Historic Meeting of Chinese and Russian Protestants in Shanghai

Vitaly Vlasenko (third from the left), general secretary of the Russian Evangelical Alliance, led the four-person Russian Protestant delegation to visit CCC&TSPM in Shanghai on April 15, 2024.
Vitaly Vlasenko (third from the left), general secretary of the Russian Evangelical Alliance, led the four-person Russian Protestant delegation to visit CCC&TSPM in Shanghai on April 15, 2024. (photo: CCC&TSPM)
By William Yoder, Ph.D.April 27th, 2024

L a d u s h k i n -- “Our meeting today can be regarded as historic!” For the first time in history, top-level representatives from the Protestant churches of Russia and China are meeting on each others’ soil. This was claimed by Rev. Wu Wei, the president of China’s largest Protestant body, the “China Christian Council & Three-Self Patriotic Movement” (CCC&TSPM). This meeting with a Russian delegation took place in Shanghai on 15 April 2024.

Vitaly Vlasenko, general-secretary of the Russian Evangelical Alliance (REA), assured that day that this gathering should be understood as the beginning, and certainly not the end, of a long relationship. “We are looking forward to greater enrichment and the development of initiatives from both sides.”

Over the past seven years the REA has been working to arrange such a meeting. Vlasenko added: “A bridge is now in place over which interested Christians from China and Russia can pass to-and-fro as they see fit.”

All delegates from Russia were overwhelmed by the massiveness of China. Everything seemed big – similar to that which the USA once represented. Four hundred attended a regular Sunday-morning service at Shanghai’s exquisite “Holy Trinity Cathedral”. The seven-year-old chapel at “Nanjing Union Theological Seminary” boasts a size comparable to that of a European cathedral. Beijing’s massive “Chaoyang Church”, where the delegation was hosted, is visited on Sundays by 3.000 believers.

Alone the printing branch of Nanjing-based “Amity Foundation” has a factory covering 33.000 m2. Founded in 1985, it has printed over 260.000 million Bibles; making it the world’s largest printer of Bibles. Sixty percent of the Bibles now used in Africa are from Amity. It has served organizations in 142 countries. Of its roughly 1.000 employees world-wide, 430 work at its printing division in Nanjing. Amity’s social division includes work with orphans, the elderly, public health, green agriculture, clean water, disaster relief and fundraising. By now, 70-90% of its funding is from China.

Rev. Wei reported that the CCC&TSPM sports a membership of 38 million. Reports from elsewhere on the number of unregistered believers in China run from 20 to 80 million. The USA is estimated to have 90-100 million conservative-evangelical believers. It therefore remains an open question as to which country has the most evangelical believers.

Least but not least: Foreign visitors are strongly advised to bring along a massive suitcase when visiting China. It will be needed to lug home the gifts presented to them by their extremely cordial Chinese hosts.

Leonid Kartavenko noted that the Chinese church has already achieved that which for Russians is still a distant goal. Denominationalism has become nearly non-existent in China, yet Russian church leaders are still in the process of curbing the worst excesses of denominationalism. Officially post-denominational since 1958, Chinese sources stated that Reformed Calvinist voices remain most prone to push the last vestiges of denominationalism.

“We also need a three-self movement of our own,” concluded Kartavenko. Born in the 1870’s, the movement has struggled to make the Chinese church a self-governing, self-supporting and self-propagating entity.

Despite major differences in size, both the Chinese and Russian Protestants remain a small minority within their societies. Suspected of being remotely-controlled by foreign, Western forces, Protestants in both countries long for acceptance as a legitimate part of the national whole. Acceptance and integration are the key, they too want to belong. A large mural in Beijing’s Chaoyang Church for ex. portrays a Jesus of Chinese ethnicity.

The majority of Chinese Protestant pastors are female; the delegation agreed that they support the increased involvement of women within Russian Protestant churches.

Current challenges

Despite major achievements and growth over the past four decades, the Covid pandemic has put a dent into church attendance. Attendance at Chaoyang Church has dropped by 2.000 since the onset of the pandemic – it had been roughly 5.000. Hosts reported that more than a few have grown fond of practicing a convenient on-line faith at home on the couch. The church is therefore stressing the benefits of fellowship to those who remain missing.

Registered Chinese congregations groan under the burden of the government demand that no minors attend services. According to the law, Chinese citizens are not allowed to attend foreign-language international congregations. China is very suspect of foreign-funded NGO’s, and foreign churches qualify as NGO’s.

Nevertheless, major church restorations are still being permitted by the avowedly atheistic government. Shanghai’s “Holy Trinity Cathedral”, originally constructed by the British in 1847, has only reopened since the official end of the pandemic. Closed as a house of worship in 1966, Trinity had been defaced by an additional floor built into its main hall. The same thing occurred in Moscow’s Lutheran “Peter-and-Paul Cathedral”. In both cases, the unwelcome floor has since been removed, restoring the cathedrals to their original beauty. These cathedrals are in both cases on the grounds of national church headquarters.

The once-Methodist “Chongwenmen Church” is located only a stone’s throw from Tiananmen Square in the heart of Beijing. Originally built in 1904, its major renovation was only completed several days prior to the Russian delegation’s visit on 18 April.

For the Chinese government, Russian citizens cannot be regarded as privileged characters. For most of 2024, tourists from Germany, France, Italy and eight more West European countries will be allowed to enter China without a visa. This one-sided step on the part of the Chinese does not include Russians. They remain burdened by significant bureaucratic hurdles when trying to obtain official (for ex. religious) visas. In contrast to the credit cards from Western countries, Russia issues no cards which will also work in China.

The CCC&TSPM is committed to restoring its contacts with Western organizations to pre-pandemic levels – a policy which the Russian churches have no intention to harm. The CCC&TSPM partners only with inter-confessional bodies; it has been a member of Geneva’s “World Council of Churches” since 1991.

Future prospects

Both the guests and hosts felt that Western media present a distorted picture of church life in Russia and China. Until now, news about each other has virtually always been detoured through North America before arriving in the other country. President Wu Wei therefore suggested that a recent book on the history of the Chinese church, written by the Chinese themselves, soon be translated directly from Chinese into Russian. According to many Chinese church leaders, even the most sympathetic descriptions from Western observers nevertheless remain Western. Many more church publications need to be shared directly between China and Russia.

Prof. Yilu Chen, the vice-president of “Nanjing Union Theological Seminary”, appeared very open to our delegation’s suggestion that his institution offer short-term seminars in English in hopes of attracting foreign students. Until now, this 400-student seminary has offered no courses in English. Only by doing increased work in English could the Chinese church be able to extend its influence into the Global East and South. An initial step could be the short-term exchange of guest lecturers between China and Russia.

The delegation stressed that support of the Chinese diaspora in Russia and the Russian one in China is a present and pressing concern.

The Russian churches are also very much interested in business projects between Chinese and Russian firms. Without the increased business success of its members, the Protestant churches of Russia will never become truly independent. Yet due to current political uncertainties and the haunting ghost of Western sanctions, a Chinese church insider noted that his people remain reluctant to invest in Russia. For the present, Russians marketing Chinese products in Russia – and vice versa – seems to be the most do-able option.

The next global BRICS conference is scheduled for October in Kazan/Russia. It is hoped that, despite the late date, church delegates from China may yet be able to attend.

Last but not least: The Amity Foundation will be holding its 5th international table tennis tournament in Nanjing on 19 and 20 October of this year. Around 1.000 contestants are expected. Players from Russia would also be highly welcome.

Originally from Webpage "The FEA"

CCD edited and reprinted with permission

related articles
LATEST FROM Church & Ministries