Let the God Games Begin

How missionaries’ attempts to evangelize at the Olympics were foiled.

A patriotic T-shirt that appeared in China during the spring protests against the Olympic torch relay

On April 30, 100 days before the Olympics opening ceremonies, China’s Catholic Patriotic Association, a government-chartered organization with oversight of the country’s Catholics, issued an edict requiring all mainland dioceses to celebrate a Mass in support of a successful Olympics. But that was really just a formality: China’s churches—government-registered and underground—have been praying for a successful Olympics for years.

Before and after China’s bid for the 2008 Summer Games, supporters argued that hosting the Games would force the country to address human rights issues, among which were long-standing concerns about religious freedom on the mainland. Others looked at the Games as a prime opportunity to save souls.

The number of China’s Christians (estimates range from 30 million to 100 million) continues to grow, mostly as a result of indigenous efforts but also with the aid of thousands of foreign missionaries who have lived and worked in China as schoolteachers and other professionals. Though foreign missionaries have been illegal in China for decades (they are still strongly associated with colonialism and their midcentury resistance to China’s Communist Party), these efforts have often gone undetected or, more often, were considered harmless and not worth the trouble of disrupting. (Under Chinese law, the missioner’s offense is tightly defined as proselytizing outside government-sanctioned venues that would never license them in the first place. In the case of Protestants, proselytizing typically takes place in house churches, though it can take place anywhere face-to-face contact can be established.)

As recently as the spring of 2007, evangelical groups were planning an effort meant to include thousands of trained missionaries descending on China. However, in the course of the last year, several developments have damaged the prospects for the planned spiritual harvest.

Between April and June 2007, China expelled more than 100 Christian missionaries, several of whom had been living in China for at least 15 years. China’s Foreign Ministry did not comment on the expulsion. But it has been widely assumed that the decision was related to the Olympics and may have been a strike against any potential on-the-ground infrastructure to support the Olympic missionary influx.

Next, unexpectedly tight visa and other Olympic-related security restrictions have rendered many mission efforts impractical or impossible, leaving congregations little choice but to pray from American churches, instead of from the Olympics themselves. (Meanwhile, the Kansas City-based Fellowship of Christian Athletes, unsatisfied with regulations about religion and the Games that, among other things, allow only chaplains selected by the Chinese government to minister in the Olympic Village, has asked former Olympians, including retired gold medalist swimmer Josh Davis, to serve as informal chaplains alongside athletes whom it supports in ministering to other athletes.)

Resistance to Olympics-based evangelizing didn’t come from just the government. For three generations, American evangelicals have directed prayers to China’s persecuted Christians. But many Chinese Christians increasingly object to interference by foreign missions. “We don’t need foreign Bibles or prayer leaders anymore,” a Shanghai-based clergyman told me recently. “We finally have Chinese ones.” But perhaps the most significant blow came from the least expected source. Franklin Graham, son of Billy Graham, arrived in China in May at the invitation of the Three Self Patriotic Movement, the Chinese government-chartered organization that oversees the country’s Protestant churches. Speaking to reporters at the beginning of his mission, he conceded that he had seen China make real progress with religious freedom in the 20 years that he had been visiting China. In the course of his remarks, he encouraged China’s Protestants to resolve disagreements with their government—which many interpreted as an encouragement for the underground Protestants to seek reconciliation with the open church movement. (In the last year, Pope Benedict XVI has made a similar, though more formal, entreaty to China’s divided Catholics.) Then, in a bombshell for American evangelicals, Graham added that he was opposed to Olympic evangelization: “I would not support any illegal activity at all.”

The response from the evangelical community was swift and fierce, including withering comments from Bob Fu, of the China Aid foundation, a prominent U.S.-based organization supporting China’s underground Christians. Graham, however, did not back down, and, in a statement he released after his initial comments, he noted:

I believe we must be sensitive to and respectful of the local church and the impact we as outsiders could have on them. We are guests in China and anything we do or say has a lasting effect on Chinese Christians that will be there long after the Olympics when we are gone.

With his statement, Graham, in effect, acknowledged religious freedom had improved to a point that China no longer needs foreign missionaries to contravene Chinese law in order to spread the Gospel. That message may be unwelcome to many American evangelicals, but it resonates with Chinese Christians who are beginning to take considerable pride in coming out from the shadow of America and Europe—or, at least, their missionaries. For many, missions and smuggled Bibles are an archaic and unnecessary throwback to a time when China wasn’t home to overflowing churches (open and underground) and one of the world’s largest Bible publishers, the state-owned Amity Press in Nanjing, which is publishing a multilingual Bible that will be the first to bear an Olympics logo—the ubiquitous Dancing Beijing seal that one China-based blogger suggests looks like Jesus nailed to a red door.

Still, China’s religious freedom situation is far from ideal. Many of the Olympics-related options, though very welcome, benefit visiting foreigners, not Chinese believers. Indeed, in the run-up to the Olympics, many of Beijing’s “underground” Protestant house churches were forcefully closed, their leaders scattered, after having been allowed to operate mostly unimpeded for years. Ethnically diverse religious communities in Tibet and Xinjiang province, which have little ethnic loyalty to the Han Chinese state, have been subjected to often brutal persecution and detentions that bear little resemblance to the increasingly mainstream lives of Christians in China’s urban centers. And yet, in the case of Tibet and Xinjiang, the more relevant factor is ethnicity, not faith. For underground Christians, the question is their willingness to subject themselves to the licensing requirements of the national and local governments.

By design and circumstance, the public face of religion during Beijing’s Olympics will be government-registered and supportive of the Games. Yet despite the implicit and overt suggestions of Beijing’s religious-freedom critics, that face expresses real, mainstream religious belief in China’s capital. Missionaries who fail to recognize this fact have lost sight of their declining importance in what could likely be the world’s largest Christian nation by midcentury.