We thought Nepal would be gorgeous, something like Tibet, and China would be dirty and underdeveloped. Just the opposite. Nepal was poor, strife-torn, and so polluted we couldn’t see the mountains. Beijing, at least, is fast on its way to becoming a great modern city. Forty years ago there were less than 2000 cars in the city; now there are two million. Forty percent of the world’s construction cranes are operating in China, and some of these are building 2000 skyscrapers right now in Beijing. They have to have all construction finished in time for the showcase 2008 Olympics.
I like having diversity on a trip, and we certainly got it on this one. We stayed with an Irish couple who live in a community of expatriates (until recently, foreigners could only live in designated areas) and have a personal driver, which made getting around very easy for us. But we also visited some old college classmates in a city a couple of hours away, and got more of a taste of the “real China.” You can eat a great meal at a local restaurant for a buck or two, and buy most anything you want (or don’t want) in a street market. I went jogging one day and saw platoons of Chinese senior citizens practicing their slow-motion Tai Chi exercises.
Our friends teach at an international school, and while with them we met a number of English teachers. Many American Christians are volunteering to go to places like China to teach English, and on the side they share their faith. I was very impressed with these people. Many are single young women in their mid-twenties, who probably would prefer to be back in the U.S., married, living in the suburbs. Instead they live in grungy apartment buildings with roommates, but they make the most of it. They take train trips into the countryside, befriend Chinese nationals at coffee shops, even run the Beijing marathon. Their impact on the Kingdom is incalculable.
I was mainly invited to hold a weekend seminar at the Beijing International Christian Fellowship. Normally that church checks passports at the door because Chinese are not allowed in. With this agreement, the government does not interfere with their activities. This time, though, the organizers rented a hotel banquet room for the seminar, and about 800 people attended the three-session event, including local Chinese. As it happens, the annual meeting of the Communist Party was being held just down the street, and security was extremely tight. Hundreds of police were keeping Tiananmen Square completely empty. The Public Security Bureau showed up at our seminar, and the organizers were rather worried the first night when they saw the cops frantically trying to translate the words of the praise choruses being projected onscreen. They feared that the authorities might cancel the next day’s meetings, but they didn’t.
The seminars went very well, I think. What a receptive audience! We in the U.S., who can turn on the TV or radio or visit a Christian bookstore anytime we want, cannot imagine what it’s like to live in such a spiritual wasteland. Those folks soaked in every word I said. We had a question and answer time after each session, and the questions were deep and thought-provoking.
Our hosts organized a dinner for movers and shakers of China as well, on the 50th floor of a skyscraper, at an exclusive club. They invited people like the CEO of Microsoft China (who couldn’t offer advice for my hard disk crash) oil company executives, diplomats, and others. They asked me to speak on Rumors of Another World specifically, and successful Christians invited their “borderlander” friends. Everybody got a free book. Afterwards many of them retired to the cigar bar for Scotch and Cuban cigars.
Back to church on Sunday morning, speaking at two services of about 1000 each (there are 60 nations represented in the Fellowship, and a dynamite African music group led the worship). By then, I was exhausted, and jogging in the polluted Beijing air had caught up with me. Both Janet and I were hacking and sniffling, with raw throats. Wouldn’t you know it, the most important part of the trip lay ahead of us.
That afternoon our Japanese friends, who have been supporting the underground church in China, had arranged interviews with four representatives of the Chinese house church movement. In preparation I had read David Aikman’s excellent book Jesus in Beijing, which gives the background. (Aikman was Beijing bureau chief for Time.) When Chairman Mao kicked out all 7000 missionaries in 1950, there were about one million Protestant Christians, which the government tried to control by registering them in official Three-Self churches. Not much happened until the 1970s, when suddenly a revival broke out spontaneously, from the ground up. It hasn’t stopped yet.
Aikman estimates there may be as many as 80 million Christians in China now, most of whom meet in house churches of no more than 20-30 members. It is by far the greatest numerical revival in history, and it took place without much direction and almost no foreign contacts.
