Yesterday, the afternoon schedule of the World Council of Churches (WCC) Conference on World Mission and Evangelism (CWME) kicked-off in Athens, Greece. Time proved to be packed with group discussions based on the plenary theme in the morning - "Come, Holy Spirit, heal and reconcile".
Among the ten parallel "synaxeis" (a Greek term meaning group discussions) - delegates from different countries, languages and specializations gathered. A greatly inspiring presentation was given by the first ever Chinese delegation who explained the challenges of mission in China today.
According to the reports on Ekklesia's website, Simon Barrows, who is representing the Churches' Commission on Mission of Churches Together in Britain and Ireland at CWME, the General Secretary of the China Christian Council (CCC) Rev Cao Shengjie yesterday spoke to the Conference. The synaxeis was called, "Common witness in China".
In the traditional Chinese society, especially in Mainland China, Christianity is usually seen as "foreign". Thus it is difficult to promote the Gospel authentically to this kind of cultural and social settings. Rev Cao of the CCC said that the challenge of Chinese believers is to discover a distinctly Chinese perspective on mission and evangelism.
The official figures of the CCC show that the number of Protestant Christians in China is around 16-17 million. However, researchers suggest the real number is more likely to be around 50-70 million. There are also about 12 million Catholics. The amazing movement of underground or house churches has made China one of the fastest-growing countries in Christianity in the world. However, it is expected to develop even more.
Rev Cao said that the extension of grassroots education, social witness, personal evangelism and the renewal of theological thinking would make the next phase of the development of the Protestant church possible, according to Simon Barrows.
On the other hand, Rev Cao warned the Christians in the midst of many new evangelistic initiatives, "Evangelism will not meet its goal if the methods of mission are not in accord with the truth of the Gospel."
Religious freedom in China is also being highlighted in the synaxeis, as the issue was widely discussed by the world’s evangelicals, NGOs and human rights groups during the United Nations Commission on Human Rights (UNCHR) in Geneva last month.
In China, only the "three-self" churches are legally recognized by the government. "Three-self" means to be self-propagating, self-supporting and self-financing. Continued crackdowns against "unofficial" religious groups have been allegedly observed in many parts of the country.
From 1st March, new regulations on religions were implemented in China. The new rules say that "anyone who compels any citizen to believe in or not believe in any religions...shall be ordered to make corrections by the religious affairs department" and could face criminal charges.
This law has been said to have the aim of reinforcing the protection of "normal" religious activities in the wake of the rise of the Falun Gong movement which the Chinese authorities have defined as a cult. However, observers are concerned that the Chinese government is tightening its hand on the recognized religious bodies behind the scenes. The Chinese government has strongly emphasized the need for faith groups to contribute actively to the stability and harmony of Chinese society.
Rev Cao responded that religious freedom required a legal framework to guarantee security and stability for both the churches and the government, according to Simon Barrows.
The China Christian Council (CCC) was formed in 1980, after the re-opening of churches in 1979. There are also Christian Councils in each of the provinces. They seek to organise and service the life of local congregations, which form part of the post-denominational Protestant church.
Rev Cao added that the CCC, especially through its Bible ministry, aimed to support all Christians in China, not just those who recognised the three-self principles.
In fact, the presence of the Chinese delegation yesterday is of strong historical significance.
"This is our first visit to Athens, and it is also the first time we have been part of the Conference on World Mission and Evangelism through this gathering," the Rev Cao was quoted by Ekklesia - a UK-based Christian think-tank.
Rev Cao encouraged Chinese Christians to seek unity among themselves and peaceful relations with other faiths, including Catholicism. The Chinese authorities strictly ban all the religious groups or churches loyal to the Roman Catholic Pope.