What is International Ambassadors for Christ (IAfC)?
As change sweeps across the Chinese mainland, it is our vision to ride these winds of change in order to legally assists the Body of Christ in China, enabling it to fulfill the Great Commission (Matthew 28:19-20) both through evangelism and in spiritual depth through discipleship.
Our objective is twofold. First, we are working to identify unmet needs and unique opportunities of Chinese Christians as they work toward fulfilling the Great Commission. Second, we seek to develop strategic, indigenous and legal ministries inside China, which are conducted and supported by Chinese, to uniquely meet their own needs so they can take advantage of the new opportunities before them.
Why is there a need for a ministry like IAfC?
China is in the midst of massive change. Sweeping economic reforms initiated by Deng Xiaoping have taken hold throughout the country. New businesses are opening at a staggering rate. Shops that sold mainly infrastructure support commodities like machinery copper wire, ball bearings etc. are now selling everything from Levi jeans to Rolex watches unleashing the pent up desire within the population for material things. Along with this rapid economic growth has come greater information exchange technology. Faxes, computers and modems, once tightly controlled, are now available to ordinary citizens. Cellular phones and satellite dishes are popping up all over China. With this staggering growth in the ability of the population to acquire material things and to both send and receive information, China has embarked upon a course that cannot be easily turned back from.
China recognizes the near fatal mistakes made by the former Soviet Union. In the former Soviet Union there were, first, massive political reforms followed by poorly thought out economic reforms. As these political and economic reforms stretched and pulled at the fabric of society, the former Soviet Union again reacted by initiating poorly thought out social reforms. At the same time, thousands of western Christians poured into the former Soviet Block, in what one western religious leader has called “the rape of the Soviet Church.” The Church in the former Soviet Union has been fractured and divided. This lack of unity continues to be a poor Christian testimony to those in authority. Even now, new legislation continues to be introduced to limit Christian activities.
China has watched this turmoil very carefully and has reacted in controlled fashion. As a popular saying in China illustrates: “It is good to have a hot engine in your car. This means it is running efficiently. However you do not want the driver to have a hot head. This would be bad. You want a hot engine and a cool head. China’s economy is running hot right now and its leadership is keeping a cool head.”
As Deng’s economic reforms move forward, China recognizes that social reforms must be made to accommodate the impact of the changing economy. Already the divorce and suicide rates are climbing, materialism is rampant, the traditionally strong Chinese family nucleus is beginning to break down and corruption is spreading at an alarming rate.
Friends of ours in the government of China have privately admitted that Communist and Maoist ideologies have proven to be morally and ethically “bankrupt.” The reason for this is that morality was legislated by the system and was therefore external to the individual. We are trying to help the government understand that Christianity can be part of the solution because when an individual accepts Jesus Christ, the motivation for moral and ethical behavior is internalized. The desire of the Christian is to become more like Christ and this benefits any society.
China is increasingly open to the Christian message. The Government, through its official arms, the Religious Affairs Bureau (RAB), Three Self Patriotic Movement (TSPM) and the China Christian Council (CCC) are granting greater freedoms for both Chinese Christians and oversees Christians who are willing to work within the scope of the law. It is a new day in China and we have found that by being transparent and open, working with credibility and trust established over an extended period of time with Christians and Government official’s alike, positive change can come about within the Body of Christ in China.
Development of Christianity in China
The first known missionaries to reach China, the Nestorian Christians, followed the “Silk Road” in 635 A.D. Latter followed Franciscan Monks and then Jesuits Priests in the 16th and 17th centuries. None of these early missionaries were very successful as Christianity was perceived to be a foreign barbarian religion and converts were severely persecuted.
It was not until the early 1800’s that Protestant Christianity began to make inroads into China. Unfortunately many of the early Protestant missionaries traveled on merchant ships up and down the coast of China. Most of these boats carried opium. As opium was forced upon the Chinese during the two opium wars, Christianity became identified with western imperialism and colonialism in the worst way through forced opium trade.
