Fifty years ago, millions of Red Guards—a ruthless cadre of radicalized students—waged war against tradition and religion, the twin threats to Maoism. This was modern China’s darkest decade: the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution (1966–1976).
The Red Guards looted and demolished all kinds of cultural sites: temples, shrines, mosques, churches, monasteries, libraries, museums, and even burial grounds. Across the country, bonfires consumed ancient artworks, rare books, and priceless relics. Scholars, teachers, clergy, scientists, and artists faced the most severe persecution. Hundreds of thousands were humiliated publicly, tortured, imprisoned, banished to labor camps, and murdered or driven to suicide. Millions were forcibly displaced. Religion, in particular, was targeted as the insidious instrument of class enemies and foreign saboteurs.
Remarkably, the half-million Christians in China during the Communist ascension have multiplied into 67 million, according to the Pew Research Center’s 2010 “Report on Global Christianity.” Fenggang Yang, professor of sociology at Purdue University, projects that by 2030 China will surpass the United States as home to the world’s largest Christian population.
But despite Christianity’s perseverance and stunning expansion in China, it is still commonly viewed as a religion introduced by outsiders and fundamentally at odds with Chinese culture. At the National Conference on Religion in April 2016, the Communist Party reasserted its determination to “resolutely guard against overseas infiltrations via religious means and prevent ideological infringement by extremists.” Religious groups are to “merge religious doctrines with Chinese culture” and “contribute to … the Chinese dream of national rejuvenation.”
A scarcity of shepherds
Amid ongoing hostility from the government, Christianity in China faces other big challenges, including a continual shortage of pastors. One Christian scholar is hoping to reverse that trend.
“In my home church, we have more than 1,000 members, but we have no full-time church workers, no pastors, and no administrators. All are volunteers without any training in theology,” says Xue Xiaxia, a professor at China Graduate School of Theology. “In other words, we have problems even providing Sunday sermons, not to mention discipling members.”
“So when I was a teenager, I had a dream to be trained to become a pastor,” Xue says. “At the time, I prayed to God: ‘If this is your calling, I would like to study at a seminary after high school.’ ”
Xue grew up in a rural village in Fujian Province near the southeastern coast of China. Missionaries had settled there in the early 1850s, leaving a legacy of a sizeable Christian population. Xue credits Christian schoolteachers and spiritual mentors with guiding her to faith from a young age.
“In my elementary school, we had philosophy and ethics classes,” she explains. “We were told, ‘don’t go to church’ or ‘don’t believe such and such thing because it’s a superstition.’ I got confused by what the school taught and what the church taught.”
She sought counsel from her English teacher, who was a Christian. “She graduated from university, so she was more open-minded to guide me through this,” Xue recalls. Other spiritual mentors provided invaluable support during her high school years.
Having benefited from the insights and encouragement of mature believers, Xue recognized the value of pastoral care: “I came to realize that there were too few pastors to nurture our congregation—to help them bring faith into daily life.”
An expanding vision
In 2005, Xue moved over 1,000 miles to Hong Kong to pursue seminary training at China Graduate School of Theology. ScholarLeaders International, a nonprofit that supports theological education for the global church, helped cover her tuition. As she pursued her childhood calling, Xue realized God had bigger plans.
“Before, I wanted to be a pastor, but during the next several years it became clear that I wanted to be a theological educator. In China, we have lots of need for pastors. If God gave me the chance, I knew I wanted to train more pastors, not just be a pastor myself.”
“I chose biblical studies due to my observation that many Christians, especially in my hometown, read the Bible on a very literal or superficial level,” she explains. “That was how I was taught in church when I was a child. We read the Bible without regard for its original context, background, or literary genre. So I have a burden to help myself change, and then to help train other Christians to read the Bible appropriately and apply the message accordingly.”
Xue’s focus on biblical studies also addresses a gap in Chinese Christian scholarship: “In China, we have scholars who study Christianity from historical, cultural, or philosophical perspectives, but not so many Christians work on biblical studies because of obstacles like having to learn Greek and Hebrew.”
“I firmly believe that God’s word has the power to transform our human heart and atheist culture,” Xue says. “What I received from my studies is training to read the Bible in its original languages and grasp the fruitful meaning of these words, which will have an impact on my life and teaching.”
An ambassador among academics
Xue now teaches courses in New Testament and Koine Greek. She trains pastors from all parts of China, including remote and under-resourced regions. She also serves as a volunteer pastor and Sunday School teacher at Taipo Baptist Church.
As a scholar, Xue seeks to facilitate theological conversations between the East and the West, and to communicate and defend the Christian faith to Chinese intellectuals. “One of my hopes is to bring the Christian situation and what we struggle with [in China] to the West—to increase communication between the two,” she says. “I also want to be a bridge between the church and the academy.”
With her rich educational background and scholarly sensibilities, Xue hopes to dispel the prevailing stereotypes against Christianity as a ruse for the superstitious or as an invasive Western ideology. “In most universities in China, we have religious studies departments with Christianity studies, but these are not led by Christians. My doctoral training has equipped me to communicate God’s word, particularly to nonbelievers who are educated,” she says.
“In China, we all have been taught Marxism, atheism, materialism, and Mao Zedong’s theories. All these theories deny life after death and the existence of a supernatural being. Without an eschatological perspective of life, we can only hope for a good job, a big house, a nice car, more money, and entertainment. But these things will eventually result in the feeling of meaninglessness. Intellectuals think about pursuing a meaningful life. So how can the gospel be delivered to bring real value and meaning? This is our great chance to transform the situation in China, to deliver the gospel to university students, to bring them to church.”
It is not always easy for Xue to minister where God has called her. She is a mainlander teaching in Hong Kong, where tensions between progressive younger generations and the Chinese government are brewing.
Joshua 1:9 has given her great encouragement in uncertain times: “Do not be frightened or dismayed, for the Lord your God is with you wherever you go.” “Especially in this current situation in China, with lots of pressure from the government, sometimes, I don’t know if I will attract attention from the government when I go back to mainland China,” she says. “Then I’m not sure if I still can come out to Hong Kong to teach, but the promise is that wherever I go, the Lord my God is with me.”
Another key verse for Xue is Joshua 1:6. “Be strong and courageous, for you shall put these people in possession of the land that I swore to their ancestors to give them,” she recites with a smile. “This is God’s promise. God is at work in China.”
To read Xue’s full interview with ScholarLeaders International, visit scholarleaders.org/news/xue-xiaxia and click on “Featuring Xue Xiaxia.”