A Star in the East: The Rise of Christianity in China

rodney starksA Star in the East: The Rise of Christianity in China, by Rodney Stark, is a short book that combines a sweeping history of missions to China with recent, reliable statistics on its effects and implications. In 1966, Christianity in China went underground, but not into hibernation. This is the story of its rise.

Although the whole is pervaded by Rodney Stark’s sociological rigor, this book is in no way reducible to dispassionate science or mere technical research. This is the story of faith’s resilience under an aggressive, government-lead policy of persecution that resulted in the death of many million people. Under the threat of Mao Zedong’s Red Guard, whose slogans included, “Beating down foreign religion” and “Beating down Jesus following”, Christianity went underground but not into hibernation. The oft quoted maxim held true under Chairman Mao as it did under Stalin, “Religion is like a nail, the harder you hit it, the deeper it goes”. When Christianity was legalized again in 1980, the 4 million Christians who went into hiding had multiplied to 10 million. Today they number around 100 million (115). “By any standard, the recent growth of Christianity in China has been meteoric” (113). Forty new churches open every week, not counting underground house churches (2). The growth rate of Christianity since 1980 has been 7% per year. If this rate continues for 15 more years, there will be more Christians in China than in any other nation—294.6 million (114).

The recent reception of Christ by millions in one of the oldest and most advanced civilizations in history—in a country with such devotion to the past, an entrenched local religion, and a historically antagonistic government—is a testimony to missionary sacrifice, the spiritual hunger of all men, and the faithfulness of God.

Below were some of the most interesting parts of this book for me.

Protestant vs Catholic Missions

Stark’s analysis of why Protestant missions were more successful in the long run than Catholic missions, despite the latter’s huge head start (1582 vs 1807) and initially greater numbers was fascinating. The foreign control of the pope, the hierarchical structure of the church, and the necessity for an ordained priest to conduct the mass all hampered the Catholic efforts and left them more exposed to persecution. Today, Catholics in China are outnumbered by Protestants by at least 10 to 1 (56).

Liberal Christianity’s Missional Failure

The reason for liberal Christianity’s failure in mission was interesting. The Social Gospel promoted by liberal theologians was more focused on bringing sanitation than salvation. However, “it soon became obvious that people will seldom face the hardships of missionary service merely to do good deeds. Without the conviction that they were bringing priceless truths to those in need, the mission spirit quickly dissipated in liberal Protestant circles” (34). The percentage of American missionaries sent by liberal denominations has declined continuously: 90% (1900), 50% (1935), 25% (1948), 4% (2015).

Vignettes of Chinese Preachers

The vignettes of key Chinese pastors and preachers was inspiring. Chapter 3 is a short catalog of China’s “cloud of witnesses”. Their stories reminded me that even with all the recent disparagement that has accompanied the unChristianizing of cultural America, we really don’t know what persecution means. We Christians in the West have prided ourselves for a long time on our theological superiority and advancement when compared to non-Western countries, but we may be far behind them in the experience of the cross that releases resurrection life into the Body of Christ (2 Cor. 4:11-12). We should be humbled in light of their perseverance and, in lowliness of mind, consider others more excellent than ourselves (Phil. 2:3).

I was very pleased to see the inclusion of Watchman Nee and Witness Lee in this chapter. To overlook their positive contribution to Christianity in China is simply biased historical scholarship. David Aikman has called Watchman Nee “certainly the most influential Chinese Christian teacher in the twentieth century.” Christianity Today honored him as one of the 100 most influential Christians of the twentieth century. Both have been recognized in the US Congressional Record for their “extraordinary impact far beyond the Chinese-speaking world.”

Debunking Marxist Theories of Religion

Chapters 4-5 debunk the Marxist theory of religion—that it is the opium of oppressed people in their material misery—with statistics showing that the more educated someone is in China, the more likely he is to be Christian and the less educated he is, the more likely he is to be Buddhist. Stark’s views on spiritual deprivation and cultural incongruity and how they are responsible for so many well educated Chinese accepting Christianity is fascinating.

