Printer Friendly

Chinese Folk Christianity and Its Possibly Missional Nature.

During the last four decades, Chinese Christianity (1) has grown fast. Though the total number of Christians in today's China is debated, the widely accepted estimate is about 40-50 million Protestant Christians. The majority of the Protestant population, however, is in rural areas. (2) Many are still not well educated and are socially marginalized; as Ryan Dunch noted 20 years ago, the composition of Protestant congregations in rural China can be summed up as the "four manys": many old people, many women, many sick people, and many illiterates. (3) Although 20 years have passed, Dunch's observation still is not far from the truth. (4)

It is true that every major religion has experienced rapid development in China since the reform and openness of 1978. While the growth of Buddhism and Christianity has been comparatively faster--and has been a special focus of attention--the recovery of Chinese folk religion is a phenomenon that has usually been ignored. (5) Moreover, folk religion has had a strong impact on Christianity in China, and "Christianity has received many folk-religious features. This makes Chinese popular Christianity, or folk Christianity, (6) "folk-religion-styled Christianity." (7)

Chinese folk religion goes back to some of the earliest and most primitive forms of religion in China. It assumes that the world was alive with spirits and gods. Traditional China had a kitchen god, earth gods, river gods, insect gods, city gods, a god of wealth, and many more. Although there is no folk religion existing by name in present-day China, we cannot deny that its influence remains in people's minds and daily lives. Even among Christians, many still have some connection with traditional deities, or let them co-exist with the Christian God. For them, there is little conflict between the Christian God and traditional deities. Consequently, there is a syncretism in Chinese folk Christianity.

Up to the present, few studies have been done on Chinese folk Christianity. They are exclusively from a sociological or religious studies perspective. None is done from a missiological or theological perspective. This article will explore the missional implications and the missional nature of Chinese folk Christianity. My main and specific question is the following: Is Chinese folk Christianity missional in a situation where the absolute majority of people are atheists or other religious believers? I would like first to discuss briefly the issue of religious syncretism in China, and then go on to tease out some characteristics of Chinese folk Christianity.

Syncretism and Chinese Folk Christianity

Syncretism that leads Chinese religions to harmonious co-existence is a major characteristic of Chinese religions, including folk religion. Although there has been no official form of folk religion (organizations) since the establishment of New China, in the hearts of the people there remains a deep-rooted belief in gods and spirits. With the rapid growth of Christianity in China during the last four decades, Christianity has filled the void of faith and replaced deep-rooted folk religion in many respects. But folk religion has also executed latent influences on Christianity and has made Chinese folk Christianity somewhat syncretic on the other.

It is true that traditional Chinese religions or folk beliefs are not exclusive. Most Chinese people are tolerant of religious beliefs and believe that all religions are to teach people to be good. Thus, religions in general can harmoniously co-exist in Chinese society. The Chinese cultural tradition values the spirit of harmony, and the three traditional religions (Confucianism, Buddhism and Taoism) have maintained a situation of harmonious co-existence over a long history, during which time mutual influence and interpenetration increased and strengthened.

Because of this, the beliefs of folk religion generally incorporated aspects of the three religions as well as foreign religions; slogans such as "the unity of the three religions" and "the grand harmony of world religions" were commonplace. This inclusive spirit inevitably leads Chinese religions to be syncretic to some degree, which allows Chinese religions to exist together harmoniously. In Chinese history, there has never been a religious war. It is true that very few Chinese, whether educated or not, have had any great difficulty following all of these religious traditions. Each was regarded simply as "a different road to the same destination." It may also be true that the great majority of Chinese "wore a Confucian crown, a Taoist robe and pair of Buddhist sandals," (8) as Robert Orr says.

Anthropologist Francis Hsu gives a more concrete example of the syncretism of Chinese folk religion. He did field investigation in West Town in the southwestern province of Yunnan in the 1940s. According to his report, each household there had a family shrine. The popular gods in all family shrines were three: Kuan Kung [often called Guan Ti] (the warrior from the Three Kingdoms), Confucius, and one or more Buddhas. A fourth popular figure was the Goddess of Mercy or Fertility. In addition, there were often other spiritual figures in family shrines which the family members could not identify. (9) It seems that each family shrine became a religious mixed plate. It contained different kinds of gods from different religious traditions.

The vast majority of Chinese do not follow either one or another of the great traditions with any regard for its purity. Many systems of belief and practice have contributed to popular religious ideas. Popular religion or folk religion thus easily becomes a hybrid. Judith Berling rightly points out that "it is inadequate to think of Chinese religious life and practice as comprised of three separate, distinct, and competing religions called Confucianism, Buddhism, and Taoism. We need to take into account that religious communities both overlapped and competed with each other, drawing from a common pool of religious images, texts, symbols, and practices." (10) She further affirms that the notion of the Chinese religious field embraces the notion of the public field or common pool of religious elements. As a grid in which "each religious group finds its appropriate niche, the Chinese religious field must also have a dynamic or active aspect, for it is a field of religious interaction." (11) Here we may find the necessity for syncretism in Chinese religious practice.

