Christian Publishing in China:

Article by   March 2011
A Cautionary Note

[Editor's Note] This is in response to an article published under the name of Michael Haykin. To clarify, Dr. Haykin was the article's editor and not its author.

Michael Haykin's recent piece on the possibilities for Reformed publishing in China is opportune. He rightly points out that it is from small acorns that the mighty oaks of Church History have developed, and, I suspect, he is absolutely right in seeing the Chinese government's change of attitude to the legal publishing of Christian literature as one of them. But, from a missiological perspective, the article is somewhat troubling, suggesting as it does the validity of a globalised or homogenised form of Reformed identity. 

Haykin also reminds us of the amazing exponential growth of the church in the two-thirds world during the twentieth century. It probably has not occurred to many evangelical Christians, preoccupied, as they too often are, with social-networking their personal Christian experience and events immediately under their own noses, that the 'baby boomer' generation has witnessed the most astounding advance in world Christianity ever. Writing in the mid-eighteenth century, in A History of the Work of Redemption, Jonathan Edwards set out the events which he believed would precede the Latter-day Glory. Then only a few could follow his astounding flight of faith, which included the planting of churches worldwide, in India, Africa and China, as well as the spiritual restoration of Israel. Likewise, in Psalm 113.3 the Psalmist, combining prediction with imperative, states that, 'From the rising of the sun to its setting, the name of the LORD is to be praised!' Now, for the first time in the history of redemption, it is! Prediction has become fact. Some of us have had the amazing privilege of seeing this growth at first hand. 

Unfortunately, the thrill of this is spoiled by Haykin's peddling of that hoary old travesty that the younger churches are 'a mile wide but only an inch deep', and, by implication, so very different to the wiser and more mature church in the West. How curiously illogical and Alice in Wonderland all this sounds: a rapidly declining church that is allegedly strong, and a rapidly growing church that is perilously vulnerable. It brings to mind a saying about physicians healing themselves. The fact is that the younger church, for all its imagined immaturity, is possessed of a spiritual vigour and an evangelistic zeal that has largely been lost by its more mature, or rather, senile, counterpart. This vitality, combined with the assurance of God's fatherly care, ensures the younger church's ultimate success. Of course, just like the early church, it will probably pass through many centuries of growing pains, including battles with heresy, sad divisions and cruel persecution, as well as periods of reformation and revival. Wisdom requires that this course of authentication must not be circumvented or frustrated by misguided attempts to compress Church History through the application of ready-made, and perhaps culturally inappropriate, expedients.  After all, it took the Western Church seventeen centuries to produce its most mature Confession of Faith. 

Alluding to the coincidence of the Reformation and the development of printing, Michael Haykin remarks, 'church growth often walks hand-in-hand with robust Christian publishing.' Indeed! But the Reformers did not serve a diet of reprints of the works of the early Church Fathers, or biographies of worthies of previous generations, rather, they provided the fresh produce of their own vigorous faith: Biblical answers to the pressing questions of their times, new confessions applying Scripture values to contemporary religious culture, and, most significantly, commentaries of Scripture and biblically oriented liturgical apparatus. And all this was built on the back of a massive revival of Biblical studies. 

Before they take up the challenge of preparing translations for a culture vastly different to that of their present market, can we ask publishers if they have learned the lessons of the unfortunate barrage of post-communist Eastern Europe with culturally insensitive and inappropriate publications, some of which emanated from Reformed publishing houses? It is a sad irony to abandon for the nurture of the Chinese Church that which resulted in its massive growth, namely, a thoroughly indigenous Christianity, essentially free of Western accretions. Rather than those masters of globalised marketing, McDonald's, Starbucks and Apple, our mentors in this venture must be the extraordinarily culturally sensitive William Chalmers Burns, Robert Morrison and Hudson Taylor. I am deeply concerned lest we squander their legacy by translating and republishing an extensive back catalogue of Western biography, old books with supposed historical value and marriage and family books from an American or European perspective. Frankly, I'm not surprised it is relatively easy to get a Chinese ISBN for such works, as they seem least likely to challenge the official hostility to Christianity as an authentic religion of the Chinese people, rather than an international import.

We need to be cautious about opting for such expedients. As at the European Reformation, what is most urgently needed in the two-thirds world is the development of a truly indigenous and culturally relevant Christian writing. It is for the better-off Western Church to invest heavily in resourcing the development of the Biblical and theological skills that will make this possible. I am privileged to teach at Dumisani Theological Institute at King William's Town in the Eastern Cape Province of South Africa.  Dumisani, like many similar institutes throughout the world, is massively unfunded, to the point where its ongoing ministry is threatened, just at the time when it is most needed. 

I recently published an article on the website of the World Reformed Fellowship on the question of the value of Reformed identity for African Christians in the Eastern Cape of South Africa.  The article concluded with a story about missionary William Shaw's wise counsel. Shaw was a nineteenth century Eastern Cape Methodist, who once had the delicate task of suggesting to his generous and well-meaning English lady supporters that the clothes they had so lovingly made for his Xhosa converts were not the most appropriate. Much better, he said, just to send the cloth. Precisely! 

The confessional clothing produced by western church history does not fit the needs which the younger churches identify as their own. It is wiser, surely, to invest our time, money and energy in providing the 'cloth' of Biblical and theological studies that can later be cut to an authentic local pattern.  


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