Another jewel of the Orient is poised to become simply a part of China. Today (December 20) Macau, the first European colony in East Asia, will follow Hong Kong in becoming a sovereign territory of the largest nation in the world.
What will the change mean to Christians in Macau? To missionaries and their work? If Hong Kong is any example, not much.
"We've been watching Hong Kong for nearly two years," says missionary Larry Ballew of the Southern Baptist Commission's International Mission Board (IMB). "[Although there have been some changes,] they've maintained quite a bit of autonomy and freedom. We're not anticipating many changes in our work."
That's good news for Macau. But just two years ago, missionaries in Hong Kong weren't feeling so positive.
As 1997 loomed, it looked as if expansive visions of church-planting movements might be no more than a far-off dream. China's reputation on freedom of religion had preceded it. Many wondered if China would try the same restrictive policies in Hong Kong that it had in the rest of the country.
But according to missionaries in Hong Kong, most of those fears have gone unrealized. And what would have been the most significant of those changes was made irrelevant by a change in how IMB missionaries operate in Hong Kong.
"In the past, the traditional way of starting churches was to try to get a social service center like a kindergarten and then use the facility for church on Sunday," says one missionary. "What has changed about that is that it is not only the Christian groups but also the Buddhist or other Asian religious groups that get them now.
"But that doesn't affect us any more because as we've moved toward church-planting movements, we've looked for things that are more home-based and less overhead."
In the past several years, visas have become more difficult to get, says Larry Ingram, who has lived in Hong Kong for nearly 30 years. But, he notes, they started becoming more difficult to get before the changeover, so it might or might not have been related to the city's political alignment.
Southern Baptist efforts in Hong Kong focus on planting churches among the "grass-roots people." These are the lower-class, mostly illiterate people of Hong Kong, who haven't been reached by traditional evangelism methods.
In Macau, IMB missionaries work in two teams. One plants churches among the Cantonese-speaking population. The other ministers through medical work at Hope Clinic.
"What we are trying to do in Macau is initiate a church-planting movement that will penetrate all the segments of Cantonese-speaking people," says Ballew, who is the strategy coordinator for church planting in the city of Macau.
He doesn't believe the governmental changeover will affect his church-planting work.
Roman Catholic Christianity first came to Macau in the middle of the 16th century when Portugal established the area as a trade colony. But its impact within the city now is minimal. The first Baptist church was established in Macau in 1910, but presently only seven exist among the 424,000 residents of the city.
Most of the people of Macau consider themselves Buddhist, with mothers being the guardians of that tradition in the home. Family pressures force many to participate in ancestor worship.
Although the people of Macau aren't resistant to the gospel, they aren't clamoring for it either, says Ballew.
"Many see Jesus as a Western God," he says. "They don't understand the concept and truth of there being only one sovereign God. They see Him as a God who fits into the Western world, but not their world."
As believers around the world have begun to pray for the people of Macau at this crucial time in their history, Ballew has seen doors open to ministry.
"In the past year, as a prelude to the handover, we've seen a lot more attention and prayer for Macau," Ballew says. "We've really seen that prayer here opens doors.
"[Many of the churches and ministries] here in Macau have attributed a lot of opportunities to the number of people praying for them."
See Yahoo's full coverage of the Macau turnover.
Official information can be found at the Macau Handover Ceremony Coordination Office site and this Q & A page from the Macau Government Information Services.
See religious statistics about Macau at Adherents.com, and information about its religious freedom in the U.S. State Department Annual Report on Religious Freedom.
An overview of Macau's history is available at Britannica.com.
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