The polytheistic nature of Chinese religions or folk faiths was probably developed to meet the requirement of community integration as a function of religion. In many Chinese people's minds, different gods can do different things to better people's lives. In a hierarchical and pragmatism-focused society, religious purity is not important; instead, there is much room for religious syncretism or cultural hybridity in religious practice. People's interest in the utilitarian aspect of religion inevitably leads their religious practice to impurity, syncretism, and hybridity

It is true that there is no division of Chinese religion into mutually exclusive groups at the popular level. It was only at the elite level of the three teachings (Confucianism, Buddhism, and Daoism) that mutual exclusivity was a major factor. (12) There is a pluralistic nature in the world of Chinese religious life, with its relative lack of systematic doctrine at the theoretical level and its extremely pragmatic attitude at the behavioral level.

Rooted in the rich soil of Chinese folk religion, Chinese folk Christianity is easily inclined to be syncretic or hybrid in some degree. According to Dunch, "Churches in rural areas are more like folk or popular Christianity, which have, more or less, some elements of syncretism. It is true in some degree that Chinese Protestantism, especially rural Protestantism, is a hybrid, or in fact many hybrids as were all cultural products." (13) Dunch was and maybe still is right. In terms of research done by Wang Ying, the spread of Christianity in rural China has come under the inevitable influence of folk religion. Consequently, there is enough space for rural Christianity to be syncretic to some degree. (14) Through a case study, An Wen has reached a similar conclusion. (15)

Zhao Cuicui and Li Xiangping emphasize an interaction between Christianity and folk religion in their research. They point out that, in the process of the development of Chinese folk Christianity, people in rural areas adopted Christianity as a component of the local society. However, "while Christianity weakens rural tradition, rural tradition also counteracts Christianity. This makes rural Christianity have local features, and thus is a continuation of rural tradition. In the context of social change, Christianity as a foreign religion and local rural tradition are penetrated into each other and become a symbiont." (16)

There are not many examples of syncretism or hybrids in Chinese folk Christianity. I would like here to give two. The first is the syncretic belief of a Christian family from a rural area in Shanxi province. In this family, pictures of the god of doors and the god of wealth are posted on both sides of the main door of the house. The picture of the god of the kitchen is in the kitchen. The dining room looks like a family shrine and a religious hodgepodge, where the images of Confucius, Bodhisattva Guan Yin, Guan Ti, Jesus, and even Mo Zetung consecrate the same wall. For this family, all religions can exist together harmoniously. Another example is from a rural area in Henan province. A local religious officer from Henan province reported that he arrived once at a local church on a Sunday morning to see that every believer was carrying a very big bag made of straw. During worship, they put their bag aside. The local officer was wondering what use the bags would be. When the Sunday service ended, he saw that each of them picked up their bag again and left in hurry. Curiously, he followed them for a while and arrived at a local temple. In the temple, each of them took something out of their own bag and then kneeled down on it and sincerely worshipped the gods in the temple of another faith without any interior conflict.

These examples may have no generalized features. Generally speaking, Chinese folk Christianity still follows traditional Christian faith and upholds traditional doctrines to some degree. They believe in the triune God, Jesus Christ as saviour, the Holy Spirit, biblical authority, salvation, bodily resurrection, and so forth. However, they easily mix up Christianity with a many Indigenous elements from Confucianism, Buddhism, Taoism, and Chinese folk religion.

Some Main Characteristics of Chinese Folk Christianity

In her article "The Impact of Contemporary Chinese Folk Religions on Christianity," Gao Shining calls Chinese folk Christianity "folk-religion-styled Christianity." According to her, folk religion has had a many-layered impact on Chinese folk Christianity. (17) In this part, I try to tease out some characteristics of Chinese folk Christianity. Although folk Christianity is a vague concept, it has at least four main features: charisma, pragmatism, ethics, and superstition. (18)


First, it tends to be charismatic. Chinese folk Christianity has a strong pneumatological concern. Charismatic personality reverence and ecstatic spiritual exercise may reveal this tendency.

There is thus a latent charismatic movement in Chinese folk Christianity. Because Chinese folk Christianity is less organized, local communities have to rely on their leaders' personal charisma for its administration. The leaders, thus, are often supposedly and specially endorsed by God and empowered by the Holy Spirit. This is what Max Weber called "reverence for charismatic personalities." (19) For this very reason, many local Christians regard the leaders of their local communities with enthusiastic reverence and pledge themselves to follow them at any cost.

The ideas and practices of the charismatic movement do not only come from Christianity, but they are deeply rooted in Indigenous cultural tradition. Thus, charismatic elements cannot be eradicated from Chinese folk Christianity, unless rural social economy and culture change and people's religious psychological orientation radically transforms.

Believers in folk Christianity also continue to practise spiritual songs, spiritual dances, speaking in tongues, dreams, healing, exorcism, the raising of souls, seeing visions, etc. For many rural Christians, having the ability to practise these spiritual gifts is a sign of a spiritual nature and of God's special love. For some of them, whether they practise these spiritual gifts or not becomes a dividing line between true Christians and false ones. This trend of overemphasizing charismatic practice has given Chinese folk Christianity some of the characteristics of wizardry. Leung Ka-lun points out, "These charismatic practices exercised by Chinese Christianity in rural areas have probably gone beyond the common meaning of religious cult and further into wizardry. As Max Weber said, 'folk religion is very easy to change into wizardry from cultic religion in terms of meeting people's needs.'" (20) Although Chinese folk Christianity cannot be equated with wizardry, it really consists of some wizardry elements. It is true to some degree that the charismatic phenomenon in rural Christianity is one of the most important latent elements that differentiates it from the institutionalized elite church.

