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Games open doors for China ministry, but hurdles remain

ATLANTA — The Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport is 7,185 miles from Beijing.
To Ron Brown, it seems just a bit closer.
Brown, an elder of the church in nearby Peachtree City, Ga., was describing the work of China Mission over lunch in the mammoth airport when his cell phone rang recently.
A few gates away, a coworker was waiting to fly standby to Ohio — to relieve another woman looking after a Chinese child the ministry had flown to the U.S. for surgery. Brown smiled when he heard the news. His coworker was on the plane.
In the next few weeks roughly 2 million athletes and spectators will arrive in Beijing for the 2008 Olympics.
For Brown and other church members, the games highlight the opportunities and challenges faced by Christians serving in the massive People’s Republic, a communist nation since 1949 that imposes strict regulations on religious observances.
On Aug. 3 the Peachtree City congregation plans to launch the Beijing Church of Christ, an officially registered body that will offer worship services for visitors during the Olympics at a Beijing hotel.
The church will continue to host worship for expatriates living in Beijing after the games.
“The government has stated that, if all goes well, we will have permission to construct a church building in a few years,” Brown said. “We feel this is a major step in the direction of getting the Church of Christ firmly and legally established in China.” Chinese Christians — at least for now — will not be allowed to attend services at the new congregation, which is open only to holders of passports issued outside China.
 Across the vast nation, small groups of believers meet in homes. A few church-supported ministries send workers to China to nurture these young congregations. The workers often teach English in Chinese schools.
Though not allowed to evangelize publicly, they quietly teach the Bible to those who will listen.
China Mission cares for 700 orphans and completes more than 100 open-heart and cleft palate surgeries each year — all with permission from the Chinese government. The foundation flies children with severe needs to hospitals in the U.S.
Regardless of their methods, workers agree that China, the world’s most populous country, demands churches’ attention.
To emphasize the point, Brown punched up a PowerPoint slide on his laptop computer that compared China’s 1.3 billion souls to the populations of Latin America, where hundreds of North American churches send money and mission teams.
Combined, Central and South America have about 548 million people — less than half of China’s population.
“Each year more mission dollars from the U.S. Churches of Christ go to Honduras, with 7 million people, than China’s 1.3 billion,” Brown said. “We must not continue to turn our backs on the largest group of people in the world.”
Part of the reason for churches’ lack of involvement in China may be the restrictive — even mystical — nature of the country itself.
“Most all of Asia is pretty mysterious to an average American,” said Clint Bunch, a member of the Highland Oaks church in Dallas. “It’s just scary.”
When Bunch first visited China, “I really expected to feel like I was in danger,” he said. “I felt more like I was in high school.”
Even cities with millions of people have strategically placed loudspeakers, used by the government to make official announcements. Reminders of the government’s authority are hard to ignore, Bunch said.
But religion isn’t forbidden in China. According to the government’s Web site, “China is a country of great religious diversity and freedom of religious belief.” The government recognizes Buddhism, Islam, Taoism, Catholicism and Protestant Christianity.
Twin organizations known as the China Christian Council and the Three Self Patriotic Movement form the country’s only state-sanctioned Protestant denomination. These groups claim about 15 million adherents.
The actual number of Chinese who claim Christianity is much higher, said David Aikman. The reporter for Time magazine traveled extensively across the nation and visited its vast network of small, house churches.
“In effect, the number of Christian believers in China, both Catholic and Protestant, may be closer to 80 million,” Aikman wrote in his book “Jesus in Beijing.” “But the reality is simply that no one knows for sure.”
Churches that meet in homes and apartments across China operate in something of a legal gray area, said Mark Hooper of Bedford, Texas-based Missions Resource Network.
“Is it illegal for a group of 10 Christians to get together in an apartment? No,” Hooper said. “But do they have a license to meet? No.”
In general, Chinese authorities “are not rooting out Christians — not trying to find clandestine churches meeting,” Hooper said. When authorities act against churches, it’s usually because someone lodged a complaint against the Christians, he added.
One American church member who worked in China recalled an incident in which police broke up a Bible study she was attending. As they dispersed the group, the police apologized profusely for having to intervene, said the church member, who requested that her name not be used.
“In China, there are more and more people believing in God,” a Chinese member of a house church told The Christian Chronicle. “But there is still a lot of work to be done. The whole environment is still atheist. Young believers are rare.
“God’s word is powerful,” the church member said, “but as Jesus’ followers, we share the Word not only by talking with people but through our lives.”
When the Highland Oaks church concluded a 20-year financial commitment to Africa, members prayerfully considered parts of the world underserved by Churches of Christ.
Their prayers led them to Asia, Bunch said.
Other churches and members across the U.S. have made similar commitments to serve the people of China.
At the 2005 Global Missions Conference in Arlington, Texas, a group of members met “to initiate greater vision and collaboration among Churches of Christ regarding mission efforts toward the Chinese people,” said Bob Taylor, a church member in Chattanooga, Tenn.
The result was an informal collaboration that has thus far involved 75 to 100 people — American and Asian — representing various congregations and ministries, Taylor said. The group planned to host a session at this year’s Global Missions Conference in late July.
The group has developed a vision for church-planting movements in China and has identified strategies for accomplishing this goal, including partnerships between U.S. and Chinese churches in leadership training, humanitarian work and equipping churches for ministry.
“Achieving the vision will require learning some new methods,” Taylor said. “It is crucial that we align our mission efforts with what God is doing in China.”
Back in Georgia, members of the Peachtree City church said they see God working through the Beijing Church of Christ.
The Chinese government granted permission for the group to meet because of China Mission’s long record of service to the nation’s orphans, elderly and needy, said Aubrey Johnson, the church’s minister, who plans to preach the Beijing church’s first sermon Aug. 3.
“We are grateful to the Chinese government for allowing us to establish a congregation of the Lord’s church in its capital city,” Johnson said. “Who could have imagined such a possibility only a short time ago?
“Yes, there are some restrictions on attendance at the present time,” he added. “But it is good to remember the words of Zechariah, who urged, ‘Do not despise the day of small things.’ A ray of light is shining through a cracked door in the East.”

Filed under: International

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