November 1, 2012
Beijing caught me by surprise. It wasn’t that I wasn’t expecting a modern, bustling city; it’s just that I wasn’t expecting to see so little of the past, and so much of the new. The Chinese love to say, with good reason, that the [construction] crane is their national bird. The skyline is filled with them. It’s not that poverty has gone – more than 400 million Chinese earn less than two dollars a day, but they have been pushed out of sight and the signs of a growing affluence are everywhere. China may be Communist by name, but there is a burgeoning free market, with many doing very well. Evidences of prosperity are everywhere, something that you get time to contemplate as you sit in another Beijing traffic jam, in roads clogged by cars, not bicycles.
Sitting with a group of house church members and leaders, I asked them about the growth of the church in China: “I’ve been told that the church was growing faster back in the times of persecution and economic hardship than it is today. Is that true and why do you think that’s true?” Those who could understand my English began to agree immediately, joined by all the others when my translator communicated my words. “Yes, it’s true. Then, all people had to hope in and turn to was God. They wanted to know about him. They knew he existed, even though they’d been told he didn’t. But now there are so many distractions.”
Those days of overt persecution, often brutal in their intensity, have given way to softer pressures, although there are many parts of the country where persecution is direct and relentless, and there are outbreaks of strong repression almost anywhere. And, by God’s grace, the church in China continues to grow. But increasing prosperity has done what outright persecution could not do – to blunt the cutting edge.
There was an important lesson in that for me. Our current economic hardships are both real and intractable. But our lifestyle is still the envy of the world, and consumerism and materialism are alive and well in our society. And prosperity has a way of stealing our souls. The Lord Jesus warned that “the worries of this life and the deceitfulness of riches choke the Word, making it unfruitful” (Matthew 13:24). We may not be directly persecuted; we are spiritual imperiled.
The International Day of Prayer for the Persecuted Church occurs this year on November 13, and it is important to pray for our brothers and sisters in places like China, North Korea and the Muslim world who are experiencing overt persecution. But we should not forget to pray for ourselves as well, asking that we will resist the temptation to be seduced by plenty.