A new book reveals an astonishing story of church growth in China against a background of persecution. Author Paul Hattaway is interviewed for Christian Today.
In China, paramilitary officers have used explosives and heavy machinery to destroy churches, reflecting tensions between Christians and the Communist Party. What is your view on the significance of this?
Firstly, the destruction of church buildings in China has never been a major concern for believers there. At most, it is symbolic of true persecution. As one senior church leader told me after the government cut down thousands of crosses from atop churches in recent years, 'Cutting crosses off buildings is preferable to cutting the heads off our necks!'
Over the years, there have always been ebbs and flows to persecution of Christians in China, with seasons of intense suffering followed by more relaxed times. The current situation feels very different, however, and has been launched by the president himself. Unless God intervenes, the current brutal crackdown may be just the beginning of years of dark trials for believers in China.
As the BBC recently highlighted in a short video, a major difference this time is the use of remarkably invasive technology and AI (Artificial Intelligence) to control and identify anyone the government deems a threat, including Christians who gather for worship.
Another difference this time is that the registered Three-Self churches are also being targeted in many places. For decades, some China-watchers have condemned the illegal house churches for not registering, saying they brought persecution on themselves, and that if they registered they could worship freely. In recent years this has become increasingly untrue, with hundreds of registered churches being shut down and many pastors arrested.
Could you expand on what has been happening to Christians in China in recent months?
On February 1, China implemented a range of new policies that were passed last year. Many of them are draconian, and in preparation for the changes, thousands of churches throughout the country stopped meeting together in large congregations, and broke down into tiny home groups of no more than four or five believers. In that regard, things are heading back to how they were in the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s and '70s. Believers in some provinces have already told us things there are 'just like in Mao's day'.
This is hard for some Western Christians to accept. Many have been duped into thinking persecution is a thing of the past in China, along with other deceptions they have been told, such as that there are plenty of Bibles available for all Christians today. Many people have mistakenly thought that economic reforms equals the collapse of Communism. In fact, while China has accumulated wealth and emerged as a major player on the world stage, the underlying dark spirits of atheistic Marxism have not disappeared, and the coming years are likely to be very difficult for Christians throughout China, with even more oppressive laws on the agenda.
What characteristics about the Chinese regime make persecution of Christians such a prevalent issue?
Actually, whenever I have met Chinese church leaders over the past 30 years, they rarely want to talk about persecution. It is just a part of the gospel to them and is to be expected for any true follower of Jesus Christ. Indeed, they marvel if Christians are NOT persecuted constantly, as it is contrary to what the Bible teaches, eg 2 Timothy 3:12: 'Everyone who wants to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted.'
What the Chinese house church believers do like to share are stories of how God's kingdom has grown from a few million in 1949 when China became Communist, to more than 100 million believers today. They love to testify of the marvelous works the Holy Spirit is doing throughout the land, as he transforms broken lives and entire communities. That is also what our ministry is about. We don't focus on persecution, apart from seeing it as a necessary factor for revival. A cursory look at where the church is growing fastest around the world today will quickly reveal that the faith grows where it is under the greatest pressure, while in those countries where there is no persecution the church has generally been dying a slow death.
How would you rate persecution of Christians in China compared to the rest of the world?
There are many factors behind persecution of believers in China, but first and foremost it is Satan who inspires such attacks out of hatred for those who reflect God's light. Many Chinese continue to view Christianity as a 'Western religion' and thus equate it to imperalism. From some of his comments, it appears President Xi is one person who holds such a view.
For decades, however, the church in China has grown by millions of members each year. This startling growth has baffled the Communist Party, who assumed that religious adherence would wither and die. They didn't count on a living Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit transforming millions of people's hearts, so that millions are willing to do whatever it takes to spread the gospel, even if it costs their lives.
Naturally speaking, persecuting believers in China today makes no sense. The followers of Christ have proven they are the best citizens China has. They are generally more ethical and moral, they work hard, and they are patriotic. They really are light and salt to their communities, which is why so many people have come to the faith over the past 50 years.
There is an interesting story in an ancient Chinese book about a man named Bian He.
Bian He found a large stone which was actually an unpolished piece of jade. He presented it to the emperor, who saw nothing but a large stone, thought he was being tricked, and ordered Bian He's left foot to be chopped off. Bian He later sent the same gift to the next emperor, who also saw only a stone and ordered his right foot to be chopped off. When a third emperor came to the throne, Bian He held the jade in his arms outside the palace gates and wept aloud for three days and nights. The emperor sent someone to investigate, then ordered the stone to be polished. Only then did they discover a beautiful jade inside it.
One day China (and many other nations) will realise that the Christians they oppress, whom they suppose to be ignorant lumps of worthless stone, are actually the polished jewels sent by God to bring the blessing of Christ's salvation.
Could you tell us about your forthcoming book, Shandong: The Revival Province?
Shandong, The Revival Province is the first book in The China Chronicles series, published by SPCK. They have produced a beautiful book that will hopefully be treasured by all who read it.
I hope the whole series will greatly encourage, inspire and challenge Christians around the world as they read about how God has brought about the largest revival (numerically speaking) in the history of Christianity.
I have found that many believers have heard of the extraordinary explosion of Christianity in China under Communism. Few, however, know how it has occurred. I have been privileged to conduct hundreds of interviews with Chinese church leaders, who have provided many insights into how phenomenal growth occurred in the furnace of intense persecution. As a result, much of the material in the books has never been published before. They are pleased their testimonies will be shared and not forgotten, and their prayer is that the Lord Jesus will be glorified and God's children strengthened in the faith.
I hope The China Chronicles books will not only be read by those with an interest in China but by all Christians, as there is much we can learn and admire about how the Church in the world's most populated country has stood firm through decades of struggle and have seen entire communities transformed by the living God.
Paul Hattaway, a native New Zealander, has served the church in Asia for most of his life. He is an expert on the Chinese church and is the author of ' The Heavenly Man', 'An Asian Harvest', 'Operation China' and many other books. He and his wife Joy are the founders of Asia Harvest, which supports thousands of indigenous missionaries and has provided millions of Bibles to Christians throughout Asia.
His book 'Shandong: The Revival Province' is published by SPCK, price £9.99.