Finding Faith in China
For the first time since Mao Zedong proclaimed the People’s Republic of China in 1949, a Seventh-day Adventist world church president has been able to lead an official delegation to visit Adventist believers in China. In May Pastor Jan Paulsen and other church leaders from the world church headquarters and the Northern Asia-Pacific Division traveled to China for a week-long itinerary coordinated by Pastor Eugene Hsu, a Chinese-born world church vice president. Pastor Paulsen spoke to Adventist congregations in Beijing, Wuxi, and Shenyang; visited with local church pastors; and met with religious and political officials.
Adventists in China worship under extraordinary circumstances. The state considers the Adventist Church part of the broader Chinese Protestant church, which is coordinated by the government-sponsored China Christian Council/Three-Self Patriotic Movement. Although recognized as a distinct belief group, Adventists have no autonomous administration, no institutions to provide Adventist pastoral training, and congregations often share church buildings with Sundaykeeping groups. But in spite of the challenges, they are a growing group within Chinese Christendom. Current estimates suggest there are almost 400,000 Adventists in China, meeting in around 4,000 congregations and home churches.
Adventist World editor Bill Knott was part of the delegation. He sat down with Pastor Paulsen just a few days after their return to Silver Spring, Maryland, for a conversation about this historic visit.
KNOTT: The week in China was filled with amazing sights and experiences. What impressions from your visit were most striking to you?
PAULSEN: I don’t think I have ever been anywhere where I have been so stirred, spiritually and emotionally. On the whole, the people are not well-off. They have comparatively little. And yet I saw again and again how they rejoice, and how highly they value that which they have in Christ.
But let me be more specific. Sometimes you meet a person and there is a spiritual atmosphere that surrounds them. It defies explanation; you can’t really describe it other than that they exude a sense of “spiritual” power and strength. I sensed this with two senior women pastors we met.
I think all of us in the delegation sensed that as well.
Hao Ya Jie is the senior pastor of Beiguan Adventist Church in Shenyang. When she began her ministry 20 years ago there were only a few dozen members. And now, 20 years on, she has a community of 7,000! Three thousand are there at the main church, and the others are spread out in the district among 117 churches.
Before I preached in her church, she said to me, “Afterward, I would like to invite people to come forward. I do this every time.” And I was told that this was her pattern every Sabbath. She has seven full-time assistants, and so when at the end of the sermon 150 people came forward, these assistants stepped in and immediately took care of those who responded. It was done in such an extraordinary manner.
When Hao Ya Jie looks at you, even though somebody else is translating her words, there is an incredible sense of strength and warmth in her eyes.
Did you hear the passion in her prayer? Her voice almost broke as she prayed for people to respond to her appeal. I wished we could have heard a live translation of her prayer.
And this sensation of spiritual strength was reinforced by the second pastor we met, who came from the northeastern province of Jilin. Zu Xiu Hua is in charge of a district of 20,000 members. Twenty thousand! When restrictions on religion were loosened in the 1980s, the church in that area experienced major growth for more than a decade.
She related one story of a huge baptism conducted by the only Adventist pastor there at the time. He was planning to do all the baptizing, but it became too much for him to handle. So he stood in the river and spoke the words, and the deacons lowered the candidates into the water and brought them up. The pastor stood in the river for three days, and baptized 3,000 people—1,000 a day! I mean, I’ve stood in a river in Africa when we baptized 300, and it took four hours of sinking down into the mud of the river. But this—this is incredible!
We asked Zu Xiu Hua, “How do you account for this? What is the extraordinary appeal?” She said, “The people come to the teachings, and they see our zeal and the Holy Spirit.”
“They see our zeal.” Here is a disarmingly simple answer, and yet so powerful. And I said to myself, Would that our people everywhere had this zeal which is so visible and so strong!
One of our colleagues on the trip asked her, “What do you most like to preach about?” And she looked at him and said, “The cross—what else?” In her interview, she alluded to this issue of zeal; that this is what distinguishes Adventists from other Protestant groups in the countryside.
And for that reason, the Adventist Church has seen remarkable growth. In some places the growth has been unreal. This sense of the member’s zeal continues to linger with me. It made the whole visit, for me, such a spiritual experience. I have said to the Lord more than once, “I went there wanting and praying to be an instrument of some kind, and yet I was the one who received so much!”
If these two women were pastors in a North American or Western setting, their volumes would be on bookshelves everywhere because they would be the pastors of megachurches. How should the rest of the Adventist Church look at the phenomenal growth in China and relate to its emerging leaders?
Well, China is incomparable. Whatever you see in China, you can’t place other things next to it and say, “Therefore….” Their journey has to do with hardship, and it has to do with God finding an Elijah in a setting where things are so difficult. God is finding these voices, this commitment, these people, and is spiritually equipping them and using them in this phenomenal manner.
The fact is we have at least half a dozen women pastors who are ordained as ministers in China. We recognize them as ordained ministers; they are in our records in the statistics in the Yearbook. Should anyone from the Western world say to me, “There, you see, they did it in China, they can do it here!” My response would be, “Would you want to become like China?” China is unique, and the fact is we don’t have true control over who is ordained. Technically, the CCC [the state-regulated China Christian Council] has the final say, but the decision is usually made in consultation with the local Adventist congregation. In reality, though, it’s a process that doesn’t always work the same way in every situation.
