It’s early morning in the small tourist town of Cordoba in Spain. Eugenio Peña, a 76-year-old local, arrived at the Good News Charity Service Center at Platero Pedro de Bares and Carlos III Avenue, ready for his volunteer work at the “Charity Cafeteria” that offers free breakfast to refugees and homeless people. The Center is a ministry established and run by a small Chinese church in Cordoba.
Christian charities run by Chinese churches are extremely rare in Europe. Chinese churches only occupy a small fraction of Europe’s Christian landscape. Ivan Tao, a missionary who has served in the region for two decades, estimated that while there are three million Chinese immigrants in Europe, there are only 350 Chinese churches (including Bible study groups and Christian fellowships) and 200 full-time Chinese preachers.
The lack of churches to worship at isn’t the only problem that Chinese Christians are facing. Many Chinese churches in Europe are also trying to overcome challenges such as a “hometown association” mentality, a commercialist attitude toward church life, and difficulties in transmitting the faith to the younger generation.
Where your treasure is
In Spain, 90 percent of Chinese Christian immigrants are businessmen who have moved overseas with the primary goal of making money. Most hail from Wenzhou and Qingtian in Zhejiang Province and other cities in Fujian Province, which are cities well-known for their local peoples’ tendency to choose immigration over poverty.
The Chinese immigrant church community typically functions as an extended social network for Chinese Christians outside of their families. Even the leadership team of the church has geocentric characteristics: If the church is founded by people from Qingtian or Wenzhou, almost all of the elders are from the same region. The church often feels like meetings of traditional hometown associations among the Chinese diaspora.
The love of money is also a real challenge. Professor Nanlai Cao of China’s Renmin University wrote a 2018 article examining Christian practices among Wenzhou people living in Paris. In it, Cao pointed out that most immigrant Christians from Wenzhou have two core desires: working to earn money and serving the church.
How these desires collide in their praxis: “Serving the church” often is translated into giving churches monetary contributions. And while it is never openly mentioned, the selection criteria for nominating elders and deacons in a church may be influenced by the size of their tithes and offerings.
In such a transactional climate, going to church might feel more like attending a corporate networking event than a gathering of like-minded believers. There is little if any conversation around spiritual or biblical topics. Business conflicts that are left unresolved often cause antagonism between families, so much so that they may not speak to each other for the rest of their lives although they worship in the same sanctuary. Once the Sunday service ends, most churchgoers hurry off to run their businesses. Couples also regularly split their time between morning and afternoon services to tend to their shops.
For Chinese diaspora communities of faith, giving money to the church appears to be a manifestation of their religious identity and a path toward redemption. These Chinese Christians may listen to audio sermons, display and read Bibles on their store counters, and keep Chinese house church traditions such as kneeling to utter long prayers with emotional gusto and refraining from eating food containing blood. But they may also hold the conflicting belief that bribery and tax evasion are acceptable when conducting business to ensure profitability amid fierce competition.
Out of a guilty conscience, these Chinese Christians may feel ashamed before God. At the same time, they are unable to risk rejecting these unspoken rules in business dealings—so they double their offerings to the church.
A widening generation gap
Hypocritical approaches to living out the Christian faith have caused generational divides to grow between parent and child. “Many of the second generation of believers in Southern Europe have left the church because of their parents’ inconsistency in living out their faith,” says Luke Zheng, a Chinese missionary based in Europe.
But there is another factor why young Chinese people are moving away from the church and the faith in Europe: a dire lack of kinship. In order to establish themselves in a foreign country and make a living in the business world, first-generation believers often had to leave their children with relatives and friends in China until they became teenagers. Children were consequently “left behind” by their parents for ten years or so and would have become accustomed to their parents sending them money and gifts to make up for their absence.
When these children later reunite with their parents in Europe, it is difficult to establish a sense of closeness. So while some second-generation Chinese believers end up staying at their parents’ churches, more choose to either leave the faith or worship in Spanish-speaking churches.
The absence of an adequate investment in educational opportunities has also inadvertently caused the generation gap to grow. In general, Chinese immigrant families in Spain do not invest much in their children’s education. Dropping out of school after junior high is common. Consequently, while second-generation Chinese living in Europe enjoy a plethora of benefits that their parents did not—such as having legal status, a getting stronger grasp of European language skills, and being well-fed and clothed—many still find it challenging to leave their small circle of Chinese immigrant relationships and enter mainstream European society due to their lack of educational qualifications.
In Germany, conversely, Chinese immigrant families place a high value on education. But the language gap still generates ripples of hurt to believer families and even churches. As the Chinese Biblical Seminary’s newsletter in Barcelona points out, the Chinese language skills of second-generation immigrants in Europe are significantly lower than those of the first generation.
A few Chinese churches in Germany have split, not solely due to doctrinal differences but because these churches have been unable to bridge the language gap that exists between parents and children. The families who left these churches often comprise parents who volunteer enthusiastically in various church ministries, which inadvertently takes precedence—and time—over caring for and being with their children. The years of neglect have borne consequences: These children, who barely speak Chinese, become adults who have no desire to be a part of the church.
