Would mixing dynamic, young leaders from China with counterparts in India be a volatile mix — a seeming clash of titans?
We decided it was a worthwhile experiment. First Fruit brought together a dozen leaders under the age of 35, men and women, who represented fields ranging from journalism, business, nonprofits, and Christian ministry.
Rather than viewing the other as rivals, the participants were surprised by how much they could relate to one another’s struggles and circumstances.
They were inspired to learn from their nearby neighbor for successful models and resources, and not just look to the West. They commented on three cross-cutting challenges that most profoundly confronted the church in their two countries.
#1. Urbanization brings new pressures to the church in both India and China.
The competition for jobs in the big cities is intense. Status is everything. How much you make, how big is your apartment, what kind of car you drive is what people focus on. This brings a lot of challenges to the church. In this regard, you will understand why the ‘prosperity gospel’… has become popular among urban churches. Churches have dealt with the problem uncritically and unbiblically, even allowing secular trends to shape our precious Gospel.”
Chinese participant working in Christian publishing
The scale and pace of urbanization in both China and India continues at an unprecedented rate. China’s urban population will hit the one billion mark by 2030. India’s urban population has already increased from 11 percent in 1901 to 31 percent today.
People from all socio-economic, ethnic and religious backgrounds are flooding into cities for work and educational opportunities. Different cultures come across mountains and rivers and become the neighbors next door. Urban churches have unprecedented opportunities to reach out to the diverse population, which they would have never imagined could happen before.
On the other hand, this brings new threats to the church. Christianity in India and China has long been known as rural movements. To the rural churches it means losing a lot of young and middle-age believers to the city. Secularization and materialism are inseparable twin brothers that come with urbanization. Church leaders need to faithfully respond, displaying the robust and rich gospel message that transcends all times.
I believe that urban churches can partner with rural churches… to become outward looking and come out of the state of indifference and inadequate social engagement and take an active interest in issues of nation building, such as, justice for the poor/marginalized, peace and reconciliation, religious liberty… The urban church also needs to see how they can participate in businesses, political processes and encouraging younger minds to move into judiciary and bureaucracy who would act as modern day Daniels, Sadharchs, Mesechs and Abednegos.”
Indian participant working in theological education
#2. In China, pioneering Christians and church communities who are active in the public sphere will face opposition.
When people, even believers, accuse us for being too political, we feel hurt. Is it a political act to appeal when you see killing? We have been assimilated into… propaganda for too long. Everything has a political risk. In fact, I have to remind those who misunderstand us for being too political: the very thought that being an advocate for justice is political itself is very political thinking. The church is not in the interest of politics for sure, but we have to speak truth and love. By building a public church, we are simply asking the [authorities] to ‘let the church be the church.”
Chinese participant working in journalism
Despite amazingly rapid growth, the Christian population still only makes up about 4 percent of the whole population. Its social impact still needs to be carefully evaluated. Just as in other socialist countries, the Chinese government only allows religion to exist as a “therapeutic practice” for individuals, but not as organized groups with a clear social mandate.
Therefore, the majority of the house churches are self-segregated from public life. Many of them do not allow seekers to come to Sunday worship or mention the possibility of coming out and actively serving their communities.
Theologically, these churches either consciously or unconsciously have adopted the dichotomized “sacred vs. secular” theology, viewing faith and civil life as non-overlapping areas. Even though the growth of the Chinese church is massive, the full function of the Church has yet to form.
I wanted to mobilize the local churches to partner together [in our leprosy work], but to my great surprise, they all turned me down. The reason is usually ‘that’s the government’s job to do philanthropy’, ‘we are still a small church with limited resources’, ‘we are already preoccupied by so many ministries’… the idea of social action still seems irrelevant to their understanding of the gospel commission.”
Chinese participant working in an NGO
#3. Christians in India are still perceived and marginalized as anti-nationalist.
Christianity is the only religion in India which does not ask for a separate nation. If you think about how Pakistan and Bangladesh separated because of Islam, and Hindus still claim India as Hindu, you have to say that Christianity is inclusive. Even though the Christians churches are taking care of the poor, providing quality education to all, we are still being accused of changing Indian culture and breaking down local communities.”
Indian participant working in church planting
There have been many heated debates in India on whether Christians are the cause of political instabilities in the country. Fundamentalist groups have funded and supported academic research and mass media coverage to paint the Islamic and Christian movements in India in a negative light.
In a nation where Christians are seen as ‘outsiders’ and agents of forcible conversions, the Indian Church is called not only celebrate and affirm her Indian character, but is also called to engage in the meaningful presentation of the Gospel in such a context, thereby redeeming it in Christ.”
Indian participant working in Christian ministry
Five Main Takeaways
In light of these challenges, the group then offered the following ways the church could respond:
- Develop holistic ministries and Christian social action in response to the pressing social problems of cities.
- Build up the next generation of young leaders of the church, especially when 50 percent of the Indian population is below the age of 21.
- Bravely promote a public theology that speaks to the issues of society rather than behaving merely like a sub-culture.
- Support Christian education, publishing, arts and literature which are vital for the overall growth of the church.
- Create new kinds of partnerships with the West, as dignified equals who have an important role in the global Church, not seen as merely poverty-stricken recipients of aid.
This inaugural caucus was an experiment, and in the final analysis, a highly worthwhile one. Our foundation gained important feedback from younger leaders who do not see their respective countries’ issues, needs and solutions in quite the same way as their forebears.
We will continue to find ways to curate conversations among and across groups in the global church who are underrepresented in our grantmaking.
Perhaps more importantly, though, the participants themselves were changed. They may have come with preconceived ideas of the “superpower next door”, but left with a profound sense of relatedness and common mission.