Dr. Geoff Tunnicliffe, Secretary General of the World Evangelical Alliance (WEA), met with the director of the State Administration for Religious Affairs (SARA) on May 10 to discuss the place of the Chinese Evangelical Church within the global Christian community. The meeting in Beijing was the third between the pair and was part of an ongoing relationship-building process with the China Christian Council (CCC) and the government, WEA official have said.
Over recent years China has experienced a surge in spiritual life which has seen Christianity expand significantly across the Asian economic powerhouse. However, religion remains a sensitive subject in the Communist-led country.
Building relations through open dialogue is the key goal of the mutual effort between Chinese officials and Christian organizations, Tunnicliffe said in a conversation with The Christian Post this week.
"As part of a global Christian family we have to publicly engage with the Church in China," Tunnicliffe told CP.
The WEA Secretary General confirmed that a two-hour meeting had taken place with SARA, a department overseeing religious affairs and issues under China's State Council. The purpose of the meeting was to address the Chinese government's concerns regarding "what sort of outside influence an organization was going to bring to China and with what kind of spirit and attitude they would approach the Chinese Church and China in general."
The concerns stem from the fact that "often times Evangelicals are defined by a flag of American Evangelicals, who are considered to be of a certain political persuasion." However, Tunnicliffe explained to CP that it should be recognized that "Christians around the world come from different political perspectives" and fit into many categories.
He confirmed that WEA was "able to dismiss some of those misunderstandings of the Chinese government towards evangelicals" at this meeting.
The meetings earlier this month also covered a wide range of other topics, including the challenges of rapid church growth, Bible engagement, business ethics, religious liberty, gendercide, and human trafficking, WEA officials have explained.
The WEA has acknowledged that Church life in China is complex, however it has reaffirmed its commitment to building bridges of understanding and to develop a closer relationship, Tunnicliffe said.
He said, "Minister Wang expressed great appreciation for WEA and its desire to work in partnership with the Church in China. He commented on his own interest in knowing more about Evangelical Protestants, noting that it was critical to have a working relationship with the WEA as Evangelicals are the fastest growing segment of the global Church."
Tunnicliffe added, "I very much appreciate the willingness of Chinese church leaders to engage in a frank and respectable conversation on issues of importance to them and the global Evangelical community."
WEA represents some 600 million evangelicals worldwide, and is the largest global evangelical body with a network of churches in 129 nations and an alliance of 100 international organizations. Its delegation visited China in 2007 and 2009, and tentative plans are being discussed about a potential visit again in November later this year, the secretary general said.
Other delegates participating in the discussion with SARA's director, Minister Wang Zuo'an, were Brian Stiller, WEA's Global Ambassador and the Rev. Godfrey Yogarajah, Executive Director at WEA's Religious Liberty Commission.
The meeting was the culmination of a series of meetings which began in Shanghai with senior leaders of both the CCC and the Three Self Patriotic Movement (TSPM) - two of China's three major Christian organizations (the remaining one being the Chinese Patriotic Catholic Organization).
It is difficult to assess the precise number of Christians currently in China, and different reports suggest hugely varying statistics. However, the most recent official Chinese census mentions an estimated 4 million Roman Catholics and 10 million Protestants. However, independent estimates have ranged from 40 million to 130 million Christians. But what seems more certain is that the number of Christians in China is growing rapidly.
Chinese citizens over the age of 18 are permitted to be involved with officially sanctioned Christian meetings through the CCC, TSPM or the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association. Although millions attend these churches across the country, millions of others reportedly also attend house churches, which are not sanctioned by the government.