LOS ANGELES Despite the efforts of Chinas official church to show the development of Christianity in China through the recent China Bible Ministry Exhibition in Los Angeles, Open Doors a leading organization that serves and strengthens the persecuted church around the world questions the real degree of religious freedom in China.
Over 10 ministers from Open Doors visited the Exhibition Tuesday afternoon accompanied by an official tour guide. Johnny Li, minister-at-large for Open Doors U.S.A. and spokesman for the ministrys China mission, was among one of them.
"We have tried not to ask very negative questions, but to look at the achievement and development of the Three-Self Church in China," said Li, giving a brief comment after a dialogue with some of the official church leaders on the Exhibition.
The Exhibition, sponsored by the China Christian Council (CCC) and the National Committee of Three-Self Patriotic Movement (TSPM), showcased the Bible printing achievement in China over the last few decades. The Amity Printing Press associated with the CCC and the only official Bible printing company in China claimed to have printed 2.5 million Bibles every year for the last decade. In January 2006, Amity celebrated the printing of 40 million Bibles since 1981.
Quantity-wise, the Bible ministry in China may have showed steady growth, yet the real situation is very questionable as compared to the growth of the number of Christians, according to Li.
The Rev. Deng Fu Cun, vice-chairman of the National Committee of Three-Self Patriotic Movement (TSPM) of the Protestant Churches, said that there were around 13-14 million Christians in China in the 2000 China Symposium organized by the Christian Leadership Exchange in Arcadia. As the official growth rate stands at half a million per year, the official number of Christians in China today would be projected to be around 16 million.
"Thats where the question lies on when you look at all these official figures," said Li.
"Now in China, there are just around 16 million Christians, but a total of 40 million Bibles were claimed to be printed. It means that the Bible is actually overwhelming in China!" Li explained. He added that the Bibles could be worn out or lost in some natural disasters, but it is still not enough to explain the surplus. In addition, he said the Amity Press continued printing around 5 million Bibles last year.
"Therefore, for the real situation in Church in China, we will leave it for the readers to ponder because it is almost impossible to find an answer for such question," Li stated. "No one will ever know the exact number of Christians in China and we cannot do door-to-door [censusing] just as what people in the U.S. do."
Overseas scholars and experts have estimated that there could be up to 60 million Christians in China, including the ones from house churches. However, they are not recognized by the official church in China.
"All that we can do is raise questions and challenge, Li said. We cannot say to the church in China that there is a huge shortage of Bibles as there are actually 60 million Christians. We do not have a hard evidence for this figure."
During Lis dialogue with Deng, the vice-chairman sternly denied that there are two churches (official church and house church) in China as saying, "There is only one church in China, which is the TSPM church."
According to other figures released by the official Chinese church in the Exhibition, there are currently around 55,000 Christian churches and meeting places all over China. Just in Beijing, there are less than 10 TSPM churches serving the population of 15 million.
"Why are there house churches? Because truly there is a gap that needs to be filled," Li pointed out. He added that China has just around 3,000 ordained pastors to serve a population of 1.3 billion people, and it has a long way to go in order to spread out the Gospel.
"It is true that the official church has already done a lot and I am happy to see what they have done. But China is such a big country, is it possible that the [official] church can fill all the gaps in order to satisfy the need of Christians?"
While the Chinese government has upheld strictly its "Three-Self" policies for churches in China and warned of foreign "infiltration" under the guise of religion, provision of resources by overseas organization is actually very vital for the growth of churches in China, according to Li.
"We will continue to fill the gap that has to be satisfied in China in terms of resources. We will continue to do what God intends us to do and we also pray that God will guide the official church in China to change its direction so that it can become more open," concluded Li.