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The Magazine of The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America

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The church in China

Editor’s note: ELCA pastor John Gugel recently visited China. His article, Welcome everywhere, appeared in The Lutheran’s October 2005 issue.

It is said about China, “If you visit for a week you can write a book; if you live there a lifetime you won’t be able to finish a sentence.”


After spending a month in that fascinating nation, I discovered the truth of that proverb. China defies a simple description. It is too big, too diverse, the population too large, the country changing too rapidly, and the economy growing too fast to pin down any single observation.

The Chinese people I met were friendly, resilient, hardworking and eager to help me with the wheelchair I use to get around. They have suffered greatly from foreign intervention as the various European nations—and the U.S.—carved out “spheres of influence,” always to China’s detriment.

Then came WWII (known in China as the “Japanese War”). The Japanese occupation is remembered for its cruelty and ruthlessness. A bloody civil war followed, ending in 1949 with the Communist Party in control.

Perhaps the worst episode in China’s modern history was self-inflicted—the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s and 1970s. The revolution was a total disaster for China—economically, spiritually and morally. Basic human rights were ignored, chaos reigned, and the Red Guards ran about unchecked, free to wage their destructive activities with impunity. The institutions of society—religion, higher education, the civil service and the military—were brutally attacked.

The Red Guards targeted the Christian church in particular. Every site of public worship was shut down, and all church-supported institutions (colleges, seminaries, hospitals, etc) were closed. We in the West were horrified by what we heard was happening in the nation we commonly referred to as "Red China." We thought the church had been entirely wiped out. When the chaos finally came to an end, the church that emerged from hiding was larger in number and stronger in faith than it had ever been. All of that leaves the church in China with a wonderful opportunity to proclaim the gospel and fill the spiritual vacuum left behind in the wake of the Cultural Revolution.

In the hinterlands there is evidence of some petty persecution by officials who follow the old ways. And some Christians complain that their leaders are too cozy with the government. But church leaders see an advantage to working with the government with a united front. For example, the government has cooperated by returning confiscated church property and places of worship. In the Pudong area of Shanghai, the government built a church for the Roman Catholics and one for the Protestant church.

Since the Protestant church emerged from hiding with the collapse of the Cultural Revolution, it has been led by Bishop K.H. Ting. Highly revered by his people, Ting is now in his 90s. There is great concern over what the church will become once he leaves the scene. The church that emerged after the collapse of the Cultural Revolution was free of the West’s denominations. It is one body. The divisions imposed by Western missionaries have melted away in the crucible of suffering, self-propagation, self-support and self-governance.


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