There is also ecstatic spiritual practice within Chinese folk Christianity. This kind of practice is still rooted in Chinese folk religion. In collective worship or individual devotion, many folk Christians are fascinated by the ecstatic spiritual state. Christians, especially those from sects or cults such as Yellers, Criers, and others, are prone to pursue spiritual satisfaction through some ecstatic spiritual state in their worship or devotions. To some extent, this element exists in every spiritual practice of Chinese folk Christian communities.


The second characteristic is its pragmatic concern. It is true that Chinese folk Christians generally focus more on this worldly life. They pray to God often for health, a good job, a good education, a happy marriage, wealth, and so forth.

In Chinese folk religion, gods are greatly to be feared and propitiated; but if they fail to deliver on some earnest request, the idols representing the gods are often cursed or slapped by people who delivered their requests. For this pragmatic reason, gods in folk religion often were interwoven with the gods of Buddhism and Taoism. Many peasants have little interest in distinguishing between religious beliefs. For them, if gods can meet their needs, they don't care who they really are. Chinese popular religion is strongly oriented toward success in human affairs and shows little tendency to regard the world of humanity as an insignificant appendage to a spiritual world. For many Chinese people, many devils are at work in the world, causing disaster and misfortune, and the only powers that can deal with them effectively are shen (gods). To some degree, the Christian God plays the same role in Chinese folk Christianity as shen in Chinese folk religion. For many folk Christians, God is a powerful physical protector and material giver rather than a spiritual counsellor.

Chinese cultural traditions emphasize pragmatism, and the negative escapism of Buddhism and Taoism have never been able to threaten the leading position of positive, this-worldly Confucianism. Therefore, Chinese folk Christianity generally does not go in for the system of withdrawing from society to undertake ascetic discipline, and in their doctrines they emphasize the social virtues.

The majority of the Chinese population are peasants, and peasants also constitute the majority of the Chinese Christian population. The worldview of peasants is realistic and pragmatic. They pay particular attention to the benefits of this world. They thus have belief in religion while not completely relying on religion. According to a Chinese idiom, they "don't offer incense in their daily life, but hug the feet of Buddha when they are in trouble." Chinese folk Christians are also prone to view the value of religion as a guarantee for a happy life in this world, although there still is a future-oriented and eschatological dimension in their faith. For many of them, utilitarianism is a general attitude to Christianity; God is mainly a giver and provides what they want or need. As a poem says, "Open your door and look upon the blue sky / You needn't worry about any need of money / You also needn't worry about what you eat and where you live / Because all of them are before God and God will grant you all of them."


The third characteristic is its moral and ethical emphasis. Chinese folk Christianity also focuses on morality. For many Chinese Christians, to be Christian is to be a good person, a good citizen. In their understanding, to do good will be rewarded by God, and to do evil will be punished by God. It is true that most sermons preached by evangelists in Chinese Christianity, both popular and elite, emphasize the moral dimension of Christianity. This moral orientation is compatible with the teachings of Confucianism, Buddhism, Daoism, and Chinese folk religion.

Religion is not morality, and morality is not religion either. But religion can help and enhance socially ethical and moral norms. The moral characteristic of folk Christianity is influenced not only by Chinese traditional culture, but also by the contemporary social and political situation in China. Some Christians even see the moralization of Christianity as the only way to accommodate Christianity to Chinese socialism. For them, only Christian morality can contribute to Chinese society and the construction of Chinese socialism. Some others see this moralization as a means to evangelize the Chinese people. For them, the moralization of Christianity can provide the possibility to identify Christians with Chinese people and Christianity with Chinese culture. They find some common ground in the moral dimension between Christianity and Chinese culture, or between Chinese Christians and non-Christian Chinese people.


The fourth characteristic is superstition. If it is right to say that well-institutionalized elite Christianity in China is orthodox, it may also be said that Chinese folk Christianity is heterodox. Heterodoxy is not heresy, but may include heretical and superstitious elements at some level. Superstition is a term which has too broad a definition and also may be viewed as radically relativistic. When I use the term here, it is equated with some kind of ignorance and blindness rather than any kind of spiritual belief.

When Orr talks about Chinese folk religion, he contends that out of such a mixture of social custom and peasant superstition a tradition has come down with a firm hold on the rural masses in particular. It poses enormous problems, as China seeks to become a modern society free from irrationality and fatalism. (22) In some sense, Chinese folk Christianity is in the same boat as traditional folk religion.

Like traditional folk religion, Chinese folk Christianity is also dynamic, and because of this dynamism, it inevitably contains some superstitious factors. As Sun Shanling points out, "Chinese folk Christianity contains a lot of feudal and superstitious elements. In comparison to world mainstream Christianity, it is apparently crude, and superstitious. This has been expressed in different degrees in term of different areas and different faith congregations." (23) Gao Shining also indicates that all kinds of superstition have influenced Chinese Christianity. According to her observation, most rural believers are sincere and honest, but many misunderstandings occur because there are few qualified pastors; thus, many superstitions have been confused with Christianity in rural China. (24)

Besides the above-mentioned features, other characteristics of Chinese folk Christianity are worthy of being mentioned here: under-educated lay leadership, loosely structured congregation, non-liturgical worship, etc. These also raise some questions for the development of the Chinese Church, and are worthy of theological reflection.

