Over the years as I have had the opportunity to minister in different parts of the world, I have encountered Christians who are confused about the Church in China.
Some have heard that there is now freedom of worship in China, while others are told there is still widespread religious persecution.
Some sources claim there are in excess of 100 million Christians in China, while others claim there are no more than 30 or 40 million.
And perhaps most confusing of all, some claim Bibles are now freely available and are no longer needed in China, while other organizations claim there is a marked shortage of Scriptures and millions of believers are still without God's Word.
With such conflicting information, it is little wonder that Christians around the world are confused when it comes to China!
Over the years some mission groups have adopted a stock answer whenever they are asked to clarify any of these disparate claims involving the Church in China. The answer goes something like this: "China is a huge place, and whatever you hear about China may be true in one place but not in another." While it is convenient to give people such a 'non answer,' I believe it has been used many times as a 'cop out' - allowing the missionary to avoid dealing with difficult subjects.
After all, surely the above questions are either true or not. Either there is freedom for Christians to worship in China, or not. Either those who claim there are 100 million believers in China are correct, or they are wrong. And either Chinese Christians now have no problem obtaining Bibles, or there are still shortages. These alternatives are black-and-white, and can't simply be clothed in shades of gray.
Recently there seems to have been a concerted, deliberate attempt by the Three-Self Patriotic Movement and China Christian Council (the official, state-sanctioned bodies for Christianity in China), to assure the world that Bibles are now freely available in China. They have held press conferences around the world to promote this stance, and have successfully launched a global media offensive to break the good news that China no longer needs Bibles. A number of Western mission organizations who work closely with the Three-Self Church have also joined the chorus, saying the official Amity Press in China is printing more than enough Bibles to meet the demand.
During the year we have received a number of letters and emails from people, asking why we still print Bibles in China. Some have asked if we are so out of touch that we haven't realized China is now awash with Bibles, and "the Chinese Christian leaders themselves have asked that people stop smuggling Bibles into their country."
Firstly, I agree with the claims of the Three-Self leaders on one thing: there is no need to smuggle Bibles into China any more. In fact, we have not smuggled any Bibles into China for more than a decade. This does not mean, however, that the Chinese Church has enough Bibles. Instead of smuggling Bibles, we print them inside the country, in partnership with the house church networks. This is far simpler, faster and cost-effective than carrying them in from outside China. (Note: Some missionaries still smuggle Bibles into China and believe that the Lord has called them to do that. We are not criticizing their efforts, just explaining that we have found a more effective method to fulfill what we believe God has called us to do, which is to provide as many copies of God's Word to as many believers in China as possible).
As we and our colleagues travel throughout China, we have never met a house church leader who is not thankful for the work of Amity Press in China, and indeed the house church believers thank God for every Bible produced over the years.
However, it isn't true that the official Bibles are freely available inside China for all believers. This would be wonderful if it was true, but it is not so simple.
For more than 20 years we have primarily worked in China with the house church networks. For years they have obtained as many Bibles from the Amity Press as possible, but the amount they are able to source is only a fraction of the size of their need. While I agree that there is a reasonable supply of Bibles available in the major provincial capital cities, the believers in many remote places where our Bibles are distributed, such as in Inner Mongolia or Gansu, say that Christians living outside those major cities have little chance of obtaining a Bible from the Three-Self churches. Many Christians live hundreds of kilometers from the nearest city where the Three-Self churches store Bibles, and even when they travel into the city to attempt to buy one they often are turned away, or are only able to get one or two copies when they need hundreds or thousands of copies just to equip the new believers in their area.
House church leaders also tell us if they try to order shipments of Bibles to be sent directly from the Amity Press the maximum they can order is 200, otherwise they may be questioned by the police. Some of the networks we serve need hundreds of thousands of Bibles each year just to nourish their new converts. They get all the Bibles they can from Amity Press, but while this is welcome, their needs are still far from being met.
Our friends at China Harvest recently told of a meeting they had with a house church pastor named Brother Shu. He told them, "I used to think that Chinese could get all the Bibles they needed nowadays. But I was humbled to find out I was so deceived! I’ve lived my whole life in the big cities, but then as I began to work more and more in remote rural areas, I found there are many hundreds of thousands of believers in those places without access to any Bible!"
So far, by the grace of God, we been able to print and deliver almost 1.5 million Bibles to the house churches of China. This year alone we have provided 270,000 Bibles, yet this is just a fraction of the size of the verified requests that have come in to our coworkers in China. We have requests from leaders of church movements all across China that have experienced explosive growth. These groups need tens of thousands of Bibles immediately just to equip their new believers with God's Word.
Here is a selection of requests we have recently received:
"In Heilongjiang Province we have sent Bibles to many counties. We recently preached to policemen and to farmers, and 500 received baptism! We also sent workers to Shandong Province, and hundreds of workers there are waiting for Bibles and teaching materials."
"We held revival meetings in Gansu Province, and each believer shared the Gospel with 10 people. Now we need 2,400 Bibles."
"We received the 4,100 Bibles and 650 study Bibles from your contact. Praise the Lord! In the past twelve months the Lord has graciously enabled us to reach more than 60,000 souls for Christ, and we are now praying and striving to nourish these newborn babes in Christ. Without God’s Word this is impossible. The Scriptures you sent us were received like hungry children longing for good and lasting food. Please pray that we will be able to receive at least 50,000 more Bibles from the hand of the Lord, so that none of our new believers would be without a copy of God’s holy Word."
For these reasons we continue to print Bibles in partnership with the house churches of China, and we believe there is plenty of room both for this kind of activity and the Bibles produced by the Amity Press, and we pray there will be a gracious attitude from all those serving the Church in China to realize there is a place for these different forms of ministry in China today.
I hope this answer helps explain why we still print Bibles in China today. Let's continue to work toward the day when God's Word will be freely available to all Christians in China - whether they worship in registered or unregistered churches, and regardless of whether they live in large cities or in remote rural areas.