Ryan Zhang moved to the United States from Guangzhou, China at the age of twelve, and has lived in three U.S. cities and two different continents since then. Ryan received his Master of Divinity at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary and is currently serving as a church planting resident at New City Presbyterian Church in Cincinnati, OH, his US hometown. Before moving to Boston for seminary, Ryan lived in Washington D.C. for seven years, first as a student at Georgetown University and later working for a law firm. It was during his time in D.C. that Ryan met his wife, Abigail, who shares his love for history and classical music. In his free time, Ryan likes to watch Chinese dramas, cook, swim, and listen to Beethoven.
One of my systematic theology professors from Gordon-Conwell once asked us to do an exercise. He asked us to hold our breath and see how long we could survive. Of course, none of us could sustain it for more than a couple of minutes. Then he said, "That is what happens when we don't pray. Prayer is like breathing spiritual oxygen; our faith cannot survive if we don't breathe." I was very convicted that my faith had always been operating on varying degrees of spiritual suffocation. Probably most of us would agree that we do not pray nearly enough to sustain a healthy spiritual life. I suspect that one reason for this is that we are often overwhelmed by the number of things that need prayer. Just confessing my own sins would take me more than a day and half, not to mention praying for my family, my conversations with non-believers, my church, and my neighbor's aunt's estranged third cousin.
With so many items on our prayer list, why should we pray for churches and Christians in other countries? For one, they are members of the same body (1 Corinthians 12). The whole body of God is infinitely impoverished if believers from another country are weakened. Conversely, the whole body of God will benefit if believers in another country thrive. Case in point, the international missionary movements of the 19th and early 20th century were born out of great revivals taking place in England and America. For all their flaws, the global landscape of Christianity would be vastly different today if missionaries from the West had not made the sacrifices to bring the gospel to Asia and Africa. As Christianity in the West declines in the 21st century and the epicenter of the church shifts to Asia and the Global South, we stand to reap the benefits of their growth for decades to come. Another reason we should be praying for the churches and Christians in other countries is that it is the least we can do. Our prayers for their success are a concrete way for us to demonstrate our support for their labors.
Naturally for me, my home country China is never far from my prayers. The one thing that I would ask for the people of China is connection to one good Christian family member or friend. In Chinese, we use the same character 信for both believe and trust. There is certainly a spiritual lesson for non-Chinese speakers here: our beliefs determine what we trust. I believe there is also an evangelism lesson as well: what we believe depends on whom we trust. Most of us came to faith because someone we trust led us to Christ, whether parent, relative, or friend.
The same goes for the people of China. I believe there are several reasons why this personal connection and trust are even more important for the growth and health of the Chinese church.
1. Chinese society runs on 关系 ("guanxi," relationships). China is a densely populated and complex country. With so many people living in limited space, competition is fierce and scams are rampant. My daily Wechat feed (the Chinese equivalent of Facebook) with my relatives is filled with warnings about the latest fake news or schemes. This puts a lot of people in a skeptical and defensive posture automatically. This also means we rely a lot more on personal relationships for help and information. This is especially true if we are asked to believe and trust in something strange and new. The presence of a trusted Christian family member or friend would go a long way in leading someone to Christ.
2. There is no social baggage associated with Christianity. While Christianity in China is not new, it has never been at the center of social or political power the way it has, at times, in the West. There are no town centers built around church buildings to remind people of Christianity; Biblical stories like David v. Goliath are not well-known to Chinese school children; very few people name their kids after a Biblical character. In a lot of ways this is very refreshing. It means that there is little cultural baggage associated with Christianity. Chinese people do not share Western secular society's distrust of Christian institutions, they are not overly sensitive to being proselytized, and thankfully they don't have memories of Christian leaders abusing their position and power. What people do know about Christianity comes largely through the words and witness of family and friends. Many Chinese students and scholars I've met through the years actually welcome the invitation to come to church because they are keenly aware of the need for a spiritual and moral fabric in their materialistic society and personal lives. They may be in the US to study medicine or political science or engineering, but they often also want to figure out what is missing in China – what is making their society so corrupt and broken. Very often the first place they turn to for an answer is Christianity.
3. Distrust of political authority makes genuine faith more appealing. From the beginning of the first grade, we were taught to love and respect our political leaders. Our textbooks were filled with stories about the frugal habits of Chairman Mao and the brave military campaigns of Deng Xiaoping. Even now, Chinese national celebrations and the evening news are still sprinkled with not-so-subtle propaganda slogans. The late Czech dissident and playwright Vaclav Havel wrote about a grocer displaying a political banner in his store window just so that the authorities would leave him alone, paying absolutely no interest in what the banner actually said. That struck me as a fitting description of many Chinese citizens as well. Average citizens have grown so desensitized to these messages that they half-heartedly swear allegiance to the Party and wear party symbols on their school uniforms without asking what they mean. They just don't want to be bothered. But what if a dear friend or family member suddenly refuses to simply comply with the authorities because of their religious belief? Their faith in the gospel compels them to live for the Truth instead of hiding behind what is convenient. Instead of being desensitized, their passion for the Truth actually places them in trouble with the law. How powerful will their testimonies be to those who trust them?
To bring this to more personal terms, a couple years ago I reconnected with some elementary school friends in China via Wechat, and I found out that one of them had become a Christian. I asked her how that came about, and she said that a good friend led her to Christ after a difficult breakup. Later on when I was telling my other elementary school friends about this, none of them were surprised. Some of them distinctly remember that even back in 6th grade they had mutual friends who were Christians. Some of their co-workers are Christians, and that is just a normal thing to them. We may have the assumption that Chinese Christians are only secretly meeting in house churches late in the evening, but that is just not true at all. Thanks be to God, personal relationships with Christians in China are more common than we think. They live, play, and work among other people. The lack of a historic Christian sub-culture in China actually pushes believers out into society. They are being faithful witnesses for God at work and in school. Perhaps they do face the possibility of being arrested or harassed by the police, but they are just normal people in different levels and places of society. They are somebody's daughter, son, husband, wife, colleague, classmate, and friend. I am praying that there will be more and more of them, each sharing the gospel with people around them in their day-to-day lives.