Chinese Folk Christianity and Its Possibly Missional Nature

Does Chinese folk Christianity have a possible missional nature? Can it work as mission in contemporary China? Could it possibly function as one of the proper agents of mission to Chinese people in contemporary China?

The word "missional" has now become ubiquitous, (25) as Benjiamin Conner says. With the appearance of the missional church movement (26) in Western churches, the missional nature of the church has been highlighted by missiology. Mission is then deemed "not just a program of the church. It defines the church as God's sent people." (27) Taking the church and missiology seriously, mission has thus been understood as participation in the sending of God rather than originating in the imagination of the church. Then, as Van Gelder says, "the genetic code of the missional church makes it missionary in its very essence." (28) In this new conceptualization, mission is not primarily an act of the church but "an attribute of God." (29)

Truly, mission originates from the character and purposes of God. The broad work of missio Dei should not be reduced to mere evangelism or church planting. The concept of the missional church fundamentally refers to the missional nature of the church. It seeks to focus the conversation about what the church is. In light of the church's nature, the missional conversation then explores what the church does. (30) The triune God becomes the primary acting subject in mission rather than the church. God has a mission in the world; and mission is indeed the missio Dei (the mission of God). In understanding missio Dei, we can find that God as a creating God also creates the church through the Spirit, who calls, gathers, and sends the church into the world to participate in God's mission. (31)

Thinking about the mission of Chinese folk Christianity in regard to God's activity in the world, it might be appropriate for us to say that it is a missional church in nature. On the one hand, Chinese folk Christianity has been greatly influenced by folk beliefs; on the other hand, it has had to compete with the rapidly recovering folk beliefs for its mission. This shows that the existence of folk Christianity is determined by the reality of China's rural areas today and the religious needs of the masses of the lower class. (32) No matter how great folk religion has impacted on it, folk Christianity may be deemed the church in mission. Its missional nature may not, at least to some degree, be ignored.

With his reconceptualization of the term missional that emphasizes the essential nature and vocation of the church as God's called and sent people, Darrell Guder puts forward five fundamental affirmations as the basis of a missional church: namely, biblical, historical, contextual, eschatological, and practicable. (33) In my understanding, Chinese folk Christianity may, more or less, strong or weak, have exposed them in one way or another.

Chinese folk Christianity is biblical

As Christians of the Protestant tradition, Chinese folk Christians believe in the authority of the Bible. Both in their religious and in their social lives, the Bible has been desirably deemed the normative and authoritative witness to God's mission, although many of them may have little knowledge of the Bible.

It might be true that, for its understanding of biblical teaching, Chinese folk Christianity has participated in God's mission, although it may be unaware of this itself. What it does, as the people of God, is accordance with the mission of the church being God's mission in the world and for the world, which is in a trinitarian framework. The contribution of Lesslie Newbigin to the discussion of God's mission and the missional church conversation is his clarification of it in a trinitarian framework. He refines studies of mission within the framework of a trinitarian ecclesiology, and lets us see from the Gospel of John 20:21-22 a continuity between the Father's mission, Jesus mission, and the ongoing mission of the Holy Spirit in the life of witness of the church. (34) This trinitarian understanding of mission defines the church's missional nature. Mission is not a function of the church, but the very nature of the church. Thus, the church is a sign, agent, and foretaste of the kingdom of God. As Paul Chung concludes, "In re-envisioning a theology of the missio Dei within this Trinitarian-ecclesial model, Newbigin describes the church as a sign, agent, and foretaste of the kingdom of God." (35)

Chinese folk Christianity emphasizes discipleship cultivation. This emphasis and practice accord to what New Testament teaches about discipleship. As the church, it has a mission because Jesus has a mission. There is one mission. Surely, "Missional church is a community of God's people... When the church is in mission, it is the true church. The church itself is not only a product of that mission but is obligated and destined to extend it by whatever means possible." (36) In this sense, Chinese folk Christianity is missional.

Chinese folk Christianity is historical

This historical-ness can refer to two dimensions: the apostolicity and the catholicity of the church. Folk Christianity which is constituted of local Protestant faith communities is apostolic on the one hand and it is catholic on the other. It is apostolic in a different sense from the customary understanding of apostolicity, however. Chinese folk Christianity seems "more emphatically affirmed when the apostolic activity itself defines the church. What the apostles did, that is, their life and work as witnesses to God's good news in Jesus Christ the Lord, defines and shapes the very nature of the church." (37) This may also reveal the latent missional nature of folk Christianity.

Chinese folk Christianity is also catholic. When we discuss the nature of folk Christianity, we should be aware of its catholicity. Catholicity surely defines and shapes the ecclesiology of Chinese folk Christianity for a particular culture. In his North American context, Guder affirms, "when we shape our ecclesiology for a particular culture, we must take into consideration the historical development of other ecclesologies... As part of our catholicity, we are guided by the Christian church in all its cultural expressions." (38) According to him, any missional church thus needs to be historical. From the perspective of God's mission, all Christian communities, as the people of God, "in all their cultural diversity, may be understood as a universal community of communities. The particular community is, in an essential sense, an expression of the church catholic." (39) Chinese folk Christianity is no exception.