Moreover, it is not easy to find an evangelical church in mainstream Europe where second-generation Chinese immigrants would feel comfortable. In Spain, for example, where 60 percent of the population is Roman Catholic, the number of Protestant churches remains small and their size is limited.
Getting out of the ‘hometown association’
Faced with these challenges, Chinese churches in Europe are striving to find ways to break out of a “hometown association” mentality and engage in cross-cultural missions. The Cordoba Chinese Christian Church, which established and runs the Good News Charity Service Center (GNCSC), has made several inroads in these areas.
Lily Zheng, one of the leaders of the Cordoba Chinese Christian Church, told CT that the Chinese population in Cordoba is only about 3,000, and the church congregation is less than 100 people every Sunday.
In 2016, the church established the GNCSC to serve international refugees as well as the homeless, the poor, and the sick. The center is the first registered and licensed charity and cross-cultural mission organization established by a Chinese church in Europe, and it is especially focused on working with local Spanish-speaking churches.
The center now has more than 50 volunteers, all of whom are from local Spanish churches, says Lily Zheng, who works at the church full time but does not draw a salary. Lily is from Wenzhou and used to run a Chinese restaurant, a department store, and a clothing store at different times but responded to God’s call to full-time ministry. She has also been involved in some of the local Spanish churches’ outreach ministries, such as prison ministry and hospital visits.
The Cordoba Chinese church’s pastor, Xuan Jun, also used to be a businessman. After his conversion and call to ministry, he studied theology, participated in mission work in Africa, and hosted a gospel podcast. When church co -workers started cross-cultural missions through GNCSC, Xuan gave enthusiastic support and became involved himself.
The ministry gives out Bibles in different languages to the people it helps. “In this ministry, helping people with things to eat and drink is not the ultimate goal. The ultimate goal is evangelism,” Xuan told CT. “What we provide is a holistic platform so that more people can not only see that we are a church ministry and that it is a Chinese church doing charitable care, but also read the Bible and hear the gospel, so that they can eventually come to know Jesus Christ. The Chinese church in Europe has a limitation in evangelism. It only reaches out to Chinese people. But we are willing to go one step further and try to engage in cross-cultural mission, even though our church is small and relatively weak.”
Supporting the next generation
The Chinese church in Europe has not given up on the second generation either. It has increasingly shifted its focus to strengthening its youth ministry in recent years.
How second-generation ministry is carried out varies from city to city in Europe, said Xuan. “The needs and the level of commitment of the church will vary from region to region. In big cities where there are more Chinese immigrants and more job opportunities, second-generation ministry can work better. But in small cities with fewer Chinese and few jobs, like ours, second-generation ministry can be difficult to sustain.”
The focus of Xuan’s small church in Cordoba is to establish the next generation in the faith by providing biblical teaching from elementary school to college age. “Then we hope they will continue to find a church to join when they go to work elsewhere in the future, and we would recommend churches to them. This also depends on each child’s situation, and it shows that the faith heritage of the parents in each family is important.”
While some may leave the Chinese church, many of the Chinese youth who remain in the church “have a positive attitude towards faith,” says Luke Zheng.
(Young Christians sang at a 2010 Christmas gathering of a Madrid Chinese Christian Church)
“They are thankful that God led them to leave their original environment and eventually reunite with their parents. Although their parents’ faith and life are sometimes disconnected and their sins may be obvious, they have a deeper understanding of the gospel in their hearts because they see that God has not given up on them. They know it is not through their own hard work but because of God’s mercy and grace that they have become who they are.”
The young generation is also actively exploring new ways of doing church. In Spain, second-generation Chinese Christians are learning about the worship model of Spanish evangelical churches through YouTube and are drawn to these local church pastors’ authenticity and sincerity.
Some Chinese churches in Europe are also placing a greater emphasis on education and closing the language gap. “The Dusseldorf Chinese church I was once a part of started classes and training programs about family and children’s education through the help of a church in Taiwan. I attended training for children’s ministry there three years ago,” said Sun Xiaojie, who now worships at a Chinese church in Ratingen, Germany. “The church also established a separate worship service held in German for second-generation believers a few years ago, which was run by a Chinese German couple.”
Churches are also looking inward to enact change and retain the younger generation within their flocks. Many churches no longer accept cash offerings but only accept bank transfers to prevent corruption. And in a bid to discourage young unmarried couples in Europe from cohabiting, ministries and churches have begun discussions to purchase apartments for Chinese students who cannot afford to rent a room alone.
But the kind of change that is required for Chinese churches to develop a robust generation of young believers goes a lot deeper and may take years, or many more generations of believers, to realize.
“The greatest crisis for immigrant churches is not in external circumstances or economic pressure, but the confirmation of our own identity,” Luke Zheng said. “We need to have the confirmation and confidence in the Lord that our first identity is as followers of Jesus, not as Chinese immigrants, businessmen, elders, founding pastors, or church-building pastors. Our most important identity is in our union with Christ.”
Yi Wan is a Christian writer and a house church member living in China.
Translation by Sean Cheng