The Japanese selected well. We met a leader who supervises about 50 “pastors,” and has been preaching since the age of 12. He came 10 hours by train to meet with us! We met an old farmer who for years has hidden Bibles in his barn. Japanese “tourists” bring them in by the thousands (the Chinese government would never suspect Japanese of bringing in Bibles) and he stores them, then distributes them. Only half of China’s Christians have Bibles, and many of them bury them under ground for safe keeping.
We also met a dynamic 44-year-old who was bright, passionate, and could succeed in anything he tried. Indeed, he was the province secretary of the Communist Youth League and a member of the Red Guards until he became a Christian. Each day he would bicycle past a Three-Self church to go to party headquarters, and he could never figure out why the church was packed while he had to beg people to go to party meetings. He bought a Bible, read it straight through from Genesis to Revelation, and decided it was true. When he resigned from the party, the chief shouted that his career was now over and his own father, a high party official, disowned him. Nowadays he moves from place to place, mostly mentoring and discipling house church leaders. There’s quite an underground network; Aikman estimates there may be 1000 informal seminaries or Bible schools hidden away. He told us of many close escapes from the police. I know he must have told his conversion story hundreds of times over the years, but he told it with the enthusiasm of a brand new convert. The house church movement recognizes his leadership skills, so that he now supervises 260,000 (yes, that’s accurate) Christians. Yet he goes by an assumed name, and does everything undercover. Compare that to the celebrity culture in the U.S.
The Japanese had rented two hotel rooms, and we moved back and forth for each meeting. That was so none of the house church leaders would have contact with the other and then, if arrested, they could plausibly deny having met the others. I had brought some of my books in Chinese as well, and had autographed them. Bad move. I had to tear out the autograph page. Otherwise, if arrested, they would have evidence of having contacted a Westerner, increasing their prison sentence.
We were supposed to meet with Pastor Yuan, a renowned figure who is one of four founders of the house church movement. He helped get the whole thing going. Billy Graham visited his home in 1994, and he has worldwide recognition. Alas, he called during the interviews to report that because of the Communist Party meeting, authorities had forbidden him to see us.
We had been meeting in stuffy rooms that smelled of insecticide. Windows stayed closed, as a precaution against eavesdroppers, and Janet and I were both feeling worse and worse. I remember thinking, “Philip, there is nothing you have ever experienced that is comparable in any way to the hardship these folks have gone through, just because they follow Jesus. So stiffen up and get through it.” Just as we were wrapping up the evening, and I was hoping to stop by a pharmacist to treat our sinus problems, the phone rang. It was Pastor Yuan and his wife, downstairs at the hotel desk.
Our hosts got rather agitated, for Pastor Yuan had doubtless been followed. They hurried everyone else out of the room, and in a few minutes the Yuans appeared. Pastor Yuan is a sprightly senior citizen. He had decided to defy the ban and meet with a foreigner anyway. “I’m 90 years old and I’ve spent 22 years in prison—what are they going to do to me?” he said with a grin. He gave me a DVD that showed the 453 Chinese believers he baptized in 2003.
It was a strange interview, because Yuan is probably 89 percent deaf. You have to shout questions at him (he speaks good English), and even then he gets them wrong. This was not good for my throat, believe me. What a man, though.
Yuan spent his 22 prison years up by the Russian border, linking boxcars as hard labor. He tells of God’s miraculous provision during those days. First, he linked one million boxcars and never had an injury—the prison often assigned that duty to people they wanted to get rid of. Second, even though he was near Siberia and had no winter clothing, he never got sick, in 22 years. He came out with stronger faith than when he went in. How many times must he have wondered, like Joseph, what in the world God had in store for him. Yet now he’s the patriarch of what may be the largest Christian community in the world—this in an atheist state that did all it could to stamp out the faith.
My head was spinning on the way home a day later, and not just from the sinus congestion. The 26-year-old Wheaton graduate teaching English, the rich businessmen hosting their peers at an exclusive club, a church representing 60 nations thriving in a country that won’t allow its own citizens to attend, and 80 million “invisible” Christians who have much to teach us about living in “the city of God” and “the city of man” simultaneously—we got a good sampling of the Body of Christ, all in one week.Copyright © 2004 by Philip Yancey