Although China is developing rapidly both economically and in its foreign relations, religious freedom is still an issue of international concern.
In China, Christians are separated into two particular groups: registered churches and the non-registered churches.
Just recently, Dr. Werner Burklin was interviewed by The Gospel Post regarding the development of Christianity in China.
The following are statements taken during the interview.
Q. Can you briefly give us an overview of how Christianity is developing in China? What are the areas of concerns that Christians in mainland and around the world should be aware of?
Let me go back to the time when I was born and raised in China. At that time Christianity did not have the opportunity to spread that rapidly. There were only 700,000 to 800,000 protestant Christians in China before the Second World War. Since then, dramatic changes have taken place. As of now, the church of China has been exploding, this really happened because when Mao died, there was new leadership, Den Xiaoping was the main one who felt China needed to catch up with the rest of the world politically and economically, which led them to change their constitution and make it more clear that there should be religious freedom in China, which of course can be interpreted differently. The Chinese Christians call it relative freedom, but it is not total freedom as we understand it in western democracies. They have come a long way, because of that, things have changed dramatically. People are allowed to worship freely once they register with the authorities as all organizations have to do, such as political parties or business establishments. When you open up a business in China as in any other part of the world, you register with the authorities and abide by the rules and regulations set by them. If you are willing to do that then you are able to open up churches, build Bible schools, theological seminaries, etc. Now things are progressing rapidly.
During the communist hardliner leadership, Bibles were not allowed to be printed in China, but now they are being printed by the millions. They are not only printed for the Chinese on the mainland but they are also being printed by the millions for exports. Things have changed dramatically. And I praise God for that. As far as the Chinese in China and the Chinese in the rest of the world are concerned, they should rejoice that this is just beginning of an opening up. This will eventually also affect human rights issues that so far have not been done properly in China. Of course, they are in the process of changing that as well. Overall, I'm very optimistic about the development in China. If you play by the rules, regulations and parameters set by the authorities you can do a lot. Yes, there are restrictions. You cannot do soap box evangelistic preaching on a street corner; you cannot go on radio or television to propagate your faith; you cannot pass out tracts on the streets. There are many restrictions that I do not like, but the Chinese are not too perturbed about not being able to pass out tracts, because the Bible does not order you to do that. The Bible does say that we as Christians should be tracts. People should see or read us and follow the ways as we walk with the Lord. This it is far more powerful, of course, if you can be living tracts. Of course, there are pros and cons - you only need to find out what you can do.
Q. How should Christian ministries from overseas serve China?
There are numerous ways. There are wonderful Christian organizations that work in China clandestinely. I know of Christian teachers that go in there to teach English, French, and German - mostly English of course. As they do, they also lift up their Christian faith, and they have some wonderful ways to share with others about Christ. A number of people have come to know Jesus through such endeavors. So there are a number of ways that you can do ministry. However, such ministries can only be done clandestinely.
There is another way, and that is how we opted. And that is to be open about what we were going to do. China Partner believed right from the start to be honest and forthright in what we do; we wanted to be very progressive and open-handed. This way we would gain respect not only of the Chinese church leadership but also the government leadership. There are people who watch you work in China, and they were convinced that we would undermine in any way the sovereignty of the Chinese government. Therefore we never had any difficulties. We could go preach and teach, pass out Bibles and Christian literature - we had so many open doors. We knew that there are certain groups who disagreed with us and wanted to do things secretively. God also blessed them in a wonderful way on how to get the gospel out. Those are the ones that tend to work with the so-called the non-registered church.
Other organization like ours who feel more comfortable to do things openly work mostly with the registered church. However, most of the other Christian organizations tend to work with non-registered churches. Since so many of them are focusing on the unregistered churches, we felt that there is need to really help the registered churches. We have been greatly blessed in being able to help that other part of body of Christ and that in a very unique way.
Training, by the way, is the most important and necessary ministry in China today. Churches in China are exploding, whether registered or non-registered, but all of them do not have enough trained pastors or Christian workers or Christian lay people who can minister to the vast number of new-born babes in Jesus Christ. So we feel training is paramount
Q. What kind of projects has CP initiated since it was founded back in 1989?
We started out with training. I remember talking to the church leadership right at the beginning about where we might be able to help? When I saw the need of training, I brought this to the attention of the church leadership. Since they cling to the three self principles - self propagating, self-governing, and self-financing - it took them a long time, in fact several years to realize that they could really benefit by utilizing Christians from other parts of the world. Once they were convinced that this is beneficial to them, they opened up and invited us to begin. Training became the major emphasis of our ministry. First into theological seminaries, then into Bible schools that eventually started up in different places, and now into lay leadership. This coming week we will be back in China - in Nanjing where we will be teaching at a Christian counseling center that was started couple of years ago by a Chinese pastor who had studied in the United States on that very issue and then returned to China to open up this counseling center.
The second major emphasis is the distribution of literature. This was another great concern of ours right from the beginning. At a time when they did not have many sound evangelical and biblical books we wanted to help the students. We shipped in tens and thousands of books. We didn't smuggle them in. We did this openly, aboveboard, and legally. That was another plus. We could bring them into all areas of China. Passing out literature was very important.
