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Understanding Christianity in China

Written by Samuel Pearson
April 12, 2006

Samuel Pearson - China

Christianity has come to China on several occasions, along the silk road from Persia in the seventh century, by a Franciscan mission during the Yuan dynasty in the thirteenth century, by a Jesuit mission to the Ming and Qing dynasties beginning late in the sixteenth century, and through Protestant missions beginning in the early nineteenth century. Yet all of these efforts to evangelize China were plagued by cultural misunderstandings both in China and in America and Europe which hampered mission efforts and frequently resulted in Chinese hostility to what the vast majority of the people here regard today as the "foreign" religion of the Western imperialists.

Nonetheless, Christianity is experiencing unprecedented growth in China today. Some estimates place the number of Chinese Christians at six to seven percent of the total population. This figure seems small until one considers that six percent translates into eighty million persons! This growth of an indigenous Chinese Christianity is quite remarkable, but it poses significant challenges in a country where churches were closed and Christians were stigmatized and persecuted during the 1960s and 1970s. The greatest of these challenges is a lack of a sufficient educated leadership in the churches and an all but total lack of understanding of Christianity on the part of the vast majority of contemporary Chinese people.

Fortunately, today in China there are both Christian church leaders and academicians who realize that China will never understand Western culture or be prepared for serious intercultural dialogue until it gains a more profound understanding of the Christian religion. The Institute for the Study of Christian Culture was established at People’s University in Beijing to provide an opportunity for some of China’s ablest students and future leaders to engage in serious study of Christianity and, more generally, Western culture. After spending two years teaching church history to ministerial students at Nanjing Union Theological Seminary, my wife and I came to the Renmin Institute at the invitation of its director, Dean Yang Huilin. Though some of my students are either baptized Christians or serious inquirers, the majority is not. They come to my courses in church history out of curiosity and a desire to understand. Teaching in such a setting is constantly a challenge, for one can take for granted none of the knowledge base with which almost any American college student would be familiar. Yet the students read an English language textbook, listen to my lectures in English, and ask fascinating questions as they seek to integrate what they are learning with what they already know about religion, the West, China, and Christianity. This is seldom a simple or comfortable experience. One student sent me a Christmas greeting last December in which she wrote, “I have met many difficulties in your course at the beginning, I can't catch you very well (i.e., she had trouble understanding my lectures), and it made me very dejected. Since I have said I would be your soldier till the end of the battle, I told myself I must hold on. Now, I'm happy that I can follow you nearly all the time and I have learned many things in your class. Thank you very much . . . and I'll go on to study this course in the next semester.”

The interest and determination of such students makes my teaching in China fascinating and rewarding. The support of the Institute by Common Global Ministries constitutes a significant contribution toward a better understanding of Christianity in the China of tomorrow.

Samuel Pearson

Samuel Pearson works with Nanjing Theological Seminary, Nanjing, China. He serves as a professor of Church History.

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