Chinese folk Christianity is contextual

It is without doubt that every ecclesiology is developed within a particular cultural and social context. The principle of incarnation is thus the only way to let a church be a missional church. The gospel always needs to be translated into a particular culture, into specific concrete settings. Spread in its own context, Chinese folk Christianity is obviously contextual.

Certainly, mission as missio Dei "calls forth a church characterized by the incarnation of Jesus Christ. Churches that are planted need not only to proclaim the good news, but also to be good news or be a sign of the good news to the contexts in which they live." (40) This understanding is compatible with what Lesslie Newbigin affirms: that a church is "the church in mission." (41)

In the North American context, Darrell Guder rightly sees the necessity of a paradigm shift in missiological studies. He admits that a profoundly theocentric reconceptualization of Christian mission has replaced the traditionally ecclesiocentric understanding of mission. Mission is rather "the result of God's initiative, rooted in God's purposes to restore and heal creation... God's mission began with the call of Israel to receive God's blessings in order to be a blessing to the nations." (42) The cultural-religious context of Chinese folk Christianity is much different from that of Western churches. However, this new understanding of mission can shed its light on our understanding of the missional nature of folk Christianity.

In its particular context, Chinese folk Christianity has to participate, consciously or unconsciously, in God's mission for the world. It, as the eschatological sign of the kingdom of God, is called to the universal activity of God's reign through the Holy Spirit in the world. As a faith community, it must be a hermeneutical community, reading and announcing the biblical narrative in the community and witnessing to the word of God in terms of its own mission, in order to establish its own Christian identity in the presence of people in the different cultural or religious traditions in which they live. As Paul Chung says, "Evangelization in a non-Western context elaborates the important cultural-religious horizons of those who receive the gospel in their own language, belief system, and life orientation." (43) In this sense, Chinese folk Christianity is the fruit of incarnation or contextualization of Christianity in modern rural China.

Chinese folk Christianity is eschatological

We may say tentatively that Chinese folk Christianity has participated in God's mission, although it itself might be unconscious. It is understandable that, in a trinitarian framework, mission is surely God's mission in the world and for the world. In this sense, we may also tentatively say that Chinese folk Christianity is as a sign, agent, and foretaste of the kingdom of God.

Though obviously having pragmatic and utilitarian features, Chinese folk Christianity still somewhat embraces an eschatological hope in its practice. Folk Christianity is full of pragmatic concerns, and for many folk Christians a pragmatic concern can be revealed in their prayers; however, they also appeal to eschatological hope, such as hope for inner peace, social justice, and especially the kingdom of God. (44)

Chinese folk Christianity has a strong pneumatological concern, as indicated above. Folk Christians thus pay much attention to the activity of the Holy Spirit. From a trinitarian perspective, the Holy Spirit participated in God's action of the creation, redemption, and sanctification of the world. The Holy Spirit is thus the one to bring humanity eschatological hope. According to Inagrace T. Dietterich,
The purpose of missional communities is to be a source of radical hope,
to witness to the new identity and vision, the new way of life that has
become a social reality in Jesus Christ through the power of the Holy
Spirit... As sign, foretaste, agent and instrument of God's reconciling
love and forgiveness, the church makes Jesus Christ visible in the
world. (45)

Leung Ka-lun also concludes in his book about the eschatologocial dimension of Chinese folk Christianity. According to him, rural Christianity has both radically restorational elements and an obviously eschatological orientation. It is both restorational and eschatological Christianity, which is a hybrid that mixes up Christianity and Chinese folk religion. (46) Although Leung emphasizes the syncretic feature of Chinese rural Christianity, he clearly maintains its eschatological nature of mission.

As people called by God in Christ, Chinese folk Christians try to have their missional witness in the particular context, making Christ visible among Chinese people. Xie Ming refers to two functions of folk Christianity, which is beneficial for its mission. The first is the spiritual comfort function that could relieve people's anxiety and fear and provide emotional comfort. The second is the moral education function that may reestablish locally social values and set up norms for local people's behaviour. (47) For its practical and functional reason, folk Christianity gives great significance to healing. According to one survey, more than 60 percent of people believe in Christianity because of illness. (48) For folk Christians, healing not only has some future, eschatological significance, but also, even more importantly, has temporary practical meaning.

In their research article, Gu Yalin and Hou Xingfang sum up four positive functions of Chinese folk Christianity from the perspective of sociology: the psychological adjustment function, the social control function, the social integration function, and the public function for communication and identification. (49) All these social functions can be means for Chinese folk Christianity to mission, both in the world and for the world.

Furthermore, folk Christianity also attaches great importance to family and social ethics. It believes that the human relationship to God is the basis of our relationships with each other. (50) It may be said that folk Christianity is a morally concerned Christian community. Truly, it focuses on the ethical teaching of Christianity, and emphasizes social ethics. It claims that Christians have the responsibility to love others as they love God. (51) In any sense, Chinese folk Christianity may have potential for mission: it has a good relationship with, and easy access to, the great majority of rural Chinese people. Each local folk Christian community is as much and often more a facilitator for various activities for both local Christians and their non-Christian neighbours.