Equally fascinating is Stark’s view that “social networks are the basic mechanism through which conversion takes place” (50). Stark argues that most people convert to a new religion due to social ties not attractive doctrines (49). Of course doctrines are important, they practically define a religion, but Stark argues that they function more in retaining converts and prompting them to share their faith, rather than convincing them initially. This might be a little too sociological reductive for me, but seems to me there is some truth here. Many people believe “blindly” and only later come to fully understand the tenets of the faith. In fact, this order is not only logical, it is stated in Scripture (1 Tim. 2:4). Ultimately, for “true Christianity”, people need reality and community. A change of community without reception of the divine reality may be conversion, but it’s not regeneration. This point is helpful though—barking doctrine alone usually won’t win someone for Christ. We must become their community first, or even simultaneously (and drop the barking). Jesus was the friend of sinners before He was the Savior of sinners (Matt. 11:19).

Faith’s Amazing Resilience and God’s Amazing Sovereignty

Another highlight for me was the perseverance and success of mission work in China despite huge, continual setbacks. This is a sure sign of divine sovereignty. Gamaliel’s word in the book of Acts comes to mind, “Should this counsel or this work be of men, it will be overthrown; but if it is of God, you will not be able to overthrow them, lest you be found to be even fighters against God” (Acts 5:38-39). History continues to prove that the gospel cannot be stamped out by the brute force of totalitarian governments. The paradox of the gospel is that a weak Jesus who can die produces a powerful message that can save, enliven, and overcome. The gospel has inherent power. Only two things in the Bible are called the power of God—one is Christ (1 Cor. 1:24), the other is the gospel (Rom. 1:16; 1 Cor. 1:18).

The hostile opposition to the gospel by human governments and the divine proclamation to the entire human race were recorded once and for all in Psalm 2. Go read it again next time you’re worried about geopolitical upheavals. Psalm 2 records the divine laugh at the absurdity and nothingness of human opposition. God breaks apart the ropes with which the kings of the earth bind Him. This display of divine omnipotence ends with the admonition of the gospel: serve Jehovah, kiss the Son, take refuge in Him (2:11-12). The gospel always has the last word. The combined counsel and uproar of the nations cannot thwart the gospel.

The rise of Christianity in China with all its major players is certainly God’s doing. Here is a brief timeline of the major setbacks in China, with a few other key events included:

1524: the first Catholic missionary arrives in China (Matteo Ricci)
1724: the emperor outlaws Christianity as an evil cult
1807: the first Protestant missionary arrives in China (Robert Morrison)
1814: the emperor issues an edict stating that all those spreading the gospel “shall be sentenced to death by immediate strangulation” while hearers or followers of Christianity shall be shipped to Muslim cities as slaves
1859: a treaty imposed on China by Western powers legalizes the open preaching of the gospel
1864: the Taiping Rebellion rages, resulting in 20-30 million deaths, mostly civilians, by 1871
1899: the Boxer Rebellion to rid China of all “foreign devils” begins. The Boxers murder at least 30,000 Christians
1914: World War I reduces the missionizing efforts of European countries
1919: the May Fourth Movement erupts and a new form of militant nationalism hostile to Christianity forms
1922: the Anti-Christian Federation is formed, soon renamed as the Anti-Religious Federation
1930s: the Great Depression greatly reduces the funding and support of American missions
1937: Japan invades China displacing many missionaries
1939: World War II starts. No new missionaries arrive until after the war
1945: with World War II over, the Chinese civil war resumes
1949: Communists take control of China
1950: foreign missionaries begin to be arrested and charged with spying, much church property is seized
1953: all foreign missionaries are expelled from China
1966: Mao Zedong’s Cultural Revolution beings, leading to aggressive persecution of Christians
1979: Christianity is legalized again


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