Learn From 200 Years' Modern History: a 'Last Mile' Between Church and Society

A picture shows a long road lined with trees.
A picture shows a long road lined with trees. (photo: pixabay.com)
By Li DaonanAugust 4th, 2022

The “last mile” has now become one of the hottest issues that is bothering society. In a certain place, there was once a beautiful road built at a large price. It gave great convenience of traveling. However, the road had a dead end right at the last mile. It was either because the last mile was not in the administrative region, or because the land of the last mile had not been negotiated. So the previous big cost was paid in vain and all efforts were wasted due to this last mile.

Many of the “last mile” problems are caused by administrative inaction or turf wars. After they are exposed to media, they are soon solved. So, it shows that the “last mile” issue is not unsolvable.

However, the “last mile” problem also exists on the road between church and society, and this “last mile” is by no means easy. Even if everyone is aware of the problem, they can not simply get through it.

It has been more than 200 years since Christianity entered modern China. The paths of the 200 years can basically be divided into two divisions. One is the upper way, which can also be said to be the cultural path. This path was dominated by European and American liberals. They set up schools, established a systematic modern education system and cultural system, constructed hospitals and medical education, and reformed the backward medical situation in China. However, this route was mainly carried out in cities, so it had a great impact on urban citizens. Today, quite a few of the best hospitals in China’s coastal cities were originally church hospitals, and some of the best universities were church universities. For instance, East China University of Political Science and Law was formerly St. John’s University, and Suzhou University was Soochow University. This path mainly affected the well-educated, so a considerable part of the employees of the National Government were Christians because most of the groups who had received a university education at that time graduated from church universities.

The other division is the grass root, whose purpose is to save the soul from falling into the hell of paganism. Although this route had been carried out in cities, it did not achieve much, and its main position was in remote rural areas. Its arrival had also brought benefits to remote rural areas, partially changing their quality of life. However, because this path focused on saving souls, it had a fierce conflict with traditional culture and rural customs, such as the fierce debate on ancestor worship. This path, because of its "religious salvation" route, was similar to the traditional religion in rural areas, and medical and material relief also attracted many people.

It can be said that after Christianity entered China in modern times, it attracted a large number of Chinese people. If the process of Christianity entering China is likened to the construction of a highway, then the highway of Christianity in modern times was once well built, and basically the problem of the “last mile” was solved. From the city to the countryside, Christian churches have great influence. Even if the imperial power behind the church is thrown away, the influence of the church should not be underestimated.

Although the “last mile” was opened, allowing the church to contact people’s lives directly, the foundation of this road was not laid well, so after several big “storms”, the road collapsed.

Looking at the problem of highway collapse, that is, modern Christianity had such a great influence, but it finally had to fade after several “storms”. There are several main reasons for this. A timing problem. The entry of Christianity into Chinese cultural life is a problem of cultural integration. However, because the timing of Christianity’s entry into China was precisely the time when China was seeking to save the nation, the mentality of seeking quick success and short-term solutions made them not in the mood to slowly learn the advanced culture and change their old system of deep disadvantages, but rather hope to find a path of rapid rise. That situation obviously could not give Christianity much time to show their own culture. The spread and integration of culture is a long historical process. As the saying goes, a leopard cannot change his spots. The spots are culture. Therefore, although Christianity had a wide range of influence and a large number of people, it did not have enough time to enter Chinese culture, thus affecting the life order.

Secondly, after Christianity was introduced into China, it adhered to its own cultural norms, especially the fundamentalists who drew a clear line between doctrine and Chinese culture. It resulted in the immunity of Chinese culture itself which rejected Christianity. This caused Christianity to lose its influence on Chinese culture.

The exit of modern Christianity was due to the fact that it did not change and enter the culture, and did not put the gospel connotation of Christianity into daily life, which became the life order.

Today, the “last mile” problem between Christianity and society is not that the faith foundation is not good, but that there is no repair at all. There is a dead end between Christianity and society.

First of all, although today’s church is large in scale and number, its route is largely the basic route that focuses on saving the soul. This has created an insurmountable wall between church doctrine and social culture.

Thirdly, the privatization of the church is a problem that hinders the opening of the “last mile” of the church. The leaders’ sense of protectiveness gives them a turf war mentality, in which a church is regarded as their private property, thus forming a strong sense of territory. Keeping the state of mind, turning the church into a group within the wall, and creating an insurmountable wall with society are the “last mile” problem. Privatization of the church allows church leaders to measure between their own cost and church output.

Fourthly, the social and political external environment contribute to the church’s doctrinal construction and theological choice. The rich historical tradition and theological resources of Christianity are selected in advance before being introduced into China. One of the fundamental reasons for the singleness of Chinese Christian theology and culture is that the fundamentalist port is enlarged while other ports are closed or contracted. Therefore, the choice and shaping of today’s Christian community is the result of deliberate shaping by politics and society. This is not the same as the full opening of modern Christianity.

These reasons lead to a vicious circle of Christianity. Christianity can not influence the social classes or culture, and thus can not be acknowledged. Therefore, Christianity is in a state of tension with social culture and seeks self-sufficiency in isolation. This has been said to be the source of the tragedy and embarrassing situation of Christianity at present.

Looking back at the period of concentrated outbreaks of social contradictions in history, it is often seen that social crisis is only a prelude to social change, followed by vigorous social change, which may change the contact between Christianity and the international community. Christianity must be prepared to meet the situation of Christian pluralistic traditions.

How can these various changes in the future be dealt with? There is probably no better way to deal with it than to study. Although it is difficult to break through, there is no new life without it.

The future development of Christianity is bound to take cultural and social services as the standard rather than scale or economy.

- Translated by Charlie Li

related articles