Perhaps the best-known missionary to China, Hudson Taylor, arrived in 1854. Hudson Taylor was known for wearing Chinese clothes and adapting to the Chinese culture. He was one of the first missionaries to travel extensively in the countryside preaching and teaching. In 1865, he founded China Inland Mission. Today it is known as Oversees Missionary Fellowship (OMF).
During the late 1800’s, missionaries poured into China, buying land, building churches, schools and hospitals. The “Boxer Rebellion” took place in 1900 and thousands of Christians and rebels murdered their converts before an army, representing foreign interests, squashed the rebels. In 1911, Sun Yat-sen led the Nationalists in a revolution against the Manchu Dynasty and won, setting the stage for forming the Republic of China. Christianity continued to spread, even Sun Yat-sen is said to have been a Christian. In 1921 the Chinese Communist Party was formed. By 1930 the Communists had gained strong grassroots support.
At this time, there were half-a-million Protestants with about 6,000 foreign missionaries and 2,000 ordained Chinese pastors. Alongside the foreign Christian effort, however, there were also indigenous Chinese churches emerging, with two leaders of particular note: Watchman Nee and Wang Ming Dao. By 1949, the Communists lead by Mao Zedong had overthrown the Nationalists and founded the Peoples Republic of China (PRC). With the founding of the PRC all religious buildings were taken over by the government and religious institutions were required to be loyal to the Communist Party. By 1952, missionary activity had been effectively eliminated and their institutions closed.
Mao believed that one of the tenants of Marxism, which is, “religion is the opiate of the people”, was especially applicable to China and the persistent problem of Christianity. In 1954, the Three Self-Patriotic Movement was established to help oversee and control Protestant Christianity. In 1958, the year of the “Great Leap Forward”, the TSPM gained control of all Christian publications and Christian activities. Simultaneously, Christians who refused to become associated with the TSPM went underground and began meeting secretly in “House churches”.
The most violent phase of the PRC was the Cultural Revolution from 1966-1976. During the heart of the Cultural Revolution (1966-1970), churches were closed, Bibles were burned and destroyed, Christians were attacked, thousands were put to death or sent for re-education in prison labor camps for conducting “counter-revolutionary activities” and the TSPM was disbanded. Before being disbanded, the TSPM was used by the government to suppress, or as some believe, to try and eradicate the church in China. Still, the believers did not abandon their faith. They met in ways similar to those recorded in the Acts of the Apostles. They worshipped and fellow-shipped in their homes, secretly and often in small numbers to avoid detection.
In 1971, two churches were reopened in Beijing strictly for the foreign diplomatic community. In 1972, President Richard Nixon visited China and in 1975, at the Fourth People’s Congress, freedom of religious belief was granted under the PRC’s constitution.
The death of Chairman Mao Zedong in 1976 opened up a new era in China. Foreigners began visiting China and confirmed reports that the Church in China had not been eradicated but instead had flourished. Reports claimed that there were as many as ten million Christians at the end of the Cultural Revolution. This phenomenal growth came about under severe persecution with no large-scale organization or leadership. God, through His Holy Spirit, oversaw, and continues to oversee, the tremendous growth in the Church in China. By 1979 the church had grown to as many as 20 million believers. The government responded by reestablishing the TSPM.
During the 1980’s, the Chinese church continued to grow at an astonishing rate. The TSPM reopened many of the Churches closed during the Cultural Revolution and began to open seminaries. In 1987, they opened the Amity Press in Nanjing, which along with the United Bible Societies, was devoted to printing Bibles and hymnals strictly for TSPM churches. During this time, a number of foreign ministries were established to help meet the needs of the majority of believers who refused to be associated with the TSPM and therefore, had little or no access to Bibles and training. These ministries smuggled Bibles and Christian literature as well as conducted underground training opportunities for House church Christians. While this activity was greatly needed at the time, it nurtured the government’s suspicion that Christianity was imperialistic and that Christians were “counter-revolutionary.”
