By Mallory Schlabach, Editor in Chief
When Dr. Royce Money left for an eight-day trip to Beijing, China, in August, he never imagined it would change his view of the world, the university he presided over and life.
The trip, comprised of meetings with high government officials about Christianity, indicated the government’s grip on on religion in China was loosening simply because this delegation could go and because of what it would discuss.
Five months previously, Money, president of the university, had been invited to China by former ACU student Lisa Bentley and her husband, John, who worked at a Chinese orphanage for children with special needs.
Following Lisa’s Chapel presentation about the couple’s mission in China, the Bentleys arrived at Money’s office to invite him to join a 10-person delegation of evangelical Christian leaders. The group of people from across the country would travel to Beijing and discuss Christianity with Chinese officials. Although Money was already scheduled to travel to China on a recruiting trip during the same time, he said he’d consider going.
The group of evangelical leaders that John convinced to travel to China included Rick Atchley, senior minister at Richland Hills Church of Christ in Fort Worth; Max Lucado, senior minister at Oak Hills Church in San Antonio and an ACU alumnus, and Drs. Wayne and Mimi Barnard, dean of Spiritual Formation and dean of Residence Life Education and Housing, respectively, among the 10.
Throughout the 10-day trip and reflecting afterwards on what transpired, Money kept a journal documenting his thoughts on his China experience.
Reflecting on his initial reaction to the Bentley’s Chinese proposal, Money writes:
“[John] is blessed with a talent for networking with people and convinced the various evangelical leaders to go on a delegation to China without a prior acquaintance with most of them. I remarked to Max and Rick earlier in the summer that this scheme was just crazy enough to be from God. We all went on faith, but our faith is small compared to John Bentley’s faith. He is a man that truly lives by faith.”
The purpose of the trip was to meet with selected officials on a mission of goodwill.
“We wanted to tell the officials that they had nothing to fear from followers of Jesus, and that we weren’t there to try to overthrow the government,” he said.
The delegation set a lofty goal for this group of Americans speaking to a Communist government that historically has little tolerance for religious freedom.
Religious disdain has occurred since Mao Zedong, a Chinese Marxist military and political leader, established China’s current form of government in 1949, known as the People’s Republic of China, further enforcing atheism in an already predominately atheist country. Zedong served as chairman of the People’s Republic of China, now known as the president, for 10 years, although he still had much of the control of China until his death in 1976.
Conversations in China
Several days before the group left for Beijing, John Bentley received a call that all meetings had been canceled. Through the intervention of the U.S. ambassador to China, the meetings were set up again.
“In the planning and the executing of the visits, we learned that flexibility was the operative word in working through the schedule. Changes of various kinds by the Chinese officials were common and often we would not know with whom or even whether we would meet until a few hours before the meeting.
“John said not to take it personally; it happened to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice as well,” Money wrote. “We did learn from John Bentley after the fact that a few days before our departure for China, he received a call that all meetings were canceled. Apparently they viewed us as a too hot a potato and no one wanted to touch us.”
Once meetings were back on track the group met with leaders of the Chinese Association of Social Workers, the U.S. ambassador, the director general of the State Administration for Religious Affairs and the deputy director of the ministry of Foreign Affairs.
As the group waited in the Beijing Hilton lobby, John made a quick decision before they met with the deputy director of the ministry of Foreign Affairs He Yafei.
“As we mingled…it was hastily decided by John Bentley that Max Lucado would be our primary spokesperson,” he wrote in his Aug. 2 entry.
The Chinese style of formal meetings was arranged so that the ranking Chinese official sat side by side with the ranking visitor. Other visitors and staff filled two perpendicular rows in front of them. Yafei began the meeting by giving an introductory speech that outlined the purpose of the meeting.
On Aug. 2, Money wrote:
“Mr. Yafei spoke for almost 15 minutes, basically reminding us of Chinese policy of the freedom to have or not to have religion. He was a kind, distinguished and mild-mannered man in his early forties with a deep, calm voice.
Max did a great job of conveying our single message and telling him we were there in the name of Jesus Christ, hoping that we could work together cooperatively and legally.”
Money then spoke to the officials in the room.
“It was an odd feeling, conversing with a high-ranking Chinese official about how followers of Jesus could work and worship in the largest nation in the world in a more positive environment than has previously been known.”
A changing world
Dr. Larry Henderson, missions coordinator for Asia, spent 25 years in Thailand as a missionary. Because of his connection in the Asian world, he’s recently noticed a change in China’s government policy towards religion. Religious tolerance in China has fluctuated between decades for nearly 60 years since the government’s origin.
In the 1960s Zedong attempted to eradicate religion from the country by closing temples, mosques and churches, believing that religion would die. Following his death in 1976 and the growth of religious groups, his successor Deng Xiaoping loosened the country’s control on religion but still closely supervised it. Xiaoping’s stance became the path that religion has taken ever since.
“I would say most Chinese are atheist because of the Communist influence over the past 60 years and the very strict policy that they have against the promotion of any religion,” Henderson said. “Even with the government line being drawn and realizing what policy exists, in reality there is great religious presence in China.”
He explained that a large number of Muslims live in the Southwest region of China and that now an emerging Christian presence can be seen in the country.
In 1982, the government created a constitution that recognized that all Chinese citizens had the right to religious freedom, although religious freedom to Chinese officials meant following government-set parameters in one of five controlled religions: Buddhism, Catholicism, Daoism, Islam and Protestantism.
While Christianity may be sanctioned by the Chinese government, Henderson said it must fit a strict definition controlled by the government.
The only legal Protestant church in China is called the Three-Self Church, a forced blend of all strains of Protestant Christians, as Money describes it.
The church, which stands for self-supporting, self-governing and self-propagating, has very strict controls on what it can and can’t do; when and where it can meet and parameters within which members can exercise their faith.
Henderson said most Chinese believers find that too restricting and since they’re not interested in being a part of a sanctioned church, they go underground.
Read about China’s underground church next week in Part II.
Christianity in China
This is the first installment in a series that will run in The Optimist over the next several weeks documenting Christianity in China and various mission fields where people associated with the university serve.