A Brief Theological Analysis

Having revealed the missional nature of Chinese folk Christianity, I would like here to provide a brief theological analysis of it. As a missional agent in nature, folk Christianity has raised some theological questions during its spread and development.

Folk Christianity has raised the boundary and identity question. This not only needs to be answered from the perspective of the relationship between ecclesiology and missiology, but also can shed some light on re-establishing the boundary of Chinese Christianity. As to Christians' encounter with their non-Christian neighbours in mission, there may be three major Christian views of other faiths at large: namely, exclusivism, inclusivism, and pluralism. Judith Berling states,
In general terms, exclusivists fortify and protect the boundaries of
Christianity, upholding its distinctive message as the only viable way
to salvation. Inclusivists provide a cautious opening to other
traditions, embracing them under the Christian umbrella, while
preserving the unique saving power of the gospel message. Pluralists
push hardest at the boundaries, seeking a way to re-envision
Christianity as one religion among many peer religions. (52)

Chinese folk Christianity is most likely to mix up the second position and the third, to some extent. It may be possible to rebuild a new boundary for Chinese Christianity.

It might be true that the borders between religious groups are by no means absolute, and--most significantly--their devotees, patrons, and even occasionally their religious professionals overlapped and crossed boundaries. However, it may be difficult to establish a clear boundary and identity. As C. K. Yang has noted,
In popular religious life it was the moral and magical functions of the
cults, and not the delineation of the boundary of religious faiths,
that dominated people's consciousness. Even priests in some country
temples were unable to reveal the identity of the religion to which
they belong. Centuries of mixing gods from different faiths into a
common pantheon had produced a functionally oriented religious view
that relegated the questions of religious identify to a secondary
place. (53)

Undeniably, the superstitious elements of Chinese folk Christianity have yielded some serious social problems and also raised some theological questions. (54) These factors demonstrate some non-Christian, anti-social, feudal, heretical, and immoral elements. Here I should mention some Christian cults or sects in today's China. There are many superstitious facts appearing in such cults as "Established King," "The Disciples," "Full Scope Church," "Ling-ling" (Spirit-spirit), "Lightning from the East," and "Cold Water Sect." In Tony Lambert's terms, they are but "pseudo-Christianity or pseudo-spirituality." He points out, "Pseudo-Christian cults flourish as parasites on the body of the true church, drawing ideas from traditional folk religion which has also enjoyed a massive revival in recent years. Chinese religion is traditionally syncretistic, and ill-taught Christians can easily be drawn into cultic activities." (55)

Chinese folk Christianity without a doubt needs to be aware of this kind of problem and to discern clearly its boundary lines and establish its identity as church. If it is true that "lacking the knowledge to criticize any of the religions, the ordinary person frankly believes whatever religious faiths he encounters," (56) as Laurence Thompson says, then there would be an ambiguous boundary and uncertain identity. Consequently, there might be a two-fold gulf existing in Chinese folk Christianity: both between the great traditions of China and Chinese local Christian practice and between the tradition of Christianity and the local Christian practice. To build a bridge between these two gaps, a missional theology is needed. Therefore, Boshart's insights may be revealing He convincingly affirms that the nature of the church is no longer understood in imperial terms as power seeking to normalize Christianity. (57)

Chinese folk Christianity also raises the question about the encounter between Christian tradition and Chinese cultures. It is somewhat related to the boundary and identity question. Theology is faith seeking understanding. It means that local theology can originate only from the authentic encounter between Christian tradition and local cultures. It may unavoidably call for some kind of syncretism. As Robert Schreiter says, "Local theologies make us keenly aware that 'understanding' itself is deeply colored by cultural context." (58) Thus, "Local theologies are, in many ways, the expressions of popular religions. To develop local theologies, then, one must listen to popular religion in order to find out what is moving in people's lives. Only then can local theologies be developed and the liberating power of the gospel come to its full flower." (59)

To construct local theology, people living in the receiving culture should establish an appropriate relationship between the coming foreign culture ("invading culture," in Schreiter's term) and their own culture. Schreiter has rightly observed that
In the first instance, the encounter with the invading culture is
incomplete. The receiving culture does not feel that the invading
culture's sign system is addressing the same things that its own sign
system addresses, whatever the contrary protestations of the invading
culture might be. As a result, the two never come into serious contact.
The invading sign system remains 'foreign'; it does not effectively
penetrate either the world-view or the group-boundary-formation process
of the receiving culture. (60)

If Christianity is merely allowed into a particular culture or is tolerated but never becomes part of the culture, the local theology can never occur.

Gao Shining mentions three points in the intellectual origins of the clash between Christianity and traditional Chinese culture. Along with the fact that the Christian concept of God and the concept of equality are strange to Chinese people, the third point is Christian monotheism and the great distance between this and the polytheistic worship and symbolic system of Buddhist and Taoist believers. (61) Gao's third point about the clash cannot be found in Chinese folk Christianity. There is a trend for folk Christians to prefer a polytheistic Christianity to some degree. Is this good or bad? Can Chinese folk Christianity be a model of a Chinese indigenous church? What should right relationship be between Christianity and Chinese traditional culture, including folk religion? Authentic answers are not easy to reach.

