributed among many house churches. 

This is how it is in China. One can speak of the “Church in Suzhou” which is distributed over many congregations and house fellowships. One also can speak of the “Church in Jiangsu Province,” again one church distributed over many municipalities and rural counties. Finally, one can speak of the “Church in China,” distributed over the provinces of that country. 

The most vivid example of this larger understanding of the church for me was the first big project of The Outreach Foundation in China. The church in the northeastern province of Heilongjiang was building what would become a mega-church in the provincial capital of Harbin. It would seat 3,000 in the main sanctuary and was going to cost $750,000, an astronomical figure for the church in that part of China in the late 1990s. We helped as we could from the U.S., but the real story was that of the believers in the entire province (think of an area larger than Texas) who joined as one to build this place of worship and training. In subsequent years the Church in Heilongjiang continued to build one church after another with the same “one for all, all for one” spirit. They saw the Church as one even though scattered over many locations.

I give thanks to God for the Chinese Christians I have met. They are in love with Jesus, devoted to caring for “the least of these,” and sense their oneness with believers in the same locale – city, province, country – who worship in different places. It is a privilege to introduce others to my Chinese friends, and I look forward to one more opportunity to do this. 

Jeff Ritchie
Associate Director for Mission                                                         

The Outreach Foundation