During the last two decades, Chinese Protestant Christian House Churches have embarked on a great and widespread mission to convert Muslims to Christianity. It has become the sacred calling of Chinese Christians to undertake the ‘great mission’ of evangelizing among peoples who are the most difficult to reach and persuade. It is believed that Jesus will come again once the gospel is sent back to Jerusalem. The movement has been given the name ‘Back to Jerusalem’, which means proselytizing from China to Israel and the Middle East, thus covering an area where the three religions of Islam, Buddhism and Hinduism have their strongholds (Hattaway 2003: xii). Chinese Christians, who share the divine mandate of Christian Zionism
in the US (Durbin 2019), believe that returning the gospel back to Jerusalem is the sign of the end of time and of Jesus’ second coming. They thus act upon the mission by actively involving themselves in missionary work among Muslims. The theological continuity between American and Chinese Christians in linking the end of time with returning the gospel to Jerusalem and Jews may be transmitted through the work of Korean missionaries who impart theological education to Chinese Christians.
It is believed that Chinese Christians have certain advantages in seeking to convert Muslims. First, because of their own experience of working underground in China, they can make contact with Muslims surreptitiously, hidden from the government’s political surveillance. Second, since the sheer number of Chinese equals the global Muslim population, it is believed that they are numerically better able than other nationalities to make contact with the latter. Third, in comparison to the West China’s relations with Muslim countries are generally better, and Christians believe it is less likely that Chinese missionary work will be targeted or banned. This reasoning may be over-optimistic, but it sustains the missionary zeal. Converting Muslims is regarded as Chinese Christians’ ‘burden’. For instance, every year the Chinese church holds thirty days of prayer for Muslims during Ramadan and organizes prayers alongside the Silk Road
. Some WeChatFootnote 12 prayer groups have been set up to disseminate news or reports of missionaries in Islamic countries such as Pakistan. A major Chinese Christian missionary meeting has reportedly planned to train and send out 30,000 Chinese missionaries by 2030. Moreover, Chinese House Churches
and their missionary movement have been greatly influenced by the Korean Church, including their missionary tactics. While visiting a Korean church with a Chinese House Church delegation in 2010, for the first time I heard a Korean pastor expressing the view that the Korean church was ‘the match that lit the torch’ of Chinese Christianity, which would ‘bring light’ to Muslim areas in China and to Muslim countries in the Middle East and Central Asia.
The recent mission movement is active largely among the Chinese House Churches
with an evangelization mandate and has established a huge network, both nationally and internationally. It has also become financially strong enough to support and send missionaries at a time of China’s rise both economically and politically. Most House Church leaders involved in the missionary work keep a low profile and stay underground. As noted earlier, they do not oppose the authorities and keep their distance from the government. This Christian group has sent missionaries to work in selected villages of Xinjiang, Ningxia and other Muslim-majority areas. While doing missionary work, they often run small businesses. Their working assumption is that doing business or teaching always provides good protection for Christians in early missionary work. Investing in companies or farms in Muslim areas is another common strategy for evangelizing and at the same time making contact with the local people by providing them with more job opportunities. Like Wenzhou Boss Christians (Cao 2011, 2012), the recent missionary movement is closely linked to business operations, including Chinese economic expansion to neighbouring countries, as well as African and Islamic countries in the Middle East and East Asia. Some churches have promoted a training programme called ‘business for the mission’.
As Brandner (2009: 322) points out, domestically the movement focuses on ethnic Chinese. The vision of converting Muslims is regarded as the ‘special and most difficult inheritance to the people in China’. It has given meaning to the suffering endured by the Chinese people over the last hundred years and provided a new understanding of Chinese history. In particular, China’s recent rise politically and economically is seen to have a spiritual purpose (on which, see below). The Chinese have become the ‘chosen people’ entrusted with the task of fulfilling God’s master plan of salvation, which was given first to Israel, then successively to Rome, Europe and North America. The Chinese Christian groups believe that earlier Christian nations, such as those of Europe and even America, have lost their Christian tradition and values. They attribute this loss to the prevailing environment of theological liberalism, political correctness and secularism. For Chinese Christians, God’s hand has left those people, and now He blesses China. Thus, it is China’s turn to save the entirety of humanity by converting the most difficult obstacle in the history of the Christian mission, that is, Muslims.
Moreover, the missionary movement seems to be driven by the spirit of ‘martyrdom’. In June 2017, two Chinese citizens were killed by ISIS in Pakistan. The Chinese state-controlled newspaper Global Times blamed this on Korean missionary groups recruiting young Chinese to carry out missionary work in dangerous places, including the Middle East. The news drew enormous public attention in China. There had also been a lot of debate among Chinese Christians about whether young Chinese Christians should do missionary work in such dangerous places. However, asking individual Christians about this in various churches in China, I was often told that ‘the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church’. ‘Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit’ (John 12:24). Becoming a ‘martyr’ is honourable and highly regarded. To die for Jesus and His church is deemed to be God’s special grace, which only a few people could ever acquire. As shown in a Chinese popular Christian song, ‘Unless a seed’, scarifying one’s life like a dying seed for the sake of the Christian ministry is desirable; therefore it generates great passion among Chinese Christians to go on missions to the world’s most dangerous places. It may explain why two young Christians were willing to be sent to such a dangerous place and eventually die there, as the lyric of ‘Unless a seed’ shows:
a seed consents to fall into the field,
Though all time can pass in waiting,
The seed remains alone;
If it consents to be used up, its life to yield
For the new life it’s creating,
Soon a harvest is grown!
It’s my desire, Lord, I desire,
To be a seed that falls into the field,
Giving up my life to live anew!
It’s my desire, Lord, I desire:
All of my rights and my pride, I will yield
To obey Your word and follow You.
Moreover, unlike the antagonism felt towards Western missionaries in the 1950s, Chinese House Church Christians have adopted a positive and affirmative view of them since 2000. Western missionaries have become role model among Chinese Christians by being prepared to sacrifice their lives for the sake of the gospel. I am often told that ‘Chinese Christians are indebted to Western missionaries for the Gospel’. In 2016, Pastor Yuan Zhiming and the China Soul for Christ Foundation produced a three-episode historical documentary series, Missionary: A Historical Study of Gospel in China, which has been widely disseminated among Chinese Christians. In the documentary, Western missionaries are greatly praised for their contribution to the Chinese Church, education, health and medical care, women’s liberation, charities and so on. By acknowledging the contribution and sacrifice of Western
missionaries, Chinese Christians are empowered to follow them and to enter foreign lands for the sake of the gospel. It is thus now China’s turn to repay the debt of the gospel by sacrificing their lives carrying out missionary work in dangerous places.