“Our dream is broken,” said Tina Lau, a young executive in a Christian organization in Hong Kong. “We were dreaming that Deng Xiaoping would be a good guy; we hoped that things would be better.” But those hopes ended on June 4 when Lau and the people of Hong Kong saw China’s prodemocracy movement crushed in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square.
Recent surveys show that one-third of Hong Kong’s 5.6 million population would leave the British colony if possible before it is turned over to China in 1997. Last year more than 45,000 emigrated. Since the events of last spring, requests for exit visas have jumped by 200 percent. And Christians, like much of the population, are among those who want out.
“Everyone now in the churches is talking about emigration,” Lau said. Church leaders estimate that during the past few years, more than 11,000 Christians have emigrated. “There are going to be a lot more,” she said.
The problem for Hong Kong’s churches is not only one of declining numbers, but also one of leadership. Many of the colony’s senior pastors have been siphoned off by rapidly growing new Chinese churches in North America.
“In Toronto, there are more than 100 Chinese churches, all of them packed,” said Philemon Choi, general secretary of Breakthrough, a multimedia ministry to Hong Kong youth. “Many are looking for senior pastors, and they are shopping in Hong Kong.”
Their exodus leaves churches with young, inexperienced leaders to face a daunting future. Perhaps as many as half of Hong Kong’s pastors are less than 30 years old.
In addition, those who qualify for emigration are generally mature, financially established people. So Christian laypeople who leave are often pillars of their churches: experienced members who have served as elders, deacons, and teachers.
Commitment To The Church
Desperate to stem this hemorrhage, some Christian leaders are working to instill, if not confidence in Hong Kong’s future, commitment to the church in Hong Kong and hope in the faithfulness of God.
The preliminary draft of a report prepared by Hong Kong delegates at the Lausanne II conference, held last July in Manila, admits the Beijing massacre “cast a thick cloud over the future sky of Hong Kong.” Nevertheless, the crisis “cannot break our will and our determination to make Hong Kong our home and to take root in this city, as well as our commitment to contribute to the development of Hong Kong and China.”
At Lausanne II, the Hong Kong delegation adopted the goals of Mission Hong Kong 2000, a multifaceted plan developed under the auspices of the Hong Kong Church Renewal Movement. The plan was signed in January by 400 church leaders as a signal of their commitment to Hong Kong beyond 1997. Though church growth during the past few decades has been relatively slow, Lausanne participants also pledged to increase the evangelical Christian population in Hong Kong from 4 percent to 10 percent of the colony’s 5.6 million people by the year 2000, and to increase the number of churches from 800 to 2,000 in that same time.
Cooperation in evangelistic outreach and careful deployment of diminishing human resources will be a key to future growth, according to Timothy Lau, pastor of Hong Kong Baptist Church and chairman of the Church Renewal Movement.
Another challenge before the remaining Christian leaders will very likely be how to respond to the volatile political situation.
“The events of May and June exposed our weak side,” said Lau. “We discovered we lack a theological basis for facing political issues. So, when the [Communist] crackdown came, a lot of pastors—including me—did not know how to react. How do we prepare our sermons? How do we teach Christians to face this situation?
“For us, June 4 was a glimpse of the future,” said Lau. “It is good we have a foretaste of the situation we will face after they take over. We can think about how to deal with them; we can help Christians prepare themselves.”
“Ten years ago, most people in Hong Kong thought Christianity should not deal with political issues,” said Hong Kong Baptist College philosophy and religion professor Leung In Sing. “But after China said they wanted to take Hong Kong back, political issues became more important.”
Destination: North America
As thousands of Hong Kong residents look for new homes, churches in the U.S. and Canada are laying out the welcome mat in a variety of ways to attract this new and rapidly growing population.
About half of the 45,000 Chinese who emigrated from the British colony last year came to North America, settling in major cities such as Los Angeles, San Francisco, New York, Toronto, and Vancouver.
The Canadian cities have proved popular destinations for several reasons: greater demand for workers; large Chinese communities (about 10 percent of the local populations in Toronto and Vancouver); and less stringent immigration policies (three years to establish permanent residency, compared with five in the U.S.).
There are more than 800 Chinese congregations in North America, including about 250 in Canada, according to the Chinese Coordination Center for World Evangelism-North America. Often one church will hold several congregations, worshiping in Cantonese, Mandarin, and English languages, said Ernest Wong, ministry coordinator for the center. By reaching out to the immigrant community through social services such as housing, job placement, and legal aid, the number and size of these churches have grown dramatically.
“They find that churches are a place to lessen culture shock,” said Isaac Tam, director of the Institute for Chinese Studies at Wheaton College’s Graham Center.
First Evangelical Church of Glendale, California, has opened two “branch” churches in the past three years and watched each quadruple in size. About 20 to 25 percent of the new congregations are recent immigrants, said senior pastor Eddie Lo. Total attendance is about 1,800.
The Christian and Missionary Alliance (CMA) plans to plant at least 24 new Chinese churches throughout the U.S. during the next four years, said David Wong, vice-president of the Chinese Church Association of CMA. The Communist crackdown in China last spring prompted the denomination to up its goal, he said.
“Looking back to the Vietnamese exodus in 1975 and ‘76, our churches were not prepared,” Wong said. “Anglo churches are now more interested [in Chinese church planting]. The denomination is leading the situation, rather than responding to it.”
Christians were at the fore of Hong Kong’s prodemocracy activity last spring. Individual church and cooperative mass rallies brought together thousands of Christians to pray for democracy in China and for the Chinese church.
A youth rally organized by Breakthrough and the Hong Kong Fellowship of Evangelical Students drew 200,000 young people. Thousands of Christians marched under banners in citywide demonstrations that attracted up to one million Hong Kong residents. In fact, Christians were the most visible single group in at least one major demonstration, says Leung, and Christians were among the first to place—and sign—advertisements in local newspapers supporting the democratic movement in China.
“The church is changing,” said Leung. “Many young people are saying ‘1997 is for us, not the old people.’ Beginning in 1987, young Christians became more active, pushing the church toward involvement. Older church leaders with no political sense are emigrating.”
Differences over political involvement have led to some generational conflict. “If the pastor discusses politics openly, the older, more conservative people are offended,” Leung said. “But if an older pastor refuses to say a word about what happened in China, the young people are angry, asking why the church ignores such an important issue.”
Since the Beijing massacre, more Hong Kong Christians are eager to learn and equip themselves for the future, said Lau. “Their faith has been challenged.”
Young people in particular are responding. “I’m seeing fresh spiritual renewal,” said Choi, who has chosen to remain in Hong Kong beyond 1997. “The message makes sense to people. You can no longer trust your own ability or rely on human governments. I believe that in the coming years, Hong Kong churches will be flooded with new converts.”
Will the leaders be there to shepherd the new Christians? “We want to let the people of Hong Kong know the churches and a lot of Christians are staying,” said Lau. “A goal of Mission Hong Kong 2000 is to say to Hong Kong society, ‘We are struggling with you and face the same crises; we will stay and work with you and try to help you heal the wounded.’ ”
By Sharon E. Mumper in Hong Kong.
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