Today, a Chinese pastor named Wang Yi sits in jail for subversion of the state. He won’t see his wife, son, and aging parents for close to a decade. But Wang Yi didn’t set out to be a hero. He’s just a man who’s come to understand how the grace of Jesus frees his heart to serve and worship the King of the universe. And his theological commitments have cost him everything.
In recent years, American churches have been asking questions very similar to those I hear from Chinese house churches facing persecution. What’s the church’s purpose in society? How do we understand state authority and religious liberty? Where do our ultimate allegiances lie?
But in these conversations, there’s a surprising lack of global perspective. Any contemporary discussion on the role of the church in secular America ought to include perspectives from outside our cultural heritage. We have much to learn from faithful believers in other contexts who face the same pressures we do.
Often, Western Christians think the cultural differences between America and China are too significant to learn from each other. Both Confucianism and Buddhism, things we don’t understand well, form the cultural and religious backdrop for much Chinese theology. Since the 1950s, China has also been dominated by atheistic communism. And the average North American church doesn’t face the kind of persecution that house church leaders like Wang Yi have experienced.
At the same time, American Protestants—particularly conservative evangelicals—readily turn to theological writers who never spoke our language and lived centuries ago. American evangelicalism certainly has a shared heritage with Reformation Europe, but we have more cultural proximity to Christians around the world today than we do to Calvin or Luther.
The reformers were preindustrial and predigital. They knew nothing of our labor market and manufacturing processes, much less the internet, social media, and virtual reality. Their worlds were predemocratic and precapitalistic. They lived within systems of government that weren’t open to all men and women, and they didn’t experience free trade and enterprise like we do. Most importantly, Reformation Europe was presecular. They couldn’t have imagined a world where religion isn’t the primary identity marker for individuals and communities.
My point isn’t to discourage American Christians from reading the reformers but to encourage us to consider whether we might have more in common with believers from Beijing, Lagos, or Mexico City than we realize.
Americans often think of the Muslim world as very different from our own. But who could look at Dubai and not see something of New York’s thirst for wealth, pleasure, and material status? I’d be curious to learn how the gospel reshapes a wealthy Emirates woman’s need to find identity through material possessions and how it could apply to similar struggles in North America’s glitziest communities.
We have more cultural proximity to Christians around the world today than we do to Calvin or Luther.
Seattle and Berlin thrive as centers of urban occultism and paganism that seek to interact with spirits in ways we haven’t seen in the West for a long time. Thankfully, we have brothers and sisters in parts of Africa and Latin America who could teach us about navigating and confronting “the excluded middle,” about common beliefs regarding the power of spirits, ancestors, and healing that Western modernity once denied yet now see reappearing.
This week, the average urban pastor in China will write his sermon on a laptop, taking breaks to check messages on his phone. He engages social media, finding it both a quagmire of evil and an evangelistic opportunity. In his congregation, the temptations of money and workaholism loom large. He struggles to keep the second generation in church in the face of cultural marginalization, and he watches the young in his cities fall prey to pornography, video game addictions, eating disorders, abuse, and confusion over sexual identity. Living in a secular society, he struggles to overcome apathy about life’s biggest questions.
In our interconnected, rapidly changing, and urbanized world, there’s no global city that isn’t wrestling with the same issues we do. But the good news is that, today, expressions of the church, along with indigenously theologizing leadership, can be found in every context. This means we don’t have to walk through our struggles alone.
One year before his arrest in December 2018, Wang Yi wrote a pastoral letter to his congregation, exhorting them to live sacrificially for the sake of the gospel, not just in their city of Chengdu but in all the world:
If the God you believe in is only the God of Chengdu, then he is a tribal god. As for Lhasa or Cape of Good Hope—places you will never visit—they exist outside the meaning of your life. If the God you believe in is only god of the construction industry, then he is an industry god. Only the construction industry and industries related to it are relevant to you.
However, the church does not worship tribal or industry gods, but rather “the fullness of him who fills all in all.” “Do I not fill heaven and earth?” declares the Lord.”
If your master is master of the whole universe, then the whole universe is related to your life’s meaning. The whole universe is your sphere of operation. Although you live, move, and exist in only one corner of the universe, unless every part is meaningful, your corner can never be meaningful.
In other words, our shared experience with the global church isn’t simply owing to globalization. It’s rooted in God’s very nature. History alone is too small a work for the God of all the world.
Therefore, Christians can look across the globe as well as across time to shape our faith and inform our lives. We should be able to learn from our brothers and sisters from around the world—not only because we have much in common through our modern, urban, and secular societies but because we worship the same God who fills heaven and earth as the King of the universe.