For decades now, evangelists and missionaries alike have seen Hong Kong as the gateway to reaching over 1.3 billion potential converts in China. Indeed, Hong Kong mission has firmly rooted itself into the local society over the years. With great success, in fact, that many churches have expanded even into the commercial center of the island. Every week, Christians worship amidst the glittering high-rises in former office spaces converted into churches and fellowship centers.
Take, for example, Reverend Dennis Balcombe who is now pastoring at the Revival Christian Church. On Sunday, worshippers of various walks of life sing passionately in Cantonese with hands lifted to the air. Balcombe says that religious freedom in Hong Kong has actually improved since the 1997 British handover of Hong Kong to China – promoting evangelistic growth throughout the former island-colony. Most pastors, actually, are free to preach the gospel provided that they do not involve themselves with government politics.
In a televised report PBS’s Religion and Ethics Newsweekly aired on January 7, Balcombe said:
“We feel actually that we have more freedoms and more opportunities for ministry as a Christian than we did under the British administration. And so the government actually encourages churches to go into the schools and go out on the street and basically get involved in society. They're saying to us, ‘Don’t just keep your religion in the church, but go out where you can really help people,’ which is, of course, what we should be doing.”
Balcombe, hailing from the United States, has been evangelizing and preaching, mainly in Asia, for last 35 years. In Hong Kong, Balcombe’s name has reached an almost legendary status in the island’s Christian community. Each Sunday, Balcombe delivers sermon in surprisingly flawless Cantonese to a mass audience of believers, young and old.
Despite showing much optimism for evangelistic growth in Hong Kong, Balcombe showed concern for mission efforts in China. While Hong Kong preachers preach with little government interference, Mainland China preachers often face intense government scrutiny. In the mainland, churches are required to register under the state-regulated National Committee of the Three-Self Patriotic Movement of the Protestant Churches of China. Registered (National TSPM). Registered churches, however, have no less government pressures than unregistered churches. According to government regulations, for example, churches are not allowed to openly evangelize or to preach the gospel to nonbelievers outside of church grounds. In addition, churches are only allowed to read scripture approved by the state.
Such regulations have led many churches to go unregistered. According to figures released by the CIA, Christians account for approximately 3%-4% of China’s total population. The number of Christian Chinese has yet to be confirmed, though, as many Chinese Christians especially Protestants and Catholics simply resort to worshiping in unregistered house churches. Reports released by multiple mission groups indicate a rapid growth in the number of Christians.
According to the Voices of Martyrs, countless protestants have been systematically tracked down and arrested by government security officials – the most recent, of which, included much widely publicized incarceration of Pastor Zhang Rongling last December.
Pastor Balcombe’s office is full of tapes of underground services where Christians worshipped despite risks of severe imprisonment. In previous years, Balcombe had preached at countless house churches, brought in bibles, and baptized hundreds of Christian Chinese.
Pastor Balcombe himself even spent time in prison for preaching on the mainland, though he declined to give further comment concerning this matter. “Well, everyone knows someone who's been put in prison because of religion in China,” Balcombe said to R&E Newsweekly, “I mean, [for] anyone who's a Christian…it's an undeniable fact.”
Though missionaries continue to rely on traditional evangelism and preaching, many are seeking alternatives from which to bring the gospel to China’s massive populace. With China rapidly changing into a free market society in the last decade or so, cable television and satellite television has begun reaching to even amongst lower-income families.
Since the satellite and cable television tends to be harder to regulate, many missionaries see potential in utilizing cable television as means in promoting evangelism. Cable television is already widely available in Hong Kong broadcasting hundreds of channels from all over the world including, more recently, God TV – reportedly the first International Christian channel to reach Hong Kong.
In the same televised report released by R&E Newsweekly, Pastor John Snelgrove of the Fellowship for Christians commented:
“I love it…the fact that we can just switch on our TV screen, and we can see people of the like of Joyce Meyer and Benny Hinn, and how they are teaching has been …a real benefit to our people as a congregation.”
Pastor John Snelgrove, a businessman, is pastoring at the Vine Christian Fellowship alongside co-pastor Tony Reed, an engineer. Both men operate Fellowship for Christians in inner city Hong Kong.
Ed Mangum, another Hong Kong church pastor, felt that cable and satellite television can potentially revolutionize evangelism in China. Speaking to R&E Newsweekly, he said, “I think name recognition is something that we all know about. Commercial TV is built on name recognition…so, just the introduction of Jesus in that way opens the door to the mind.”
Nonetheless, critics have raised doubts over the effectiveness of using cable television to reach China. God TV, for example, only broadcasts in Hong Kong and receives little to no coverage on the mainland. Moreover, God TV only broadcasts in English, limiting viewer interests to a significantly smaller audience – particularly in East Asia.
In recent times, God TV has attracted controversy in actively encouraging viewers to smuggle copies of a doomsday book titled, The Journal of the Unknown Prophet, into China. The book predicts Armageddon including the fall of the Chinese government.
Pastor Balcombe, formerly an advisor for God TV, withdrew support stating that such actions were unnecessarily provocative and damaging to mission efforts in China. Speaking to R&E Newsweekly, he said, “What is going to happen if this controversy is not really quieted? Then people [in China] are going to have a wrong impression of the church and Christianity, and so [for] the next person that…wants to go and start a television station… they will say no, and they will not tell you why.”
Other local pastors shared similar views including Mangum. “Frankly, I cringed a bit,
Mangum shared with R&E Newsweekly, “I just don't know how effective that is, and especially when you're…[asked] to sneak things into somewhere where it's not wanted. I feel that to tell folks to do that publicly is just not a good approach.”
Many pastor in fact, share similar sentiments in not wanting to involve themselves in controversial matters. Tony Reed of the Fellowship for Christians said to R&E Newsweekly:
“Certainly most of the preachers I know, most of the churches I know will try to stay clear of being political in their statements. You know, because we have the best message there is. It's the message from Jesus Christ, the message from God. So why would we want to mess that up with politics? And really, most people would try to avoid that, I think, if they could.”
Perhaps the biggest concern most critics raise is the practicality in investing both time and effort into cable TV evangelism. Most pastors agree that true conversion cannot come from a television screen, but only under the careful guidance and discipleship.
“Christianity spread in the first century not by modern technology,” Balcombe reminded R&E Newsweekly. “Not by the printed page, but by word of mouth, by individuals who really believed in what they believed in, and I see that still as the main factor in China.”
Even Mangum agreed that in some ways missions would work better without technology. “Can God work without TV? I sure think he can, and maybe more effectively in some ways,” he commented to R&E.
As for now, many preachers in Hong Kong feel that the simple act of discipleship is perhaps the more practical means in spreading Christianity into China. Balcombe noted that the current situation in China in regards to religious freedom will not allow for the application of cable TV evangelism.
“I love China. We live in Hong Kong, China. I obey the laws. We pray for the nation. But this is just a fact, and so I wouldn't put a lot of hope on China anytime in our lifetime [to be] open to Christian television,” Balcombe concluded with R&E.