A big church on the margins

The Chinese Christian church has only 25 million members says Associate General Secretary of the China Christian Council, Rev. Dr Lin Manhong.

That relative size in a population of about 1.4 billion is more of a blessing than a hindrance, Rev. Dr Lin explained in delivering the Cato Lecture at the 14th Assembly.

Despite its recent rapid growth Rev. Dr Lin said the Chinese Church’s aim was not to develop into a powerful or influential force at the centre of society nor to grow into a social majority.

The goal was to witness to Jesus Christ by following Christ’s example in a land which was predominantly non-Christians.

Staying on the margins of society was where it intended to remain, said Rev. Dr Lin arguing if it was good enough for Jesus Christ to be marginalised then it was good enough for the Chinese church.

The concept of being marginalised and small was also one with which the Uniting Church could identify. In the 1976 census 14 per cent of Australians identified as being either Congregational, Presbyterian of Methodist but by 2013 that had dropped to five per cent.

Rev. Dr Lin referred to UCA ex-President Rev. Prof. Andrew Dutney’s observation that “The church today is as small as the church of the 1970s was large, and we are as marginal to the dominant culture today as we were central to the Australian society a century ago.”

A church being marginal and small opened the possibility of becoming the marginal people of God, which had great significance, and was a concept with which Chinese Christians can fully identify, Rev. Dr Lin said.

Rev. Dr Lin argued that Jesus Christ was the marginal person ‘par excellence’.

“He was born in a lowly stable, and was considered an outsider. He befriended those on the edge of society such as Zacchaeus the tax collector, the sick, the poor and the woman at the well,” she said.

“If Jesus Christ, the incarnated God, was a marginal person, we Christians are definitely called to be the marginal people of God.”

Rev. Dr Lin quoted H. Richard Niebuhr, “To be a Christian is to follow Jesus Christ, to have the incarnated Christ influence and modify one’s person, life and destiny, and to identify oneself with the cause of Jesus Christ.”

Being small and marginal also helped the church to understand the Christian mission from a new perspective of mission from the margins said Rev. Dr Lin.

“When the church is in a position of being at the margin, it will be more likely to be like Jesus Christ to relate to and embrace those who are marginalised, because the church itself is one of them, as Jesus Christ was,” Rev. Dr Lin said.

“It will be more likely for the church to join the voices from the margins and not just to listen to and speak for them from a distant, central and privileged position.

“It will be more likely for the church to be a more active agent of missionary activities to counteract injustice, inequality and exclusivity that have kept people at the margins.

“It will be more likely for the church to remember its original nature and what it ought to be.

Being more willing to look for change and renewal in the Church was another positive which came from being on the margin of society.

Rev. Dr Lin referred to philosopher Thomas Kuhn, who wrote:

“Revolutionary change comes not from the centre of a discipline but at its boundaries, where existing paradigms are not held onto as strongly, where prevailing orthodoxies can be questioned and where individuals and communities  are freer to be experimental and creative.

“That kind of change and renewal of the churches required the church to have a re-engagement with people at the margins of society, to be ready to embrace disestablishment of the church, and to see the church’s relative ‘powerlessness’ as a creative opportunity for change and renewal.”

Rev. Dr Lin said the significance of a church being small and marginal meant that it helped it re-read the gospels from a perspective of marginality instead of from a centrist point of view.

“It reminds us that we are called to be the marginal people of God because Jesus Christ was the pioneer of the marginal people of God.”

Rev. Dr Lin said Protestant Christianity was first introduced to China in 1807 but it was not well received among the people for a variety of reasons including the fact it was protected and secured by a set of unequal treaties and the behaviour of Christians irritated Chinese people.

Christianity was attacked by the May 4 Movement and the Anti-Christian Movement in the 1920s and China was influenced by Leninism from the 1950s through to the 70s.

The attitude to religion had gradually changed since the reform and the opening up of the country in the late 1970s  and the Christian population has grown rapidly since then.

In the 30 years between 1982 and 2012 the population grew almost nine-fold – from three million to 25 million. There were 50 congregations in 1980 and that had grown to 60,000 by 2012.

That was achieved by adopting Anglican Bishop K.H.Ting’s concept of the Cosmic Christ.

“This is to say that God’s love revealed in Christ extends all over the world to all of God’s people and thus, correspondingly, as Christ’s disciples, Christians should also learn to interact with and love others with God’s all-inclusive love reflected in the life and death of Jesus Christ.”

“The work of the Holy Spirit is not just limited within the church. The society and even the whole world is also a place where God’s work is manifest and therefore, they should have the strength and courage to carry out their responsibilities in the world and to live up to the ethical dimension of Christian faith in their daily life.”

Rev. Dr Lin said a good example of the church engaging in the world was the provision of social services for the community.

Doing social service had various levels of significance for the Chinese church both theologically and practically.

Christian Chinese academic Zhuo Xinping argued, “In the current Chinese context, if Christianity wants to play the prophetic role in society, it must start with serving people around them.”

Rev. Prof. Andrew Dutney said: “The ministry of the church must be exercised through its members’ participation in the ordinary life of the world.”

Rev. Dr Lin said the Chinese Church could learn a lot about social service from the Uniting Church, especially from UnitingCare.