Christianity continued to grow and the government granted greater freedoms until the unfortunate tragedy of Tiananmen Square in 1989. After Tiananmen, the government, responding to what it observed in Eastern Europe, began cracking down on “pro-democracy” dissidents and others who were considered to be a threat to the stability of the government. This included both House church and TSPM Christians.
During the 1990’s, the Church in China continued to grow at a phenomenal rate with somewhere around 50 million believers countrywide. Freedoms were increasing for believers both in the House and TSPM churches.
A ministry like ours fills an important niche in meeting the needs of China’s Christians. With its valuable and extensive network of relationships within the House church and its established credibility with the government, we are strategically positioned to be an advocate for greater opportunities for all of China’s Christians.
Who are the major players in the Chinese Church?
China’s Christians face a number of challenging complexities in their unique country – culturally, spiritually and politically. There are five major groups that impact and affect China’s Church.
The Chinese Communist Party (CCP)
This includes the United Front Work Department, which is responsible for setting religious policy. It also includes the Religious Affairs Bureau, which is responsible for recommending and implementing religious policy.
For a variety of reasons, Christianity has been perceived as a threat to the sovereignty of the government of China. Unofficial Christian activity has been considered “counter-revolutionary”, and western involvement in the Church has been identified with western “imperialism” and “colonialism”. The government, realizing that it could not totally eliminate the church, sought to manage it by establishing the Three Self Patriotic Movement in 1954.
The Three-Self Patriotic Movement (TSPM)
In China there is one governmental body that oversees all religion. It is formally entitled the Religious Affairs Bureau (RAB), but recently was renamed to the State Religious Affairs Administration (SRAA). This government organ oversees the five major recognized religions in China; Buddhism, Taoism, Islam, Catholicism and Protestant Christianity. Each of these religions has an associated organization that was set up in either the 1950’s or the 1970’s to oversee their affairs.
In the case of Protestant Christianity, the Three-Self Patriotic Movement was established in the late 1950’s as a means to control the Protestant Christian religion. Three-Self stands for “self-governing, self-propagating and self- supporting.” Although the Three-Self Patriotic Movement was originally set up to oversee and essentially control Protestant Christianity by the Chinese government, it has evolved into a large organization with Christian Conservatives and Evangelicals on one side, and religious liberals, party and government loyalists on the other side.
The TSPM, along with the China Christian Council, recommend policies guiding Protestant Christianity in China to the Religious Affairs Bureau or SRAA. One misnomer regarding the Three-Self Patriotic Movement and churches that are affiliated with the TSPM, is that the TSPM controls all of the activities of Three-Self Churches. While the Three-Self Patriotic Movement does exert a degree of influence over Three-Self Churches, it in no way has the capacity to control the activities of all of the churches across China. Most of the Three-Self Churches in China function independent of the Three-Self Patriotic Movement in all practical matters.
The China Christian Council (CCC)
The CCC is the administrative and social arm of the TSPM. It operates parallel to the TSPM. The CCC was established as a body to facilitate and nurture the growth of the Protestant churches across China. The CCC oversees and ministers the Amity Foundation, which provides humanitarian relief and assistance to Christians in China and also oversees and administers the Amity Printing Company and Amity Printing Press, which prints the majority of Bibles and Christian literature in mainland China. The CCC is responsible for the printing and distribution of these Bibles, hymnbooks and other Christian literature. The CCC handles the promotion of theological training and is responsible for developing friendly relations with overseas churches and Christian organizations.
The House Church
The unofficial, informal body of believers represents roughly 90% of the Christian population. There is no formal structure, nor has there been cooperation between the TSPM and the House church. At times, in the past, the government has used the TSPM in attempts to control the House church, resulting in betrayal and persecution. Because of this, the House church movement has had little toleration for the TSPM. However, this is beginning to change. There are now many individuals within the House church that attend TSPM churches and vice versa. Over the past number of years, the TSPM has become more independent of government control and has asserted itself more in acquiring greater freedoms for Christians.
