“But the more [the Israelites] were oppressed, the more they multiplied and spread; so the Egyptians came to dread the Israelites…”
Christian missionaries began witnessing to the people of China as early as the seventh century, as recorded on an ancient stone tablet called the Nestorian Stele. The Protestant mission movement in the country began in earnest in 1807 with Robert Morrison, and continued at an accelerating pace for over a century. Despite tremendous political, social, and cultural upheaval in China during the 19th and early 20th centuries (the Taiping Rebellion, which is second only to World War II as the bloodiest war in human history; the Opium Wars; the fall of the Qing dynasty; etc.), Christians worked faithfully to share the gospel in China in word and deed, establishing some of China’s first modern hospitals, providing Western-style education, feeding the hungry, translating the Bible into Chinese, and more. Hudson Taylor is probably the best-known of these 19th-century missionaries, but by the turn of the century, there were thousands of other Western Christians working as missionaries in China whose names have been lost in the fog of history.
As a result of various political and diplomatic humiliations surrounding the Opium Wars and the “unequal treaties” the West forced China into, anti-foreign sentiment reached a fever pitch in 1901 with the Boxer Rebellion. This popular uprising sought to purge all foreigners and foreign influence from China, including Christianity. Christian missionaries, as well as Chinese Christians, were targets of violence. Over 30,000 Chinese Christians were killed in the madness, along with over 200 foreign missionaries. In just one incident, 44 missionaries and missionary family members including women and children were executed after having gone to a place where they had been falsely promised protection. Many other missionaries were forced to leave China.
While Christian missions continued to varying degrees in China throughout the early 20th century, China was facing existential threats from all sides: regional warlords controlling large swathes of Chinese territory, civil war between Nationalists led by Chiang Kai-shek and Communists under Mao Zedong, and horrific Japanese invasion during World War II, just to name a few. When Mao Zedong came to power and established the communist People’s Republic of China in 1949, he moved quickly to expel all remaining missionaries from China. By 1949, there were only 500,000-700,000 Chinese Christians.
Western missionary publications bemoaned the fact that Chinese mission had been, they thought, brought to a screeching halt. Article after article talked about how Christianity in China was a lost cause in the short and medium term. Once Western missionaries were eventually allowed back into China, they assumed, the small Chinese church would have died out under harsh state-sponsored persecution and the missionaries would be essentially starting from square one, as if China had never seen a missionary at all.
From 1949 until at least the late 1970’s, China was closed to the outside world. But when President Nixon’s dazzling diplomacy opened China to the West again under Deng Xiaoping and Westerners began to return to China, the mission agencies were shocked. Not only had the Chinese church not died out under Mao–indeed, it had experienced explosive growth during Mao’s rule. God had used Chinese Christians like Watchman Nee, Brother Yun, Peter Xu, and many others to spread His word like wildfire. This is in spite of (or perhaps because of) the fact that Chinese Christians were brutally persecuted, imprisoned without trial, tortured, and killed in large numbers.
It is not an exaggeration to claim that Christianity has grown faster in China since 1949 than it has anywhere in the world at any time since the book of Acts. Today there are as many as 130 million Christians in China, and by the year 2020, China will actually be the world’s number-one missionary-sending country. One can almost hear Jesus’ words to the Western mission “experts”: “O ye of little faith!”
Our scripture today shows us that persecution has a counterintuitive effect. People persecute to try to quash a certain belief or viewpoint, but more often than not, it backfires, mobilizing and energizing and inspiring more people than would have ever believed otherwise. Egypt’s repression of the Israelites under slavery and genocide was supposed to pacify them and break them down, but by God’s providence, it ended up only making them stronger and more numerous. The Chinese regime’s persecution of Christians led the most rapid evangelistic movement in Christian history. And, of course, the Jews’ and Romans’ execution of Jesus of Nazareth led to the greatest movement for love, justice, and peace that the world has ever known.
This is our great God, who chooses the foolish things of the world to shame the wise, and the weak things of the world to shame the strong (1 Cor. 1:27). Our great God, who, in the words of the early church father Tertullian, makes the blood of martyrs the seed of the church.
“Don’t pray for the persecution to stop! We shouldn’t pray for a lighter load to carry, but a stronger back to endure! Then the world will see that God is with us, empowering us to live in a way that reflects his love and power.”
–Brother Yun, Chinese pastor and evangelist