We all have perceived notions about how registered churches are in China. We look at them as compromisers, liberals and bedfellow to a suppressive government. This issues surfaced as recent waves of persecution hits the unregistered church. However, as they saying goes, there is another side of the story. And it is quite a shocker to me as I read The Registered Church in China how I was so wrong about these fellow believers. It was an eye opener for me and I hope it will be to others as we focus our attention to the state of Christianity in China. I reach out to Wayne Ten Harmsel, author of the latest book, The Registered Church in China published by Pickwick Publications, an imprint of Wipf and Stock Publishers to know about his time as a missionary in China and about the registered church in China.
Please tell me about yourself and how you got to know Christ?
The answer to this question is both simple and complicated. I could simply say that I have always known Christ. I grew up in a Christian home. I attended church and Sunday School. I went to a Christian school. But during high school I moved away from Christ. I considered myself to be an atheist. But due to the influence of professors and other students at Calvin College, during my college years I began a long slow process towards acknowledging the centrality of Christ in my life.
How did you became a missionary?
I did not become a missionary until my mid-50s. A bit of background. I received an MA degree in Chinese History in 1981 and completed all requirements except the dissertation a few years later. But I could not find a job. God slowly but insistently led me to understand that he wanted to use me in a different way. Finally, in 1993 I enrolled in seminary and spent 4 years obtaining an MDiv. After seminary, I served two North American churches before God opened a way to China.
What thoughts came into your mind the first time you hear the word “China”?
I cannot remember the first time I heard the word China, but I can remember the first time the culture and history of China attracted me in a special way. That was during my college years when I took a year long course on Chinese History. I felt a need to know more about China and a desire to go there and see it for myself.
How did it go with your family and friends that you’ll be going to China to be a missionary?
My parents were not particularly supportive. They would be a long way away from children and grandchildren, and they were concerned about our safety. But my wife, our children (who were already out of the house), our friends, and the church where I was ministering all gave us support and encouragement.
What are the challenges you face during your time there?
A big challenge was the language. I had studied Chinese for many years, but to actually use it in everyday life, and especially in ministry, was difficult. Developing friendships and a sense of community was not easy. In China, one is always a foreigner.
What is the most memorable part of being a missionary in China?
In spite of what I wrote in response to the previous question, the most memorable thing was the people, especially fellow Christians. I was received and accepted fully with a deep love and genuineness that I continue to experience.
Now let’s get into your book, The Registered Church in China . Reading your book really blew all my previous thoughts on the registered church in China? Are you surprised too by the result of the interviews you conducted for that book?
In one sense, not really. By the time I wrote the book, I had been working and interacting with many registered church pastors and knew how they thought on various topics addressed in the interviews. But if I go back to the time before I went to China, then I would say, yes, I was surprised. That has a lot to do with the sort of reporting about Christianity in China that we in the West are influenced by.
Yes, indeed and we are also influenced by those news that you absorbed. Let’s rewind a bit and tell us what motivated you to write this book?
During the course of my time in China it became increasingly clear to me that the registered churches were not being treated fairly in Western Christian studies of the church in China. They were either ignored as of no importance or castigated for being in bed with the government. There was not a single book that I could find that looked impartially at the whole church situation in China. Having worked closely with registered churches in a number of locations, I thought I could try to fill the gap.
That’s why your book is so unique. Tell us what The Registered Church in China is about and why it matters to Christians everywhere to pick this book up?
This book is fundamentally about the registered church in China, focusing on its flourishing in spite of existing in a challenging environment. The first chapter presents the basics of the registered church – worship, beliefs, ministry programs, demographics, organization, and so forth. The second chapter looks at challenges the church is facing, primarily cults.
The next chapter tries to unravel the complicated nature of church state relations. Chapter 4 presents the new religious regulations that went into effect in 2017 and the churches’ reaction to these. Chapter 5 takes up the debate over Sinicization, somewhat surprisingly discovering that registered church pastors in general appreciate this new trend. For many decades there have been ill feelings between the house churches and the registered churches. Chapter 6 looks at the current situation from a registered church perspective. The book closed with an assessment of the strengths and weaknesses of the registered church as it faces the future.
All of this matters because as Christians we are called to pray for each other. It just makes sense that these prayers be well informed from an objective perspective.
Can you tell us the process that goes with producing your book?
It was long – about 2 years from start to finish. This book is based primarily on interviews, so first I had to translate and digest those. What followed was organizing all this, then beginning the writing. When my first draft was finished, I started looking for publishers. I became connected with an agent and he secured Wipf and Stock Publishers agreement to publish the book. What followed was a period of editing and waiting and revising. Finally, after four rounds of editing, it was finally published in March of this year.
After reading it I now consider praying often for the registered and unregistered church in China? What are some feedback you have heard for those who got a hold of your book, The Registered Church in China?
I have not received a lot of feedback. What feedback I have received has been positive. People have had their eyes open regarding the church situation in China and several have commented that they are grateful to be able now to pray for the church in China in a more informed way.
Will you suggest that I, as an Asian who look and have some similar cultural background with the Chinese, needs to be more involved to help the churches there than missionaries coming from America?
Yes, I certainly would. Westerners stick out in China. It is difficult for us to fly under the radar, as is often necessary for foreigners involved in ministry in China. Other Asians are able to blend in to some degree. If they know the language it is even more helpful.
Thank you for the opportunity to reach out to you. Kindly invite our readers to check out your book.
If you are planning or thinking about going to China in order to spread the gospel, The Registered Church in China is a must read, no matter what sort of work you are doing and what sort of church you are connecting with. And if you want to pray for China in a more informed way, it is also helpful.
Any final messages to our readers concerning the status of Christianity in China?
Two issues addressed in the book, the relations between the registered and unregistered churches and the relationship between registered churches and the government, are still crucial foci. The government is tightening its grip continually. I don’t think the situation is as severe as many Western observers make it out to be, but life is getting more complicated.
Thank you pastor for this interview.I hope this interview will spark interest for us believers to pray and consider supporting our Christian brothers and sister in China. You can purchase the book by clicking this link. Follow this link to read some of the quotes from that book and if you like quote cards, then head over here.
(Did you like what you read? Did this article helped you? Then you can share some love by buying me a coffee).