The third aspect came when we realized that church buildings needed to be constructed in poor areas of China. Along the coast they have so much more money, but inland China is not as prosperous. We then started to help construct churches. We helped them financially. We feel that we should not pay everything because they need to do their part. But we certainly would want to assist. We zeroed in to those areas where China Inland Missionaries had labored. My parents were with the China Inland Mission, so we have been helping specifically in the province where the German branch of the China Inland Mission worked.
The fourth area was helping to construct the bible school in the capital city of Jiangxi, which is the only authorized Bible school in the whole province of Jiangxi. We started from scratch. In the beginning they were meeting up in a little room off the balcony in a church. Now they have a beautiful campus with four buildings and a chapel, which seats 1000 people. Instead of having a chapel just for 200 students they wanted to open up to the community. So they built that large church. We were able to help with that as well. These are some of the areas of our work.
Q. In order to more effectively preach the message of Jesus Christ in China, what kind of information is essential for people to know?
I think they should be told the entire truth. I am very surprised that not only the secular but also the Christian media always tend to zero in on the negative. If a house church leader is being imprisoned, that is big news. Of course, things like that happen. But the fact is that they are not being persecuted because of their faith in Jesus Christ. If that would be the reason for incarceration, then millions of them would be in prison today. To make it clear, they are not being persecuted for their faith but they are being prosecuted for going against the laws of the land. Now, they may not like those laws; I also don't like some of them; but there are those laws. Many westerners are confused on these issues.
I believe that we can help by being more open-minded, and also by ministering to the authorities. We have tremendous talks with communist leaders, who are in charge of the religious affairs in China. We just had an interesting encounter with a person in Chengdu, who was very interested when he heard I knew Billy Graham personally and worked with him for many years. He felt that the Chinese know very little Mr. Graham. He started a research institute at the Chengdu University to study his life and his message. Why has he been such a prominent Christian leaders and the rest of the world, they ask? They are actually zeroing in on that. So they want to find out. That is a positive way on how we can influence society in a way that will attract them to Jesus Christ.
Q. Through this education course on the life of Billy Graham, what kind of materials would they be studying about? What is the significance of this?
It is his message they are interested in. Billy Graham always talked about the importance of the cross. In evangelism, you have to lift up the cross of Jesus Christ, because without the cross, there would be no resurrection, and without the resurrection, there would be no faith. That's what Paul said in the New Testament. That's the very basic message of Mr. Graham, and if they study his message, then they would study of course the Bible. In fact, this communist leader told me that he has a number of Bibles. I asked him, "Why do you have the Bible?" He said, "I have a number of different versions." He even said, "I believe the Bible is the most important book in the world." For them to make such statements shows me that the message of the Bible is getting hold of some top leaders. This is one way of getting close to the Chinese secular leadership.
Q. What should Christians pray for in aspects of China missions?
They should pray that God will open up the eyes of the political regime¡Xfor them to realize that there is no threat if they would give more freedom to religion in China. I think it is important that they will understand the way of democracy in a better way. I'm saying that they are moving towards that goal, but it would be wonderful if they could do it faster. Of course, the Chinese think in generations because they have a wonderful culture and civilization for thousands of years. We, westerners especially Caucasians, always like to see things done today. Especially Americans. I'm a German and thus have a little different viewpoint on this. America only has 240 or 300 odd years of culture at the most. The Chinese think in terms of millennia. I feel that we from the west can learn a lot from the Chinese as far as culture is concerned. But we from the West can get the Christian faith into the culture of China. This would be a tremendous asset to the whole country and people of that nation.
Q. Are there any prayer requests?
The first prayer request is for political leaders to open up even more. Then the second prayer request is that God will help us train up very strong biblically minded young people who in turn will then serve the body of Christ in China. The third area would be more theological. I think the danger in China today, as far as Christians are concerned, does not come from the government, because of their restraints etc., but the danger comes more from within the church. If they go the European way - now I'm German and want to talk about the German problem - German theology became very liberal and that emptied our churches. Once the Chinese Christians become more liberal through their theological education received in different liberal schools around the world--that would be detrimental to the church in China. If they move away from the central theme of the gospel, then they would move away from its core. So we need to pray that God will safeguard them from falling into that kind of a trap. I often tell my Chinese Christian friends in China "if you want to see what happened to the aftermath of liberal theology, go to our countries and you will see empty churches." We have gorgeous cathedrals, but we have empty churches today because the message was watered down over the years, and liberalism took over. That would be a great prayer concern of mine.
And then the fourth prayer request is that Chinese Christians will really become light and salt as they penetrate their own society. They dare not cling to themselves and forget the rest of their neighbors and people that surround them. They really need to be the salt right everywhere. That is a great prayer concern I also have.
Q. Are there any specific prayer requests?
Pray specifically for Bible schools and theological seminaries. Pray for teachers of those schools and students so that they may absorb good, strong biblical theology. Pray for the construction of good Bible institutes and good churches that can be used not only for Sunday worship services but right through the week in different ways. Training would be one way. For instance in urban centers they need to take care of migrants that are coming in. The general public also needs to be helped medically. We are helping them build medical clinics not only for the school but also for the rest of them. In another words, there are so many things that can be done by the Christians in China. My prayer is that they become broad-minded being involved in everything from evangelism to meeting social needs.