It must be noted that the House church is not nationally organized or administrated. The House church is made up of thousands of independent, small groups, many who do not agree with nor associate with one another. Also the term “House church” is commonly used to refer to both Protestant and Catholic small group meetings.
Overseas Chinese Christians
These expatriate Chinese no longer live on the mainland. However, they continue to be passionately concerned about their homeland and the difficulties facing Christians there. The majority of these Christians are divided along the House church – Three-Self Patriotic Movement lines, thus continuing to nurture division. However, there are some that now see a larger picture and are working and praying for reconciliation and unity.
The Western Church
Christians in the west have a long history of involvement with China, an involvement that has not always been productive. There have been many well-intentioned organizations and missionaries who have confused western values, both social and political, with Christianity. This ethnocentrism has not served the cause of Christ effectively in China. There has also been western denominational influence over the years. Today, although denominationalism is diminishing in the west, it is on the rise in China, further dividing an already fractured Church.
Historically, the Church in China has been estranged from the Chinese government. The Church is also fragmented within itself. Bridges need to be built in all directions; reconciliation and common ground must be sought not through the compromise of essential spiritual truths, but through mutual understanding, friendship and respect.
How does IAfC work in China?
Someone once said “It’s hard to move forward when you are looking in the rear view mirror” too many people today spend valuable time “looking in the rear view mirror” instead of looking ahead with vision and flexibility. As times change in China, the strategies that Christian ministries employ in building the Kingdom of God need to change as well. There is now the opportunity in China to work both with integrity, openness, transparently and also within the scope of Chinese law.
Many of the ministries focusing on China today have gravitated towards illegal activities such as smuggling Bibles and literature (courier work), underground training of pastors without the governments approval. These activities continue to reinforce China’s long held view that Christianity is, in effect a projection of western imperialism and colonialism. We are attempting to rectify this belief by demonstrating that Christianity is not western, is not political in nature and can have a positive impact on society if applied based upon Scriptural principals.
What kind of projects is IAfC involved with?
Training, Discipleship and Encouragement
You’ve probably heard of China’s massive revival. Experts say that there are presently between 80 and 100 million believers there. This includes many new Christians who desperately need to learn from Christians with enough spiritual maturity to disciple them. Since this is rarely the case, heresies can develop and Bible passages are sometimes misinterpreted with tragic consequences. For example, one man heard the story of Abraham and Isaac, and subsequently sacrificed his son on a hilltop. In another case, some individuals heard of Peter walking on the water. They tried to do the same and drowned.
God has opened the door for a second history-making development. We conduct training seminars in several locations across China. These will be both for members of the House Churches and for the officially registered Three Self Patriotic Movement churches. Those attending will be given the training and literature needed to train others. In addition, we pray that when the two parts of the Christian body come together, dialogue and Christian friendship and unity will deepen between them.
For a variety of reasons, Christianity has been perceived as a “threat to the sovereignty” of the government of China. Unofficial Christian activities have been considered “counter-revolutionary” and western involvement in the Church has been identified with Western “imperialism” and “colonialism”. The government, realizing that it could not totally eliminate the Church, has sought to control it through the Three Self Patriotic Movement.
The “House church” does not officially exist in China. There is no formal structure, nor is there cooperation between the Three-Self Patriotic Movement and the House church. Because the TSPM has been used, in the past, by the government in an attempt to control the House church, resulting in betrayal and persecution, many in the House church movement have no toleration for the TSPM.
We are establishing relationships both within the House Church networks across China and with the Three Self Patriotic Movement leadership and Churches. We believe that God has placed us in a unique position to have a ministry of reconciliation helping to bring about unity between believers in the House Church and in the TSPM. These dear Christians have put aside their bitterness towards the Three Self Patriotic Movement and are working together side by side, even praying and sharing communion together.
Christian Diplomatic Efforts
The Government of China has long been apprehensive about the activities of Christians in the country. Authorities have feared that Christians would prove to be a “destabilizing force” in the community. Historically, Christianity has been perceived as “western” and “imperialistic” in nature. Continued illegal activities by western Christians only reinforce this misconception.
Over the last few years’ top Chinese officials have come to America to observe the relationship between church and state. God’s hand powerfully guided this effort as the Chinese delegation saw the way Christians are helping their country deal with social needs such as those of AIDS victims, prisoners, unwed mothers, prostitutes, poverty and racial intolerance. These delegations met Christian politicians and community leaders at the local, state and national levels. They also met Presidents Richard Nixon and George Bush, both of whom spoke of their Christian faith. The message was clear. Christians do not diminish America. They enhance it. The same can only be true of Christians in China. This will provide an ongoing opportunity for dialogue regarding Christianity, its beliefs and its positive contributions to society.
Children and Elderly Needs
Children’s ministries are vital in China. To date, the Chinese government has not officially permitted children under the age of 18 to participate in religious activities. It is our belief that the future of the Church in China depends upon the children. Elderly Christians in China sometimes don’t receive the kind of care and provision they deserve. Even in the socialist environment of China, the government realizes that it is unable to meet all of the needs of its people, and has been favorably impressed with the way Christians care for the needs of other Christians.
How can I be involved with IAfC?
As the world watches the dawn of a new day in China, we continue to be on the cutting edge of God’s agenda there. There are three main opportunities for involvement:
Prayer – you can pray for us on a daily, committed basis. We will keep you informed about our projects through our prayer letters and E-mail newsletter.
Provision – you can provide financial assistance, enabling us to continue discipleship and training; Christian diplomacy; and outreach to the children and elderly.
Proclamation – you can share our vision, objectives and strategy with others, providing factual information about our ministry. If you would like to be involved, we invite you to contact us.
How do you work inside of China?
Because of the sensitive nature of working as a foreign ministry inside China, we have to be selective with whom we work together.
We have had the privilege of establishing extremely good relationships at all levels in China, from the top leadership of the Chinese government, down to the House churches in the rural and minority areas. These relationships are extremely valuable and are built upon trust. Trusting relationship or “Guanxi” is a very important part of Chinese society and Asian society in general. When you have a trusting relationship with someone inside China and you introduce him or her to someone new, they take that introduction as an endorsement. If, in the future, the individual or organization you have introduced them to does something either intentionally or unintentionally that brings harm to them or undermines the trust in the relationship, it reflects very negatively on the individual or organization that made the introduction.
When this happens, the initial relationship is harmed, sometimes irreparably. This is why we are very careful to work with contacts that have a similar philosophy and approach to ministry in China. We look for people that seek to assist the indigenous Christians in China and what is developing in their church context and culture, as opposed to work with organizations that seek to transform the church in China with their own ministry. We also look for contacts that are willing to take a long-term view of their work in China, ones that are not impatient, impetuous, nor seeking to get immediate results.
What is the true story about religious persecution of Christians in China?
For anyone who has worked in China for any length of time, they come to realize that, “Whatever you say about China is true and whatever you may hear about China may not be true.” There are many other ministries serving China like ourselves that do not speak to the religious persecution issue as often as others might wish but it does not mean we are not aware of the fact it exists. Having worked closely with Chinese governmental officials, registered and unregistered churches we know the topic of religious persecution is a complicated one. As with most controversial subjects, it’s important to keep a balanced perspective. Judgment of China’s religious situation should not be based solely on one person’s testimony, a few ministry reports or a couple of newspaper articles. They may reflect only one thread of a very large tapestry.
It’s important to keep in mind that China is a very large country. Chinese may “all look alike” but they are more culturally diverse than Europeans. Given this context, the history of each of the 31 provinces and the background of each local provincial official will differ; application of the rule of law and religious policy in one region may not be the same as the other. For example, in one city, thousands of House church believers may go to a mountain to pray and worship without feeling threatened whereas in another province, a handful of believers must meet in a warehouse at 2:00 am so as to not draw attention.
When you read or hear of news on religious persecution in China, it’s important to form an educated opinion versus a purely emotional response. Here are some good questions to ask: 1) How did the conflict begin? 2) What province is the religious persecution occurring? 3) Does it have a history or track record of religious persecution? 4) Is the persecution truly religious in nature or is it due more to politics or a personal grudge between members of the two parties? 5) What are the backgrounds of the provincial governmental officials in the area? 6) Are their outside or overseas ministries involved that may be creating the problem? 7) What are the Christian beliefs of the local pastor and the believers? 8) What is their faith practice? Is it based on truth or heresy?
It’s important to have these questions answered before the conclusion is quickly made that the Chinese government oppresses all unregistered House church members. There are cases where indeed this may be true but there are also cases where the local religious officials have helped House church members purchase land to build their meeting point. In the same venue, there are situations where registered church members will not speak with unregistered church members and there are also cases where both sides get along very well, share the same worship facilities and are in good terms with the local religious officials.
In summary, when it comes to religious persecution in China, there is much more than what meets the eye. Religious beliefs can be used to cover the real issue, which may be corruption, politics or generational family conflicts. If the conflict does indeed center on religion, there will be cases when governmental officials are to clearly to blame and their will be situations when local Christians are the source of the problem. Usually the latter occurs when believers do not interpret Scripture correctly, act upon erroneous teachings from outsiders or do not use wisdom in expressing their faith. This only invites greater scrutiny and misunderstanding of the Christian faith and its followers.
For this very reason, we believe time, financial resources and energy are always well spent when providing church leaders and believers with appropriate Christian resources and support for their training programs/centers. At the same time, we honor many of their requests to come and listen to their special and challenging situations, trying to provide them with wise counsel on how to apply Scripture in their daily lives and how to be “wise as a serpents and gentle as a doves.” Please pray for us in this area given this is probably the most challenging aspect of our ministry.
What are the Bibles needs in China?
In a country that is basically atheistic, Socialist in nature with such a vast territory and large population, it’s almost inconceivable to think that tens of millions of Bibles have been able to be distributed to believers’ in House churches over such a short period of time. Three major elements have contributed to this miracle of God – 1) the openness of the Chinese government for Bible distribution, 2) the cooperation of the Official churches and 3) the acceptance of the House churches. In the past 50 years, the relationship between the Government, Official churches and House churches has not been stable or harmonious. It has almost been impossible for the three parties to cooperate and accept one another. But within the past decade, God has shown His mighty hand and great love through what has been accomplished through the distribution of millions of Bibles throughout China. The remaining issues are easier to solve and are mere technicalities.
Today China has a Bible distribution network that covers almost the entire country. This network has become more established as relationships with House church members deepen. In the past ten years, House church leaders have seen that there is no danger associated with receiving Bibles. The number of Bibles printed inside China is able to fulfill the needs of Chinese believers who request Bibles. Every Bible distribution point in China has Bibles in stock and the printing volume is based on demand. To smuggle or pilfer Bibles into China like many did 20 years ago is not necessary despite whether it is legal or illegal. Bringing in Bibles from overseas, as gifts to friends or relatives do not fall under this category.
What is the greatest need within the churches in China today?
For anyone who has visited China, they will quickly see that it is a field that is ready for harvest. The harvest is ready but the laborers few. We believe that the greatest need of the Chinese church is for God to rise up more Christian leaders, disciples and workers that are faithful, experienced and fulfill the will of God. There has been much growth in the Body of Christ in China over the past 20 years. During the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976), the majority if not all of the churches went underground. After 1976, slowly the churches resurfaced. It was as if they rose from the ashes. Believers came out of the woodwork stronger in vision and faith, knowing that God has sustained them for a greater work ahead.
Today, the House churches in China still have many insufficiencies. They lack qualified pastors and there is a shortage of teachers or lay trainers who have theological training. As a result, many churches lack unity in the Spirit. Within the management of many House churches there is much individualism. Many things need to improve. What needs to be considered, however, is where the church in China has been and where it is now. If one takes this perspective, there is much to hope and be thankful for.