Chinese folk Christianity is still prone to query any inward church identity, which is church-centred ecclesiology. The inward church is the church that exists merely for itself. This kind of understanding of church "completely misses the fact that the essence of vocation is that God makes the man or woman into his witness." (62) In response to God's call, the goal of Christian vocation is "a union of working with Christ and not a static union. It is a fellowship of apostolic action." (63) As a people called by God in mission, Chinese folk Christianity must be missional church, to exist only as it actively reaches beyond itself into the world, participating in God's mission for the world as an agent of God. Through its pardcipation of God's mission, it may become an instrument but not merely instrumental. As an instrument, it can be used by God for his work of healing, liberating, and blessing. In this sense, Chinese folk Christian practices are the way in which they "bear witness to the mysteries of God in the world." (64)

For this reason, folk Christians make "orthopraxis" more significant than "orthodox" in their disciple-making community life. This may also expose the missional nature of Chinese folk Christianity. As Conner concludes,
the proper ecclesiology for supporting missional Christian practices is
a missional ecclesiology that recognizes the nature and purpose of the
congregation. The discipleship that occurs in this congregation through
being initiated into practices and through deepening participation in
certain practices is transformative--yet this transformation comes by
the Holy Spirit and cannot be manipulated, planned, or scheduled. (65)


The above description and analysis can finally lead to my tentative conclusion: Chinese folk Christianity as faith community has its own missional nature. Although it has been influenced heavily by Chinese folk religion, it still is a contextualized form of Christianity. Folk Christians are people called by God to participate in God's own mission in the world and for the world.

It is true that Chinese folk Christianity has two latent orientations. On the one hand, under the influence of folk religion, rural Christianity has become "folk-religion-styled Christianity"; on the other, there is the Christianization of folk religion. While these two orientations work together to make it somewhat syncretic, folk Christianity is doubtless a missional church. As the church of the trinitarian God, the missional nature of folk Christianity cannot be denied.

In the particular Chinese context of participation in God's mission, it might be inevitable for Chinese folk Christianity to be syncretic to some degree. To proclaim the gospel in China, contexualization of Christianity must be taken into careful consideration. Chinese folk Christianity has raised some questions about this. How deeply and thoroughly contextualized can folk Christianity become? Are there any limits to its contextualization? If yes, what are the limits? These are difficult questions to which folk Christianity itself has to seek answers.

Yongtao Chen

Yongtao Chen is associate professor at Nanjing Union Theological Seminary.

(*) Ms. Ye Ting, a second-year MTh student at Nanjing Union Theological Seminary, collected materials on Chinese folk Christianity for me. Some of them are used in this article. I sincerely thank her for her help.

(1) In the Chinese context, Christianity (jidujiao[phrase omitted]) has a rather narrow meaning, referring only to Protestantism. Catholicism (tianzhujiao[phrase omitted]) is recognized by people as another religion. In this writing, I use the term "Christianity" mostly in this narrow sense. There are also some exceptions which can be discerned in context.

(2) Ming Xie, "Research on the Ways of Spreading of Christianity in Contemporary China" (in Chinese), PhD dissertation, Graduate School, Chinese Academy of Social Science, 2010, 44.

(3) See Ryan Dunch, "Protestant Christianity in China Today: Fragile, Fragmented, Flourishing," presented by The Ricci Institute, University of San Francisco, 14-16 October 1999, 15.

(4) See Xie, "Research on the Ways of Spreading Christianity in Contemporary China," 67.

(5) Shining Gao, "The Impact of Contemporary Chinese Folk Religions on Christianity," in Christianity and Chinese Culture, ed. Miikka Ruokanen and Paulos Huang (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 2010), 170.

(6) In this article, I use the terms "Chinese popular Christianity," "Chinese folk Christianity," and "Chinese rural Christianity" in same sense.

(7) Gao, "The Impact of Contemporary Chinese Folk Religions on Christianity," 177.

(8) See Robert G. Orr, Religion in China (New York: Friendship Press, 1980), 86.

(9) Francis L. K. Hsu, Under the Ancestor's Shadow (New York: Columbia University Press, 1948), cited in Laurence G. Thompson, The Chinese Way in Religion (Encino, Calif.: Dickenson, 1973), 155.

(10) Judith A. Berling, A Pilgrim in Chinese Culture (Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis, 1997), 45.

(11) Ibid., 46.

(12) Christian Jochim, Chinese Religions (Englewood, Calif.: Prentice-Hall, 1986), 15.

(13) See Dunch, "Protestant Christianity in China Today," 38.

(14) Ying Wang, Identity Establishment and Cultural Integration: A Case Study of a Christian Church in the Central China Plain Area (in Chinese) (Shanghai: Shanghai People's Press, 2011), 44-45.

(15) Wen An, "Interaction and Integration: Relationship between Contemporary Christianity and Chinese Folk Beliefs, Based on Field Research on a Village in North China" (in Chinese), Master's thesis, North-East Normal University, 2018, 26-27.

(16) Cuicui Zhao and Xiangping Li, "An Analysis of Relational Interaction between Contemporary Folk Beliefs and Christianity" (in Chinese), Social Scientists 4 (2014), 36.

(17) Gao, "The Impact," 170.

(18) See Yongtao Chen, "Christ and Culture: A Reflection by a Chinese Christian," in Christianity and Chinese Culture, ed. Miikka Ruokanen and Paulos Huang (Grand Rapids, Mich.: William B. Eerdmans, 2010), 352-53.

