Mature faith should not be built upon the basis of miracles, but upon attention to God’s word. No matter what problems arise, there is then an authoritative answer.
The rapid growth and development of churches1 in China since the 1980’s has drawn the attention of the Christian community worldwide. Such rapid church growth is unprecedented in Chinese history and is illustrated by attendances at ‘Three-self’ churches in China’s large cities, where multiple services are often held on Sundays to meet the demands of the thirsting crowds. In addition, house churches have sprung up everywhere.
A similar phenomenon has been occurring in Chinese churches overseas, for example, in North America. Of the students, visiting scholars, immigrants, and visitors from Mainland China; few have not been influenced to some extent by local Chinese churches. In fact, North American Chinese churches have become important social gathering points for overseas Chinese. Even non-believers and those with little interest in Christianity will have attended some church activities. Every year large numbers of ethnic Chinese are baptized, in sharp contrast to the Western churches where there are now few baptisms of new members each year. Moreover, compared with those in the West who are Christian in name only, or lukewarm in their faith, Chinese Christians have exhibited fearless courage and steadfast faith in the face of social pressure and persecution, a fact that has given immense encouragement to Christians throughout the world in their walk with Christ. Some people have even predicted that in the near future, China will become renowned either for the number of its faithful believers, or for the numbers of missionaries they have sent out.
Unquestionably, Christianity is becoming a great influence in Chinese society and Chinese Christians will form a significant part in the development of churches worldwide.. And yet, while sharing in the rejoicing, I do have some deep concerns.
Some Western believers have described North America, a country founded upon Christian teaching, as a nation where “Christianity is a mile wide but only one inch deep”. In my humble opinion, this statement could equally aptly apply to today’s Chinese churches.
In sharp contrast to their extraordinary success in winning new converts, there is a great need in Chinese churches for help in nurturing the spiritual growth of these new believers. I have neither the doctrinal insight of an experts or a scholar, nor the spiritual depth of an elder or pastor; but, as a layman, I would like to raise here for your consideration some common issues I have observed in Chinese churches, in the hope of bringing heightened attention to addressing them, so that the churches may grow in a more healthy way.
Too much emphasis on miracles
Issue #1 is that many Chinese Christians have over-emphasized the importance of miracles, sidestepping the possibility that God may work through normal everyday channels.
Maybe as a reaction against the previously held attitude that ‘Everything must be scientific’, many Chinese Christians have over-emphasized, or ‘pumped up’ the importance of miracles and the frequency of their occurrence in daily life. As a result, Chinese churches tend to be characterized by a sensationalist, almost irrational atmosphere, with some even in danger of becoming anti-intellectual.
A faith that is irrational or anti-rational is highly dangerous. Apart from Pentecostal and Charismatic denominations, Western churches do not value miracles to the same degree as Chinese churches. I have been in Western churches for many years and I seldom hear talk of miracles. By contrast, in Chinese churches ‘miracles’ seem to happen all the time. Many Chinese Christians, from their words and actions, also seem to expect miracles to happen at the drop of a hat.
I do not deny the reality of miracles and I believe that, as God wills, miracles may indeed happen at any time and in any place. However, the possibility of them happening and the fact of them happening are two different things – although miracles may happen anytime and anywhere, yet in practice they only happen rarely.
The Bible records many miracles, and Jesus did heal many people in miraculous ways. However, to quote Philip Yancey, “…even more people were not healed. He raised Lazarus from the dead, but even more people died while He was on earth. He did not wipe away all tears from all faces.”2
“Indeed, miracles can bring great hope to Christians; yet, if we are overly dependent on miracles and if the miracle we were hoping for does not materialize, it can be a great blow to a person’s faith and give rise to negative emotions like rebellion or despair.”
So it is dangerous and harmful to be overly dependent on miracles. I heard a testimony about a long-time Buddhist who became ill, and no amount of worship and burning of incense could avail. However, when the local Christians prayed for him, he recovered without any treatment at all. From then on, he regarded the Buddha he had revered for many years as a fraud and decided to worship the true God Jehovah.
As most of the listeners shouted in joy at the story of this conversion, stubborn and foolish, I started to worry about this new believer and about the people who were so excited.. If he were to fall sick again and God chose not to heal him through a miracle, what choice would he make?
A faith that is built upon the basis of miracles is fragile; a mature faith should not be built upon miracles, but on attention to God’s word (Matt. 7:24). Is it only through miracles that God’s omnipotence and love can be seen? Does not the regular rising of the sun in the east and its setting in the west demonstrate God’s existence and wisdom? Doesn’t the nurturing of a life through the 10 months’ of pregnancy in a mother’s womb touch us with the wonder of His creation?
