What We Bring Back

Friday, December 11th

by Barry Rieder

In addition to the silk scarfs, fine tea, memories of extraordinary banquets, postcards and pictures of historic sites, what do we bring back to Canada?  When we met one of the staff persons from the Canadian Consulate General in Shanghai, he said that after his first visit to China he felt that he could write a book.  The second time he came back he realized that he could only write an article.  Now after working in China for several years, he wonders if he could even write a paragraph.   Although we learned many things with our visit, I realize that I come back with many more questions about China as well as our own Canadian context.

Nevertheless, I feel it’s important to share a few things that that I did learn. The rise of nationalism and communism in China at the beginning of the 20th century resulted in part from a concern for industrial workers and peasants.  The reaction towards missionaries and church missions during the formation of the People’s Republic of China founded in 1949 was more about a reaction to the past evils of imperialism and Western colonialism.  This was further heightened during the Chinese Cultural Revolution of the 1960s and ‘70s, during which religious practice was banned.  China has come a long way since then.

In today’s China, the State has recognized five official religions:  Daoism, Buddhism, Islam, Protestant Christianity and Catholic Christianity (defined as two separate religions in China).  Christianity in China is growing with about 500,000 new members each year with an estimated 30 Million registered Christians in the Protestant church alone.  The Chinese State has not only restored church buildings destroyed in the Cultural Revolution but is building new places of worship.  70% of the current church buildings in use today were built after 1980. Some of these new sites would be the envy of any congregation in Canada.  Protestant Christianity in China is now “post-denominational.”  Former protestant denominations are united under the Chinese Christian Council and the Three-Self Patriotic Movement (the latter reflects the Protestant commitment to self-government, self-support and self-propagation).  There is also a strong movement to contextualize Protestant Christianity to the Chinese experience and not be bound to the past colonization of the Western Church.  The State is interested in working with the Chinese Christian Church in expanding social services, especially in the area of elder care.   The State as well as the Chinese Church is interested in learning from churches in other countries, what these faith communities might be able to contribute from their experience.

There is no need to smuggle Bibles into China.  The Amity Printing Company, begun by Protestant Christians 30 years ago, has produced more than 140 Million Bibles. Not only does Amity print Chinese bibles: it also prints bibles in 100 languages and export those to various parts of the world.  In one of the hotels we stayed at there was a bible in the dresser beside the bed and at another hotel there was a sign in English saying that you could order from the front desk “Chocolate cake, a bible or a bathrobe.”

Modern China was nothing like I expected.  I saw signs for all kinds of franchises: McDonalds, Starbucks, Ikea, H&M, Walmart, and more.  I saw many fine luxury cars.  Downton Shanghai and Beijing looked like Toronto or Times Square in New York on steroids.  It totally blew away my stereotype of what I imagined a communist country to look like.

As I come back to my Canadian context I am confronted with all kinds of questions.  Can we become less denominational and become more of a uniting church in Canada?  If Churches in China can have up to 6 services each Sunday with up to 1,300 worshiping at each service do we really need as many church buildings that we have?  As Chinese Christians contextualize the gospel to their situation what do we need to do to contextualize Christianity here in Canada?

It was a wonderful experience to go as a United Church delegate to China.  Although the travel is over, I know that that the relationship and understanding with our Chinese Christian brothers and sisters, as joint companions on the journey, will continue to grow.


Photo of the Great Wall at Badaling in Hebei Province was taken by delegate Daniel Hayward


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