Forty-one years ago David Adeney joined the staff of the China Inland Mission (now Overseas Missionary Fellowship). He lived in China before and during the war with Japan and worked with the China Inter-Varsity Fellowship 1946–50, including fifteen months under the Communist regime. After leaving China he took part in Inter-Varsity’s missionary program in the United States and then returned to Hong Kong to serve with the International Fellowship of Evangelical Students. Since 1968 he has been the head of the Discipleship Training Centre in Singapore. In his book entitled “China: Christian Students Face the Revolution” (InterVarsity Press), particularly its concluding chapter, he discusses what Western Christians can do to help the Church in China. The following is an edited interview with Mr. Adeney on the subject of mainland China today.
Question. Has there been a relaxation of religious restrictions in China recently?
Answer. From 1966 to 1972 the Religious Affairs Bureau was not mentioned in the Chinese press at all. But now it has appeared again, and there have also been references to members of this bureau attending certain party functions. For instance, when the Nobel Prize winner Dr. Yang was buried, members of the Religious Affairs Bureau were present. At Easter, 1972, the Protestant services began again. Catholic services started in 1971. But these are showcase services. Just recently a friend of mine went through Peking and was able to go to the service. You have to register on Friday to attend the service on Sunday. Perhaps twenty or so people attended, and the liturgy is old Chinese. Foreigners from embassies attend. That type of service is by no means typical of the real Church in China.
Question. Do the Chinese observe a “day of rest,” say Sunday, or Tuesday, as it is in India?
Answer. Many Chinese take no holiday at all except at Chinese New Year, when for three days everything closes down. In the cities before the Revolution big businesses followed the traditional Sunday closing. But the small shops stayed open seven days a week. As far as I can gather, the Chinese working Communists do have staggered time off. Christians have told me they cannot fix a day to meet because of their irregular off-days from working in the fields. Therefore, the external observances have disappeared. The Church in China today is made up of people who are meeting together in a real fellowship in Christ but not at a certain time or place.
Question. How many believers are there?
Answer. It would be very unwise to estimate their number. But I think there may be greater freedom for Christians in the country than for those in the cities. I’m quite sure that Christians are meeting in many of the provinces. But we must never generalize. China with its 800 million people is a vast country. What is true of one area may not be true of another. I have firsthand reports of Christians meeting in a number of the provinces. On the other hand, I know there are some areas where it is extremely difficult. For instance, one person coming from a rather remote area in China knew of no Christians in his area and had not dared to mention his faith to anyone, apart from praying with his wife in bed. He had not even dared to tell his little girl for fear that she would mention Jesus in kindergarten. But that is only one area. On his way out of China he met other members of his family who were actively engaged in small groups, worshiping and meeting for prayer and Bible study. Another person from a different area told of large and growing groups of Christians meeting weekly. Although he spoke of some problems, the meetings were completely open. And even though they weren’t meeting in the old church buildings, they were allowed to assemble. But more recently these large meetings have been stopped and some of the leaders arrested. A Bible shortage is a very real problem, though. In one area there were only about eight Bibles for every hundred Christians.
Question. Where did they get those Bibles?
Answer. Well, those Bibles were probably ones that survived the Cultural Revolution, when the government tried to destroy Bibles and all religious books—in fact, all Western-oriented books. The Cultural Revolution, you see, was aimed at destroying the four “olds”: old habits, old ideas, old cultures, old customs. Christians were expected to hand over everything that was in any sense a link with the past. Today people are still afraid of being seen reading the Bible. Recently I talked with someone who had borrowed a Bible for a month. The lender saw the person reading the Bible and was very alarmed. “If someone discovers it, I’ll lose my Bible!” he said. The thing that encourages me is to see young people believing. Usually the local, secular press gives the impression that only a few of the old people are Christians. This isn’t true. I met a twenty-seven or twenty-eight-year-old man who had been a Christian only a year and a half. He met Christ through the open meetings. He spoke of great answers to prayer—of people being healed and of a tremendous interest in the Gospel.
Question. Is travel hard in China?
Answer. Yes, it is very difficult. If you go out of your area, which measures about thirty to forty miles, you need money and special permission—and that’s hard to get. When people get out of China, it’s of major interest. In the past few years far more permits have been issued for people to leave China. For instance, Chinese in this country are applying for exit permits for their relatives in China; some are getting them.
Question. Do you think China will soon be willing to have visits by religious groups or church officials?
Answer. A number of Christians have gone to China in the last two or three years, including some missionaries. I have talked to a Norwegian, and I know some American citizens have gone in. Some missionaries have interviewed Bishop Ting Kuang-hsun, the Anglican bishop, in Nanking. He was the one who headed the theological training center that existed under the “Three Self Movement” in Nanking. He says that Christians are free to meet in the city. He also said there are at least four churches that could open in Nanking, but at present they have made no decisions about that. They are inclined not to use foreign buildings once associated with the foreign church. They think it might be better to let the house meetings continue.
Question. What was the situation, in statistical terms, before the Communist takeover?
Answer. Roughly, it was one million Protestants and three million Catholics out of six hundred million. But in China today I think we’ve got to get away from the whole idea of denominations.
Question. What about Watchman Nee’s group?
Answer. The influence of the “Little Flock” continues in China. Not long ago, an article in a secular paper in Hong Kong warned the Hong Kong government against the growing religious empire of Watchman Nee. It stated that the United Front Work Department of the Central Chinese Communist party was relaxing religious policy and conducting patriotic and ideological education among the several million religious believers. It also said there was a case for reversing the charges against some of the religious believers who had been imprisoned wrongfully under Lo Jui-ch’ing, who was ousted in 1965. It went on to say that the United Front Work Department knows that most of the 100,000 believers in the “Little Flock” movement still fervently love their native land and support socialism. The article is not an official statement, but it seems to have been inspired by certain things that have happened on the Mainland and indicates there is more freedom granted to the religious believers at the present time.
