Cultural Orphans

To a Chinese person, the idea of accepting the message of Christianity can produce some real anxiety. One of the main reasons for these feelings is a fear of isolation. After all, many Chinese people have no family members who are Christians, no co-workers who are Christians, no neighbors who are Christians, and no friends who are Christians. Then factor in the deep patriotism of the average Chinese person, which includes pride in thousands of years of Chinese culture and tradition, all of which is inextricably tied into essentially pagan worldviews and totally at odds with the message of the Bible. Thus, it often seems that to profess Christ is to divorce oneself from the cultural history of China. It’s not surprising, then, that Chinese people can look at conversion to Christianity almost as a betrayal of family, culture, and nation. A commitment to Christ threatens to make them cultural orphans.

How can we help them? Here’s a few thoughts…

– Connect them to church history

Without question, China has one of the richest heritages of any civilization, past or present. But it frankly doesn’t hold a candle to the glorious saga of the expansion of Christ’s kingdom! I first noticed this when teaching a course on church history last year in China. There is a real tendency for Chinese people to think of Christianity as a johnny-come-lately phenomenon. But when Chinese believers see that they are connected to a chain of witnesses stretching back almost two thousand years, across hundreds of countries, through thousands of cultures, they find that they have been swept up into something far bigger and far more exciting than the dynasties of Chinese emperors!

– Point to the growth of the church in China

It’s a bit ironic that while most Americans think of Christianity in China as growing explosively, most Chinese people have very little sense of such growth. That doesn’t mean that they’re not aware of more churches, Christians, etc. Chinese people all know that there are more Christians than there used to be, but most would still imagine them to be a tiny, peculiar minority (whereas Americans tend to imagine a sizeable, influential minority). In America, our team generally has to wrestle with overblown statisics that give the impression that China is in good shape spiritually. But in China, I find that telling Chinese people about the truly remarkable growth of Christianity in recent decades is a means of encouragement. It means they’re not alone. As I’ve written about before, those who think it impossible to be truly Chinese and truly Christian are in the uncomfortable position of calling tens of millions of their fellow citizens ‘cultural traitors.’

– Demonstrate the fellowship of the church

Knowing of the existence of millions of brothers and sisters scattered across China is a little too abstract to bring sufficient comfort for the cultural orphan. The concrete reality that will bring much more profound encouragement is the fellowship of a local church. Forget for a second all the cliches about the church being exclusivistic, unloving, and snobbish. In spite of all such slander, the church is still the most welcoming and caring community in most socieities. Of course, all our churches fail to live up to the standard of love set for us by Christ. But when compared with the climate of surrounding Chinese society, the love offered by a local church family is simply overwhelming to many Chinese people! Another reason why unbelievers should be welcome to attend church services. Another reason why parachurch ministry in China just fails to make more of an impact.

– Insist on the preservation of core Chinese-ness

That is, when Chinese people feel that they are being forced to choose between being Chinese and being a Christian, try to show them that the distinction is a false one. Ask them what it really means to be Chinese. Show them that the real fundamental parts of being Chinese have nothing to do with atheism and communism (fairly recent developments in Chinese history). I imagine we’ve all heard Jewish Christians call themselves something like ‘a completed Jew.’ Well, in a sense, everyone who trusts Christ is a ‘completed’ citizen of their country. The values, ideals, and truths treasured throughout Chinese history – in other words, whatever is right and good in Chinese culture – are more fully realized in the life of a Chinese Christian. It is fairly easy for a Chinese person to admit that their modern society has let slip many of their traditional cultural values. And the slide will continue – whatever is good in an unregenerate Chinese person will gradually drip away until there’s nothing left but that which traditional Chinese culture would itself condemn outright!

– Exalt the all-surpassing value of Christ 

Let’s suppose for a second that there was actually a dichotomy between being Chinese and trusting Christ. Would it not be worth any exclusion, any aspersion, any persecution to have Christ anyway? Better to be a cultural orphan with Christ than to enjoy the pleasures of culture for a season! At the end of the day, it is the preacher’s job to exalt the worth of Christ so that his hearers would gladly sell all to have him! Whoever comes to Christ and does not hate their father, mother, wife, children, brothers and sisters – yea, and his own culture also – cannot be his disciple! As long as a Chinese person is hesitating at the plow, looking back to those at home, he is still far from seeing the beauty of Christ in the Gospel. May we so preach, and may God grant that those who hear be so persuaded!

There is cautionary instruction for Western believers in all of this as well. While Chinese people have to buck societal pressure to make a commitment to Christ, in many places in the West, there is considerable pressure in the opposite direction! When an American professes faith in Christ, it can be viewed as an altogether traditional and respectable sort of choice. But as all who resolve to follow Christ ultimately discover, there is no escaping the cross, whatever culture you happen to belong to. Even in America, where Christian faith is often lumped into the same category as table manners and college education, if a believer lives according to the radical message of the Gospel, there will be blowback. So while we are thankful for our good heritage and all the rest, we would do well to analyze our own walk and ask, ‘What has it cost me to follow Christ?’ If the answer is ‘not much,’ we should seriously contemplate whether or not our commitment to Christ is more cultural than we think.

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