Lutherans in the Twin Cities

“The Chinese are hungry for Christianity!”

Travelers from the Twin Cities encountered a vibrant Christian church in Asia.

Augsburg College religion professor Brad Holt told Metro Lutheran, “We went to China to experience the sights and spirits.” The spirits he and his group encountered were eye-openers.

The journey, sponsored by the Augsburg College Alumni Association and organized by CrossingBor-ders, took 33 travelers to a variety of locations inside the world’s most populous country. Led by Holt, his wife, Linda, and Donna Torgeson, the group traveled by bus, boat, train and plane (sometimes distances within China make flying the best choice).

But what about those “spirits” the group discovered? Holt says, “The predominant one we experienced was capitalism and consumerism. This country is growing like wildfire, and the spirit of profit is in the air.” He added, “I think all of us came away deeply impressed by China’s economic growth.
This country will be a leader in the 21st century. We Americans need to get used to the idea that we won’t always be the superpower. We need to learn to live with others not like ourselves, so that together we can build a stable world in the future.”

Other less aggressive but still significant “spirits” were those of religious faith, notably Buddhism and, less prominently, Christianity.

Estimates are that there are presently 50-100 million Christians in China. Nobody knows for sure, because congregations are of two kinds — either registered (ap-proved by the government) or unregistered. There are no reliable figures for the latter.

The Americans visited two Christian congregations. One was Chon Wen Men Tang Protestant Church, with roots in the Methodist tradition. “The place was packed,” Holt remembers.

“The service was appropriately in Chinese, but they gave us headsets so we could hear everything in English translation.”

Holt was emphatic when describing the Christian surge. “The Chinese are hungry for Christianity,” he said. Many of the congregations operate religious bookstores on their campuses. (See photo, page 16.) At one such outlet he repeated a question friends in the Twin Cities had instructed him to ask: “How many Bibles, on average, do you sell in a month?” The answer: Over 5,000!

Holt explained that it would be a mistake to assume that Christianity is a relatively new phenomenon in China. “We visited a museum in Xian [see a photo at right] where a monument marks the arrival of Christians from the Middle East in AD 635. That’s long before any European missionaries arrived, and it’s probably why European Christians slandered these first Chinese Christians by calling them ‘Nestorians.’”

Nestorianism was a Christian heresy, but, Holt says, it does not accurately describe this early wave of Christian migration to the East. “They arrived during the Tang dynasty and called themselves ‘The Church of the East.’ Their work died out when the Tang Dynasty ended. The new rulers wiped it out systematically.”

Said the religion professor, “I try to remind people that Christianity is not European. It’s an Asian religion. Its first contact in China was by Asians to fellow Asians.”

There is little doubt, Holt believes, that China will have some hard choices to make in coming years. How much rapid development can a country sustain, especially while the whole world struggles with environmental issues? He said, “The air in China is bad. You can see it, but you can also feel it in your lungs. It’s worse than anything I’ve experienced in this country.”