A Believer Among _Believers_

Full disclosure: I’m a Christian.

In America, this is something people often take as a given. In a country where 76% of the adult population self-identifies as Christian, this is understandable. It’s a safe assumption to make. Furthermore, because the United States has such a large Christian population and has historically had a similarly large Christian population, the majority of Christians in America were raised by Christian parents and at a young age were exposed to at least a modicum of the Christian religious experience. Even non-Christians in America are exposed to Christianity, which is engrained deeply into Western culture. Biblical concepts like “The Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil,”  “Noah and the Ark,” and “Jesus turning water into wine” are widely known.

Imagine, then, the following conversation:

Person on the street: So, how do you know each other?

Chinese friend: We’re both Christians, we just came from a Bible study.

Person on the street: What’s a Christian?

Chinese friend: We’re people who follow Jesus.

Person on the street: Who’s Jesus?

Seems bizarre, right? I understand why the average Chinese person would not have heard of Jesus – it’s just a matter of statistics – but the idea that someone has not heard of Jesus still seems bizarre to me. We’re talking about Jesus here, a man who, regardless of whether or not you believe in him as a Christian, can probably be safely considered the most important historical figure in Western culture, by sheer impact on that culture alone.

Christianity is growing in China. This means that most Chinese Christians were not raised by Christian parents and simply adopted the religion by osmosis, but were converts to Christianity later in the lives. For them, becoming a Christian was a life-changing experience; being baptized made them into a new person in a profound way.

This became clear to me as I sat in the living room of a woman I was introduced to by a Chinese friend, participating in a Bible study she hosts weekly. After singing a few hymns, everyone in the room introduced themselves: “Hi everyone, I’m [name], I’m originally from [place], I was baptized [time], I’m really glad to be here with everyone tonight.” These introductions were not set up this way (no one told us to share this particular set of information), but yet almost everyone in the room was drawn to sharing this information. For them (most of whom had been Christians for only a few years), the fact they had been baptized and the time of their baptism (one individual even shared the exact date of his baptism) was as fundamental to their identity as their name and their home. For me, this was a new experience; in churches I have been a member of in America, I don’t think I’ve ever heard anyone share how long they’ve been a Christian.

Among these people, I felt a little out of place. For them, their conversion to Christianity was perhaps the most important, defining moment in their life. For me, my faith is important, but I can’t say that I’ve ever felt transformed by it.

After the Bible study had ended, the woman hosting it came over to speak with me. I shared the observations and feelings mentioned above. She told me I shouldn’t be worried: “I had been a Christian for ten years before I really became a Christian, really let it change my life. I think that’s what being a Christian is really all about: allowing Jesus to change the way you live your life.”

That seemed to be a belief shared by almost everyone in the room. What is interesting to me is that as China changes rapidly, the lives of its people change rapidly as well. What drives people already confronting so much change to seek out another change in their life, particularly one as fundamental as religious conversion, is something I still don’t understand, however.

For some great insights on Christianity in China, check out Chinese Christians are filling vital roles in their communities and Talking with Christians in rural China from the blog Seeing Red in China.