(19) Cited in Guofa Zhong, "A Survey of Newly Emerged Religious Sects in the Republican Era," China Study Journal 13 (1998), 27.

(20) See Ka-lun Leung, The Rural Churches of Mainland China Since 1978 (in Chinese) (Hong Kong: Alliance Bible Seminary, 1999), 410-11.

(21) See Leung, The Rural Churches, 413.

(22) See Orr, Religion in China, 91.

(23) Shanling Sun, "Chinese Folk Christianity," see Christian Culture and Modernisation (in Chinese), ed. Shining Gao and Guanghu He (Beijing: Chinese Social Science Press, 1996), 252.

(24) Gao, "The Impact," 178-79.

(25) Benjiamin T. Conner, Practicing Witness: A Missional Version of Christian Practices (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 2011), 11.

(26) The missional church movement first arose during the end of the 20th century and the beginning of the 21st century. The movement seeks to rethink and redefine the nature of the church and create a new paradigm in which churches are seen as missional in nature, instead of attractional in nature. The missional church defines itself in terms of its mission--being sent ones who take the gospel to and incarnate the gospel within a specific cultural context. Darrell L. Guder (ed.), Missional Church: A Vision for the Sending of the Church in North America (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1998), 6.

(27) Ibid., 6.

(28) Ibid., 33.

(29) David J. Bosch, Transforming Mission: Paradigm Shifts in Theology of Mission (Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis, 2011), 390.

(30) Craig van Gelder, The Ministry of the Missional Church: A Community Led by the Spirit (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Books, 2007), 17.

(31) Ibid., 18.

(32) See Gao, "The Impact," 181.

(33) Guder (ed.), Missional Church, 11-12.

(34) Lesslie Newbigin, Open Secret: An Introduction to the Theology of Mission, rev. ed. (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1995), 29.

(35) Paul S. Chung, Reclaiming Mission as Constructive 'Theology: Missional Church and World Christianity (Eugene, Ore.: Cascade Books, 2012), 16-17.

(36) Alan Hirsch, The Forgotten Ways: Reactivating the Missional Church (Ada: Brazos Press, 2007), 82.

(37) Guder (ed.), Missional Church, 256.

(38) Ibid., 11.

(39) Ibid., 248.

(40) David W. Boshart, Becoming Missional: Denominations and New Church Development in Complex Social Contexts (Eugene, Ore.: Wipf & Stock, 2011), 20.

(41) See Newbigin, The Open Secret, 1-2.

(42) Guder (ed.), Missional Church, 4.

(43) Chung, Reclaiming Mission, 288.

(44) See Xiaofeng Tang, Field Research on Contemporary Chinese Christianity (in Chinese) (Beijing: Social Science and Documents Press, 2014), 57; Hui Fan, "Folk-Religion-Styled Christianity: As Exemplified by Nongxing Town Church" (in Chinese), Master's thesis, Anhui University, 2011, 18; Wang, Identity Establishment, 56-57.

(45) Guder (ed.), Missional Church, 153.

(46) Leung, Rural Churches, 409.

(47) Xie, "Ways," 75-76.

(48) Wang, Identity Establishment, 56-57.

(49) Yalin Gu and Xingfang Hou, "God Who Is Gradually Entering into the Heart of Peasants: An Analysis of the Social Function of Rural Christianity" (in Chinese), Journal of Suihua Normal College 24:2 (2004), 58-60. See also Tang, Chinese Christianity, 57.

(50) Wang, Identity Establishment, 128-29.

(51) Ibid.

(52) Berling, Chinese Culture, 28-29.

(53) See C. K. Yang, Religion in Chinese Society: A Study of Contemporary Social Functions of Religion and Some of Their Historical Factors (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1961), 25.

(54) See Zhien Zhao (ed.), Uphold the Truth; Resist the Heresy (in Chinese) (Shanghai: China Christian Council, 1996); Tony Lambert, "Modern Sects and Cults in China," China Study Journal 13 (1998).

(55) Lambert, "Modern Sects," 8.

(56) See Laurence G. Thompson, The Chinese Way in Religion (Encino, Calif.: Dickenson, 1973), 213.

(57) Boshart, Becoming Missional, 19.

(58) Robert J. Schreiter, Constructing Local Theologies (Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis, 1997), 75.

(59) Ibid., 143.

(60) Schreiter, Theologies, 155.

(61) See Shining Gao, "Twenty-first Century Chinese Christianity and the Chinese Social Process," China Study Journal 15:2/3 (2000), 2.

(62) Conner, Practicing Witness, 37-38.

(63) Ibid., 38.

(64) Ibid., 97.

(65) Ibid., 107.

DOI: 10.1111/irom.12283

[Please note: Some non-Latin characters were omitted from this article]
COPYRIGHT 2019 World Council of Churches
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 2019 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Author:Chen, Yongtao
Publication:International Review of Mission
Article Type:Report
Date:Nov 1, 2019
Previous Article:Fresh Expressions of Church and the Mixed Economy: Potential and Challenges for Church Development.
Next Article:What Does the Development of Fresh Expressions of Church in the UK Tell Us about Mission Today?

Terms of use | Privacy policy | Copyright © 2020 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters