NEW YORK - In celebration of the debut of the China Bible Exhibit in New York, Christians and church leaders joined for a day-long symposium with Chinese religious officials to find out more about the Christian church in China.
"The Kingdom of God has very humble beginnings," the Rev. William E. Jefferson, director of Global Ministries for the American Bible Society, told the some 100 attendants at the opening of the event.
"It's is like this. A man takes a mustard seed, the smallest seed in the world, and plants it in the ground," stated Jefferson, citing from Mark 4 at the backdrop of a mustard seed illustration from the Bible Society in Kazakhstan. "After a while it grows up and becomes the biggest of all plants."
Although still a minority, the Christian population in China has surged to more than 16 million, according to Wang Zuoan, vice minister of the State Administration of Religious Affairs of the People's Republic of China.
Following Jefferson's mustard seed message, Wang gave a brief overview of the history of Protestantism and its growth in his homeland.
Chinese officials had not easily accepted Christianity, carrying with them the perspective of "one more Christian, one less Chinese," Wang pointed out. The millions of Christians in China today, however, is a "rare phenomenon," according to the state official.
Yet the 16 million Wang spoke of did not take into account the millions more that are not a part of the official church of China. The "quiet" Christian population, as Dr. Charles C. West of the New York Committee for the Bible exhibit described them, is so broad that the actual numbers remain unknown.
In any case, China is undergoing rapid social changes, Wang noted, and the future of Protestantism in the nation depends on whether they are able to carry out their responsibilities in the context of China’s social development.
Wang said Protestantism has a wide space to exert its positive influence and if the Chinese church can find a constructive part in society, then it can grow as a healthy body.
Some Christians, however, question the church in China and the religious freedom that China Christian Council has repeatedly insisted that Chinese Christians have. The Bible exhibit itself has received both praise and criticism with some referencing human rights violations that persist and others calling it "propaganda."
During the symposium, some were pleased to hear Wang's comments while others held doubts about the religious policy in China.
In response to a question from an attendant who had called into question the Chinese government's measure of operation in relation to the church, Wang insisted that they uphold the policy of the separation of Church and State. The Chinese government cannot interfere with the inner activities of the church, yet at the same time, religious activities cannot interfere with any national measures in which case the government would then try to coordinate the religious affairs in accordance to the law, said Wang.
Wang highlighted that the Chinese church cannot be the same as the American church. The cultural backgrounds of the two nations are simply different. But he told attendants that they'll make joint efforts to overcome difficulties, which Dr. Paul Irwin, ABS president, affirmed to following Wang's speech.
The seeds of Christianity were sown in China hundreds of years ago. Jefferson reminded the audience who the sower of the seed is - Christ.
"What matters is the word in our heart," he said.