I came to Hong Kong's Breakthrough Youth Village expecting to find a small, creative media and publishing organization. Instead I found a sprawling enterprise seemingly without boundaries.
"People always ask me, what is Breakthrough about?" says Sookit Li, one of the veteran staff. "I've been here for a long time, and I can't say."
Physically, Breakthrough spreads across a four-story facility comprising dormitories, offices, and an extensive youth center. Over 230 Christian staff and many more young volunteers create books, movies, magazines and websites, gospel camps, a counseling center, and training institutes for teachers and youth workers. They have organized a New Year's "dance extravaganza" that attracted 30,000 people to a downtown street.
Breakthrough also created a popular action figure sold in shops known as "Mr. Match," as well as a book with extraordinary graphics that Hong Kong schools use to teach the aesthetics of public space. The creativity and variety are dizzying.
"We cannot just communicate with youth through the media," says Philemon Choi, a doctor who was instrumental in founding Breakthrough. "It has to be life touching life."
That philosophy explains the hybrid nature of Breakthrough. A media operation this large and sophisticated rarely conducts personal ministry, but Breakthrough Youth Village echoes with the shouts of the young people who live and play in the same building that houses corporate offices.
Last year's New Year's Eve "Dance Unlimited" was a stunning example of Breakthrough's cross-disciplinary approach. The idea came in response to the economic and psychological slump afflicting Hong Kong. The word dance also means encouragement in Chinese. Thus the event's name could be translated as "Encouragement Unlimited."
Breakthrough meant to provide an alternative to drug-soaked and destructive New Year's celebrations. Organization leaders also intended to nudge Hong Kong young people to express themselves creatively and to encourage one another.
To gain entrance to the extravaganza, young people had to show a "passport" demonstrating that they had done a "positive act." Breakthrough distributed a booklet at local schools suggesting good deeds that qualified. Breakthrough worked out a security arrangement with the Hong Kong government to take over a city street. University groups led a special theme dance with 80 drummers pounding out the rhythm. The number of celebrants swelled from 10,000 to 30,000 for the final midnight countdown.
The evening had no explicit Christian message. Asked whether he considers Breakthrough an evangelistic organization, Choi says, "Yes and no." Evangelistic should not be narrowly defined as converting people, he says. Breakthrough's leaders believe the cultural mandate in Genesis and the Great Commission in Matthew should be understood together.
"People come to us and they are blessed," Choi says. "We think that is what Jesus did." Leaders intended "Dance Unlimited" to bless Hong Kong young people, nothing more and nothing less. They proclaim the gospel message through other means—mainly through personal conversations and gospel camps.
Spiritual Milk Powder
Breakthrough's products, all in Chinese, show unusual visual sophistication. That traces back to the late Josephine So, a magazine editor and author who helped launch Breakthrough in the early 1970s.
"The church was in what we call the 'milk powder stage,' " Li says. Poor people received packets of milk powder at church, and the mindset of poverty limited ministry innovation. So insisted that ministry be done with beauty and creativity.
Choi met So in 1973. Discovering a shared concern for Hong Kong's dispirited teenagers, they gathered a handful of young Christians to seek direction. Many, like them, had returned from overseas study.
Together the group decided to publish a magazine targeted to non-Christians, emphasizing cultural issues. Hong Kong's only Christian magazine had just folded.
"People said we would be crazy to sell a Christian magazine on the street," says Li. Far from cutting corners, So insisted on using the top printer in Hong Kong.
A new youth culture was emerging around the world in the early '70s. Hong Kong young people faced unique questions of self-identity, torn between their conservative Chinese families and intoxicating, anything goes Western mores. Hong Kong was fast becoming the premier gateway into Asia for Western business and Western culture.
Anonymity, confusion, and alienation reigned, and Breakthrough founders thought the traditional church too narrow in its response. They wanted to take up the social issues of the day. Young people needed to gain confidence in their cultural and spiritual identity and in their ability to solve problems, rather than be swept along by societal forces.
Affirming "Chinese-ness" (Chinese heritage and culture), Breakthrough sought to present a Christianity that included the cultural mandate for people to rule responsibly over all creation.
Breakthrough Magazine, first published in January 1974, was an immediate success. Sold by street vendors alongside hundreds of other publications, its fresh style and content soon opened other possibilities.
Intrigued by the magazine's content, a leading commercial radio station launched a Breakthrough on Air program. A professional counseling center began within a year. Multimedia shows, books, and other magazines followed. Thirty years later, most people in Hong Kong know of Breakthrough.
"Young people … think we are very healthy, upright people," Li says with a mischievous smile—well aware that such a description can be a left-handed compliment among youth.
Wherever you look in Hong Kong you see mountains and water, with little level ground in between. Geopolitics, similarly, has squeezed Hong Kong between the imperatives of international trade (as a British crown colony and free port for 150 years) and the imposing mass of China.
"Being raised in Hong Kong, there is always an identity crisis and an identity confusion," says Choi. He recalls singing "God Save the Queen" in school, and traveling as an officially "stateless" individual.
"When I studied in Canada," he says, "I discovered I was Chinese."
Breakthrough is not just interested in telling young people the gospel in a narrow sense. "We do a lot of evangelistic work," Choi says. "But we have to remind them, who are you? You are raised in Hong Kong, and part of China. Culture is the ground, the earth where you are raised, and the kind of person you are."
Ironically, in the early days, Breakthrough seemed very Western to people in Hong Kong. Many staff members had studied in North America, and their passion for creativity challenged Hong Kong's conservative Chinese ethos, with its high regard for tradition. Against that Western image, Breakthrough adopted the slogan "Rooted in Hong Kong."
It avoided partnerships with Western organizations—even some that would have provided much-needed financial resources. When success came, Breakthrough turned down invitations to spread its work outside Hong Kong. When many in Hong Kong sought to emigrate during an economic downturn in the '80s, Breakthrough purchased a high-rise building. Leaders wanted to demonstrate their intent to remain rooted.
"At first, we were deviants to the church," says General Secretary Wing Tai. "But by now, most of the pastors were raised on Breakthrough Magazine."
The Hong Kong government too has come to know Breakthrough as a reputable institution, naming Choi as chairman of an influential policy advisory group, the Youth Commission. Hong Kong's reverting to Chinese control in 1997 opened interesting possibilities for Breakthrough's influence.
Choi says that Breakthrough now has the experience needed to teach others, including educators. The government of China has sent a number of teachers and youth leaders to Breakthrough seminars.
"Most of them find that students are bored with education," Choi says. "Teachers don't know how to make it interesting. They come here and see that young people are excited."
Hong Kong could be a key bridge for China to face the world, Wing Tai says, and for the world to appreciate China.
"Most people think the bridge is just economic. In reality it must be cultural and spiritual," he says. "China needs a soul to face the world. Without a soul, it's going to be exploited. It's going to be cheap labor."
The Hong Kong church could be key to helping China build that bridge without losing Chinese identity, Wing Tai says. "The Christian community has a consciousness of how to see the world and how to engage with the world without losing your compass," he says. "It's not easy."
Breakthrough's most important achievement, according to Choi, is that it "has truly broken through the four walls of the churches." Skilled and creative professionals have been able to put their abilities to work in ministry.
"I think Breakthrough has made the church aware that we are the salt and light of the world, not just as individuals, but the whole community," Wing Tai says. "The Christian community has to be visible in society."
Tim Stafford is a CT senior writer.
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