I have a friend who lived and worked in China for about 7 years. Because evangelism is illegal in China, she went with a Christian organization that does secular work with the Chinese people, but they also have a greater purpose, which is to share their faith. Recently, she sat down and answered some questions for us concerning her experience with the people, as well as her knowledge of the difficulties Chinese Christians face today. Because of how cautious workers like my friend have to be, we will keep her name anonymous, both to protect her and the organization she worked with.
As you read through her interview, I pray you consider the call to eternal living that we all have as believers, and what that might look like in your own life.
Disclaimer: I'm writing this from an outsider's perspective. Though I lived in China for many years, I'm not Chinese, and there's no way I could fully understand the everyday struggles a Chinese believer faces. However, I've been privileged to know and learn from many Chinese brothers and sisters, and my answers here mostly stem from what they've told me.
In general, what is the structure of the Christian church in China?
Many people in America reference the "underground church" when they talk about Chinese Christianity, but that's actually an outdated term. Right now, the church in China is mainly broken down into two groups: the registered, or legal churches, and the unregistered, or illegal churches. In a sense, the unregistered churches are "underground" as they try to stay under the government's radar, but they're not always hidden away in the dark of night as we like to imagine. They've just chosen not to make their presence officially known to the government. Both the registered and unregistered churches have their strengths and weaknesses, and both groups of churches vary greatly in their theology and doctrinal soundness.
What do the people face if they convert?
This varies from person to person. Chinese people are taught from a very young age that there is no God, so when someone becomes a Christian, their family and friends often think it's a little strange. Some believers may face opposition from family members if they come from a very strong Buddhist/folk religious background or their relatives are in positions of power and influence. In addition, Communist Part members aren't allowed to believe in any kind of religion, so it's more difficult for believers to join the Party. This can mean fewer opportunities for good jobs and promotions. Conversion in and of itself is not illegal in China, however.
What pressures and threats hold them back from converting?
The pressure to join the Communist Party is strong, especially among university students. I personally know of several students who'd been interested in Christianity but put their spiritual journeys on hold in order to apply for Party membership. Similarly, people who are already Party members may be hesitant to convert for fear of losing their position or status.
Culturally, materialism has become somewhat of a threat to Christianity in China. Many Chinese people feel that as long as they have a family, house, and car, they're pretty set. Chinese culture also holds that man is fundamentally good, and have difficulty understanding that they are sinful (the fact that the word "sin" translates into "crime" in Chinese doesn't help).
How does the unregistered church function…house churches, fellowship, etc?
This is a very difficult question to answer, as unregistered churches vary greatly from place to place. The amount of freedom these kinds of groups have generally depends on the spiritual and political climate of their particular city or region. Some unregistered groups do meet in homes, some rent separate apartments to use for church activities, and some have their own buildings. Some groups have a handful of members, and some have several hundred. Fellowship generally includes singing, corporate and individual prayer, and teaching from the Bible.
Did you see a lot of nominal Christianity in China like we do in America, or do those who convert really count the cost and go “all in”?
There definitely isn't the same kind of cultural Christianity in China that we have in America. It's hard for me to say who really goes all in and who doesn't. In recent years, especially among young people, it's started to become trendy to "have a faith" in order to have more peace in your life. People who subscribe to this way of thinking may say they're believers, but their faith is more of a new-age philosophy than real Christianity.
In general, I think the parable of the sower applies in China just like it does anywhere else-- there are some people in whom the gospel takes root and produces a harvest, and some in which those gospel seeds are snatched away, choked out, or withered. I will say that the majority of believers I've met have been passionate and enthusiastic about sharing the gospel and committing their life to serving God.
What does persecution of Christians look like in China today?
Persecution looks very different in different regions of China. In some areas, church groups function with little to no interference from the government. In others, pastors and church members can be arrested, interrogated, or imprisoned if they draw too much attention. The government has also defaced church buildings and wrestled congregations out of their meeting places in the recent past (for more on those situations, see articles here and here).
Is it illegal to evangelize in China?
It is illegal to evangelize in China - it is very dangerous at the least - so you have to be careful in how you share your faith. If you're a foreigner and you're drawing a lot of attention, you'll likely be kicked out of the country. If you're Chinese, you'll likely be interrogated and/or imprisoned. It all depends on who is in charge, though. Sometimes the government turns a blind eye.
What ways can American believers become involved in missions with the Chinese people?
College campuses are a great place to start! U.S. universities have seen a huge influx of Chinese undergraduate and graduate students in recent years. These students need cultural allies-- Americans who will care for them and help them navigate an unfamiliar culture. Doing a quick Google search will bring up several campus ministry groups that specifically reach out to Chinese students by both meeting their practical needs (picking them up at the airport, driving them to buy groceries, etc.) and providing opportunities for fellowship and Bible study.
What was your favorite part about living in China?
Oh my goodness, so many things! First, I love Chinese people-- they're incredibly warm and hospitable. I miss my students, colleagues, shop vendors, and even taxi drivers greatly! I also love the FOOD. Authentic Chinese food is amazing, and much lighter than the Americanized version. Finally, I loved living cross-culturally in general-- the language difficulties, the crowded transportation, the completely different worldviews--all of it. Life in China was challenging, but I loved my time there!