We live in a world full of mystery and which yet operates according to set laws. Whether by mystery or by law, it is God at work, overseeing and sustaining it all. When we focus too much on miracles, we may ignore God’s normal ways of working – through the laws of nature. Too much emphasis on miracles can narrow the scope of our view and confine God within a framework of miracles.
Mature churches and believers must learn to see God’s reality and His love in the routines of everyday life.
A tendency to go to extremes
Issue #2 is that some Chinese Christians have a tendency to go to extremes in their faith, and to regard these extremes as signs of spiritual maturity.
The fact is that spiritual growth does not require extremism in belief and behavior. The Scripture says, “Do not be over-righteous, neither be over-wise (Ecc. 7:16)”. “It is good to grasp the one and not let go of the other. The man who fears God will avoid all extremes (Ecc. 7:18)”.
However, some Christians do tend to go to extremes, and their unhealthy extremist behaviors are regarded as signs of spirituality.
For example, at a meeting in a Chinese church, I heard the pastor say that we should read the Bible as much as possible, and pray as much as possible. I was pleased to hear this and resolved to put it into practice. As a result, apart from meals, sleeping, attending meetings, Sunday worship, fellowship and service, I started to spend all my time reading the Bible and praying,. Moreover, whenever I met someone, no matter their sex, age, race, or whether or not they were a believer, I would talk with him or her at length about just one thing – Christian faith, Jesus and the Bible.
Not long afterwards, I discovered that a lot of people were avoiding me by taking a route farthest away from me, as if I had some terrible plague. I was both surprised and hurt.
In the eyes of many Chinese Christians, I had been acting in a very spiritual way and a lot of people admired my efforts. Comments, if any, usually centered on my approach and methods of evangelism. Finally, a Western pastor told me that my self-proclaimed religious fervor was unhealthy, and was doing both me and other people no good. My behavior was not necessarily a reflection of my spirituality, but it was also evidence of an unhealthy mind-set. I had to learn to have balance in my life, to set limits, and not to overdo anything. Since then, I have had a closer and a more healthy relationship with God.
Issue #3 is that Chinese Christians tend to simplify faith issues. One manifestation of that is to prescribe spiritual remedies to others, as a cure for all ills.
When I meet difficulties in my life which give rise to spiritual struggles, I am reluctant to seek the advice of Chinese Christians, because I know what most of them will say. Sometimes, they will come out with their cure-all prescription even before you have finished describing your problem – finding scripture verses to exhort you to have more faith, read the Bible more, and pray more.
This is because they truly believe that if you will only do as they say, it will be effective and your problem will go away; a little bit like long ago when the prescription for everything was that it was due to ‘class struggle’. Whether the problem was a quarrel between spouses, disharmony between your wife and your mother, trouble at work, or unhappiness in general, everything will be OK as long as you did as they said. If things did not work out, then there is something wrong with your faith.
In practice however, things are not that simple. Problems have a variety of causes, with both spiritual and non-spiritual origins. For example, before I believed in Christ, I was very selfish and hated the whole world; I had no love and was unforgiving to others. After I believed in Christ, I learned to treat others with love and was more forgiving, and my inter-personal relationships improved a lot.
Yet sometimes people would stop being friends with me, and I was puzzled. Some of them said that they found my words hurtful; but I had no idea what kind of remark might be hurtful to other people. Afterwards, some people scolded me, and said that there was something wrong with my faith; a truly faithful believer would look to the Holy Spirit to show him how to speak and how to deal with other people.
They suggested that I should spend more time praying and reading the Bible. Yet I was already spending most of my time reading the Bible, praying and serving, and I was exhausted. Thankfully, later on my Western pastor analyzed my problem; I lacked some of the basic skills of interpersonal relationships. So as well as Bible reading and prayer, I did a short course in inter-personal skills, and my relationships with others quickly improved.
Also many Chinese Christians do not understand the struggles others go through, particularly in the area of faith. They talk about the transformation in their own lives before and after their conversion, without mentioning the struggles they experienced after they became believers. They think that a believer should not have faith struggles after they become a Christian. So every time I finished talking with them, I would feel worse and even have a sense of despair, because the look in their eyes and the tone of their voices suggested that I was lacking in faith.
The way Western Christians deal with these issues is kinder. Mostly they will listen patiently until you have finished your story, then express their heart-felt sympathy and understanding, put themselves in your shoes to try to figure out what to do, make practical suggestions, and finally pray with you. In this way, they have helped me grow in my knowledge of God and His word. God’s love has been made real to me through these brothers and sisters, and they have strengthened my faith in Him.