Question. What is happening with the Church in relation to the Maoist ideal of the new man?
Answer. I am concerned because the majority of people writing on the theological implications of the new China are extremely liberal in their views of salvation. They are closely related to the Bangkok concept of salvation. Some suggest that China today represents a new phase of salvation history and that we are seeing God working in the history of China. Some are asking such questions as, “Do we have in the New China a viable alternative to the Gospel of salvation interpreted, developed, and propagated by Western Christianity?” or “Is the salvation we see in the New China going to be the norm in determining the shape and content of man’s search for happiness?” “Is the New China going to be the main instrument in the appearance of a new world order in which the salvation of man is to have its fulfillment?” Too many people are taking at face value all the claims in China today of the creation of a new man.
Question. But don’t the Chinese people have a new cohesiveness?
Answer. There has been a great deal of material improvement, but in a large part of China the standard of living is still very low indeed. We must also remember that only certain areas are open to visitors. Among the Chinese there are those who come out speaking rather favorably for the regime and what has been accomplished in China and those against it. On the surface, there is this tremendous emphasis on serving the people. And one is tremendously impressed by the hope regarding the future. Some young people, however, are disillusioned. Mao expected this, since they didn’t fight in the Revolution. He is quite aware that the Revolution must be continual, or people will forget its meaning.
Question. What do you tell someone who applauds the Communist strides as compared with the seeming lack of Christian influence?
Answer. China was never under a specifically Christian influence.
Question. But weren’t there as many as 25,000 Western missionaries at one time?
Answer. Yes. But at the beginning of the nineteenth century there were only a handful of Protestant missionaries. From the mid-nineteenth century for about a hundred years there was a very rapid increase in the number of Christians. But even if you say there were a million Protestants, that is not a great many out of six hundred million people. In the cities the influence of Christianity was felt most through the various educational institutions, the hospitals, and so on.
Question. What is the prospect for the proclamation of the Gospel?
Answer. Among the Chinese in Hong Kong, Taiwan, Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand, the Philippines, and Indonesia—and other overseas Chinese communities—the Church is relatively strong. Yet some Chinese Christians coming from the mainland are disappointed because the spiritual standard is so much lower. The Church on the Mainland today is a purified church, a suffering church, a living church. To come from a situation where people are sacrificing to preach the Gospel into a church filled with materialism is disheartening. The Christian cause in China lies with the Christians within China. I think it’s possible for Chinese Christians to visit their relatives and in their personal contacts to speak for their Lord and to share their faith. But I don’t think we will find any Christian workers openly entering China, in the foreseeable future.
Question. What part do radio broadcasting and literature campaigns play in the outreach to China?
Answer. People are listening to the various broadcasts, and they are very important. I am concerned, however, that there should be adequate research into the thinking of the people on mainland China. Perhaps the radio’s main target is the Christians in China, as in reading Scripture at dictation speed. Since the Nixon visit, American radio stations haven’t been jammed. I think it’s still illegal to listen to foreign radio stations, but reports are coming from some who listen to broadcasts of the Far East Broadcasting Company.
Question. Is it possible to mail letters and books into China?
Answer. Yes, especially from Hong Kong, but I distinguish between a Chinese writing a letter and a Westerner. The Chinese write in Chinese to their relatives all the time. How much Christian literature gets in that way I’m not prepared to say.
Question. What is the status of theological education in Asia?
Answer. I am encouraged by the setting up of research study centers in Hong Kong. And a group of Chinese theologians have just started the China Graduate School of Theology in Hong Kong and are helping in the work of the China Evangelical Seminary in Taiwan. Other Chinese theologians are teaching in Bible seminaries and at the Discipleship Training Centre in Singapore. But we must not fall into the trap of just perpetuating the Western type of curriculum and theological training. We must think in terms of what we can do for the whole man and how effective and prepared he’s going to be for the work into which he’s going. We don’t want theological training in a vacuum, but theology related to life situations. Paul in his epistles constantly refers to actual situations in relation to theological concepts. Any training center in Asia today needs to rethink this important aspect of theological training. Academics must be linked with actual problems to be faced.
Question. What would you say are the most significant things that Western Christians should think and do for the Church in China?
Answer. Naturally you would expect me to mention prayer, first. There is so little knowledge of what’s happening in China that people have forgotten to pray. Secondly, I believe we should do our utmost to help in all efforts to broadcast the Gospel into China. This means real research to understand the living conditions and thought patterns of the people in China today. Thirdly, I believe there should be the preparation of literature. The Bible has been prepared in the simplified script, and we should also be preparing a Christian apologetic. Questions raised by the Revolution are not being answered by evangelicals. Above all the initiative for the work in China today must be taken by Chinese.
We must thank God for the way in which he is preserving a living witness in China today and seek to learn important lessons from the Chinese church. After the fall of Viet Nam, churches in other Asian countries are realizing that they must learn from the experiences of their brethren in China.
YOU WERE MY FRIEND
You were my friend,
a gentle alcoholic.
You gave me a chance
to grow, to become,
to be what I dream.
“You’re trying to be Christ,”
you glared at me once,
“but you can’t take it!”
You were right.
I found you hunched on your couch,
the dog beside you.
Even then I failed you.
(My excuse: two brothers somewhere.)
You wound up in Potter’s Field.
You were my friend.
I didn’t do well, did I?
I hope I do better with the dog.
Forgive me. Thank you.
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