China: history doesn't repeat, but it does rhyme

10 Mar 2023

A new blog article compares the last six or seven years in China to the early 1950s. I have certainly heard numerous anecdotal stories–and this writer must have heard even more–to get the sense that most (although not all) of the various kinds of workers in China are being quickly shown the door.

China tends to go through stages of inward-facing and outward-facing. This is a new, inward-facing, nationalistic turn. Different agencies are responding in different ways to this, as they will. But what I really am not hearing much about right now is how Chinese pastors, church planters, and home and foreign mission workers are responding.

The inward turn of China also means foreign journalists, students and business people are not particularly welcome right now. This means not only is are outsiders losing ministry access to China, we are also losing informational access. It is getting harder and harder to get any kind of sense about what’s going on inside the country.

Most practically, in the Roundup this is be marked by a decreasing number of links specifically about China. While I hear stories, I only link to public sources, and there are fewer and fewer of those. But it also means that, just generally, there are fewer and fewer stories to be heard.

There are differences between now and the 1950s. Surveillance technology has much improved, although the maximum capabilities of that technology is unclear. Certainly, it’s enough to have a chilling impact on connections, although perhaps not so icy cold as the direst headlines. Additionally, Covid and Zero-Covid policies have led to population control measures (the dreaded QR code, for example), that are making travel and connection very difficult–and the Covid surveillance is known to be used for other purposes if desired.

Viral networks grow as people connect with each other, and spill over into nearby regions as people travel for personal business or family get togethers. Quite a bit of church growth happened in China of old as migrant workers traveled, for example. This kind of connection and travel is being deeply impacted by China’s policies. Holiday travel is dampened. Migrant workers are staying away from cities where they might get trapped in Covid lockdowns. I’d wager it’s hard to gather for fellowship when you know you’re being tracked by Covid surveillance software. On the other hand, China wants to encourage, where possible, business and domestic tourism. The results of all this are complex, ambiguous, and highly unpredictable.

However, the last time China closed, the church continued to expand in the shadows. By the time China opened somewhat to the world again, the church in China had grown until today it numbers over 100 million. Even today, most of the stories of church growth I hear have been in mostly out of the way places.

I really don’t expect growth to freeze this “winter,” either. How much will the church grow, out of sight and out of view? I wouldn’t hazard a guess on the amount, but I’d be more than happy to bed it will expand. This story is not finished, and when things open up again–as they almost certainly will–we will likely find that, as always, most of the great instances of church growth in the world have always been in situations of pressure, turmoil and persecution.