I talked frankly about my ‘sinful actions’ to some Western brothers and sisters and they then spoke to me frankly, but their focus was on the sinful action rather than on the sinner before them. But most importantly, they did not conclude that because I had fallen into sin, I was so lacking in faith that I was no longer a Christian.
They encouraged me to learn from my mistakes and not to commit the same wrong in the future. They lovingly urged me not to let myself get into bondage to my sense of guilt; God had already forgiven me. They also shared with me their own weaknesses and struggles. A healthy church deals sympathetically with others’ weaknesses and struggles, with understanding and encouragement, not with scolding and criticism.
In fact, faith struggles are normal and healthy. Many famous Christians such as Martin Luther, Louwen, and Philip Yancey, have had such experiences. The important thing is not whether there have been struggles, but how one has dealt with them. I have been a believer for ten years and all along the way I have had painful struggles in the area of faith; yet every struggle has brought me into a deeper understanding of God and His word, and this has all resulted in growth in my own faith.
The author of the book “Inside and Out”, Dr. Larry Crabb, said that he does not worry about those who question their faith; on the contrary, he is very concerned about those who on the surface appear to be fine and do not struggle. He is suspicious that many people have lost their sensitivity, or are subconsciously suppressing their pain. Apparent spiritual maturity can be a cover-up for pain and struggles deep down in the soul.
A healthy view of faith
For these reasons, I feel that the Chinese churches must place issues like the nurturing of spiritual growth and helping believers to build up a healthy faith onto their agenda. An unhealthy idea of faith can have an enormous negative influence on personal growth and on society, and must not be overlooked. The dark reign of Catholicism in the Middle Ages is just one such example.
Someone might say that that was just due to the actions of the Catholic Church, and it has no relevance to Evangelical Christians. However, to quote from Xiaoboa Wang, a faith applied abusively can become a stick to beat others with and a tool for punishing people.5 This statement is worthy of the attention of everyone concerned for the growth and development of the Chinese church. The Chinese church is a young church. Compared with Western churches, the Chinese church is filled with the energy and spontaneity of youth, and their believers are zealous enough to be willing to give their lives for their faith. On the other hand, it can show defects and shortcomings like immaturity, ignorance, excitability, prejudice, even self-righteousness. It survived its baptism of fire in the storms of persecution, yet this is no guarantee that it can survive in a relatively peaceful environment. By comparison, Western churches have over two thousand years of history behind them. They still have their problems, but through long experience they exhibit maturity, reason, calmness and wisdom. When it comes to helping believers to grow spiritually and building up a healthy faith, they have a great deal to teach us.
Regrettably, there is not enough interaction and co-operation between Chinese churches and Western churches. Many well-known Western Christian writers are not known among Mainland Chinese Christians.
I am not against reading works by Chinese Christians. We all share a similar background and experiences, so these works strike a chord of resonance in our hearts. At the same time, Christians like ourselves who grew up singing songs in honor of Chairman Mao and received a Communist education, may carry the burden of a value system contrary to Christian faith, which it is difficult to shake off in such a brief time. Most Chinese Christians or Christian authors have not been believers long enough to have learned all the spiritual lessons there are to be learned.
The relative isolation of Chinese churches from the works of Western writers has prevented Chinese churches reaching a higher level and developing deeper insights. One of the direct casualties of this is that many issues which have already developed settled approaches in Western churches are unknown to many in the Chinese churches. Many of the mistakes of Western churches and Western believers of the past are still being committed by us, causing many of us to walk in the dark. So Chinese churches really need to widen their interaction with Western churches; and to read, translate, and publish good works by Western writers, if they want to grow fully mature.
1. The Chinese churches mentioned in this article refer to churches in Mainland China and those overseas whose members are mainly made up of Mainland Chinese believers.
2. Philip Yancey, “Disappointment with God: Three Questions No One Asks Aloud”, Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Books, 1988, p.109..
3. Philip Yancy, “Where is God When It Hurts?” Grand Rapids, Michigan:Zondervan, 1990，p.212.
4. Larry Crabb, “Inside Out”, (Colorado Springs, Colorado: NavPress Publishing Group), 1988, p.29.
5. Xiao-buo Wang., “Misfortune of Intellectuals” from “Collection of Essays by Xiao-buo Wang: the Joy of Thinking”
The author was born in Shandung and grew up in Beijing. He is a teacher and researcher living in Edmonton, Canada.