We need to recognize that God works with reality in a given place. I’ve said many times before, “Obedience to God is always obedience where you are.” And you can’t simply transfer that to another place, because you don’t have the same situation or the same ingredients.
Someone on the trip spoke of two biblical analogies for what’s happening in China: First, the Jerusalem Council, where the church had to come to grips with things it couldn’t control. And second, the baptism of Cornelius, which forced the church to recognize the Holy Spirit working in unexpected ways and places. Are these good parallels to what you are describing?
When we think of China, we need to recognize that it’s unique. There are limitations that operate there, while at the same time there’s an almost unlimited potential. We must have the strength and courage to allow this to develop, even if growth in China takes a different shape from that to which we’re accustomed.
It’s clear the Holy Spirit is at work in China. In one church where we worshipped there were two halls, one on each floor, both the same size, and both of them were filled. And people were sitting in the stairways between them, just sitting, so they could catch some of what was going on. There is such a hunger for both the Word of God and for fellowship with other believers. Bill, how can you experience this without feeling, Would that we had this everywhere!
I saw those believers sitting in the hallway, faces alight, singing hymns as though they were on the front row. And they were only within earshot of an old, decrepit loudspeaker. It was deeply moving to me to see how absolutely attractive the gospel is to them.
Another sentiment which lodged in my mind, and I’m sure also in yours, has to do with their vision for training lay people. Our ministry in China is basically lay-driven and lay-trained. We have a few people who go to seminaries operated by the China Christian Council. In these institutions our people receive general theological training and biblical instruction, but they don’t, at this time, get the particular Adventist dimension they need.
Therefore, most of those who serve our churches as pastors and deacons (who are in reality pastors, but not fully employed as such) are trained in the local church. It’s on-the-job training, but it’s also very focused and disciplined.
One might be tempted to say, Most of the people who will lead the training are themselves not fully trained! But then you look into the eyes of these two pastors we spoke of earlier. If somehow this zeal can be transferred from one generation of church leaders to another, what a blessing!
I was touched as we were leaving the Beiguan church by a spontaneous moment when the choir came out and surrounded you and just started singing. It wasn’t something they’d planned to do—it grew up in the moment. This was one of the most memorable moments of the trip for me. I had seen the politeness, the reserve, the decorum of their society. But suddenly there was this moment when I thought I was in West Africa! The singing, the clapping! You’ve talked about what this visit meant to you. What do you think this visit by a delegation from the world church meant to Adventists in China?
Well, I hope they felt enormously affirmed; that they received the sense that, “We’re part of a family. We haven’t been forgotten. We’re not outside the circle. And these people, by coming here, have showed us that we’re family.”
You spoke in this way at each place we visited, and I thought, This is what they’re hungry for. This sense, not only of a connection with each other, but a sense of connection with a world family.
How you would assess the longer-term impact of this visit. Do you think it will have any effect on the church’s ability to operate more successfully in Chinese society?
Yes and no. I think internally the church will feel empowered by its own expanding strength to find ways to hold things together. But I think, as far as the public officials are concerned, it could increase suspicion. Religious authorities are committed to limiting that which is too “distinctive”; they describe Protestant Christianity in China as “postdenominational.” But I feel strongly that this is a political description which has little to do with the true essence of Christianity. It lacks the freedom that is so precious to all Christians; the freedom to be who you are chosen to be, and to express your values.
It’s difficult to predict future developments. I sense that Adventists in China need to explore the boundaries of what’s possible. As long as the church is Chinese, led by Chinese people, and as long as we respect the limitations of how we, internationally, relate to the church in China, the authorities can probably tolerate a fair bit. They seem not to be overly embarrassed by the fact that, “Yes, you have your special characteristics, such as Sabbathkeeping.” But as far as linking internationally is concerned, we have to be very cautious and prudent.
There are many ministries within the world of Adventism that may have an interest in how they might serve in China. What would you say to those ministries, based on this visit?
I would say that Adventists in China, because of the extremely delicate nature of their situation, are best placed to take care of their own mission. Sometimes when supporting ministries go into places such as China they create vulnerability and exposure that is not helpful to the church. So I would say, “Please pray for your brothers and sisters in China. If there are resources you can make available to help them, then do so. They need more churches. But let them carry the initiative.”
Keep in mind, also, that they have access to a lot of printed Adventist literature. Forty-five Ellen G. White books are already translated into Chinese. My sense from this visit, and also from visits in the late 1990s, is that Seventh-day Adventism in China has not “gone astray.” I sense it is very mainline Adventist, very traditional, and richly nurtured in its Adventist identity.
So you would say, “Resource the church, but don’t feel like you have to go in and reshape it.”
Exactly. I feel that no one should take such an initiative upon themself. If someone is wondering how they can support the mission of the church in China, then let’s talk. Let’s counsel together, and find a good way.