‘We will lose the next generation of Christians’: Inside China’s war on youth

January 15, 2020 by Lindy Lowry in Asia

In 2018, new laws about religious freedom took effect in China. The new regulations spelled out more freedoms for people of faith, including the ability to publish literature in China, train clergy and more.

 

But there was a darker side of these religious laws.

The new language in the regulations also spelled out more clearly how the Chinese government could control faith groups. Religious education was more restricted; online religious activity was to be more carefully monitored; and directly banned unregistered religious groups from teaching or traveling outside of China for religious training.

The new laws also reaffirmed some old restrictions that had been ignored by many.

Specifically, the laws target the children of people of faith—including Christians.

The 2018 regulations ban church youth camps.

The new restrictions warn against—and potentially penalize—young Christians for sharing their faith with their friends at school.

And the new laws forbid anyone under the age of 18 from participating in church meetings.

These new laws show that the fight for the future of the Chinese church is just beginning. Here is the reality of the situation for believers in China as they try to navigate constantly increasing pressure—and how your support of Open Doors is helping to stem the tide.

The chilling effect of persecution

Now that some time has passed, it’s becoming apparent what the impact of the new laws has been in China. In some cases, the 2018 restrictions seem to produce what they set out to achieve: to instill fear among Christian students (and their parents) that attendance at church or youth group, or sharing their faith, could result in the church being fined or consequences for the student. Open Doors workers report some accounts of opposition toward Christians students from schools, including threats to penalize or even block a student’s progress towards graduation.

One disturbing trend Open Doors workers have noticed is that many Christian parents do not encourage—and sometimes even discourage—their children to attend church activities because the parents fear government or school reprisals. Instead, they pressure their children to stay away from church and spend more time studying.

“We know of some school teachers who warn children that if they follow Jesus they may not be allowed to graduate,” says Pastor Jacob*, a Chinese church leader who recently attended an Open Doors training seminar. “This creates a terrible struggle in young people’s hearts. They are torn between living free in the truth of who they really are, versus possible punishment at the hands of their teachers or parents. If they admit they follow Jesus, they could lose everything they have worked for. I think it may be hard for some Western Christians to understand how a young believer can suddenly be faced with such a tough decision. Counting the cost of following Jesus is not just words here; it is a reality that even new believers have to face.”

The last two years have seen a focused effort by the authorities to enforce the 2018 restrictions, forcing some church leaders to examine the structure and content of their youth work. They don’t want to lose the next generation. They do want to capture young people’s hearts again, and they do want to show how relevant the gospel is in times of persecution.

Time is of the essence. Unfortunately, increased pressure from the government is not the only problem facing Christian youth in China.

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‘I believe we will lose the next generation of Christians in this country’

“My alarm goes off at 6 o’clock every morning,” Xiao Ling* says. She’s a teenager in central China, the daughter of one of the Christians who attends a church there. “I eat a bowl of noodles with my classmates on the way to the bus stop; we’re on the bus by 7, and at our desks, ready for class, by 8 o’clock. Classes run until 5:30. The teachers are very strict, and demand a lot from us. We are not encouraged to ask questions, but we are expected to get high marks in our exams. If we don’t understand something we must find out how to do it outside of class time by paying a private tutor or attending an after-school class.

“The teachers give us lots of homework. After I get home, I eat dinner and then go straight to my room to do my homework, which usually takes a couple of hours. There is no time for play, and we certainly can’t go to any church meetings. I usually have homework on the weekends too, so by Sunday I’m so tired, all I want to do is sleep.”

If this sounds exhausting for students, that’s because it is. The Chinese school system is built around competition. Students compete for a place in a good elementary or high school, or to enter a good university. They compete to get a high-paying job, or to be accepted into an overseas university.

This system results in a generation of students who believe they are only as good—or as lovable—as their last report card. Churches and Christian parents have for many years tried to engage young believers in church life and fight this system of competition, but it has become increasingly difficult. Academic pressure, fatigue, social media, materialism and socializing on Sundays have stolen many young believers’ hearts away from Christian fellowship.

In many cases, youth ministry in China has too closely mirrored the hyper-competitive nature of general school. The emphasis is on academic achievement (like Bible knowledge) and teaching on religious performance. This, too, has become a barrier to young believers staying connected to the church. Sadly, youth work often perpetuates the sense of conditional love young people feel at school, and rarely focuses on total acceptance of the young person as they are, saved by grace and a work in progress.

“There is a big disconnect between our leadership team and this generation,” says Pastor Zheng*. He’s from central China, and we spoke with him at a recent Open Doors youth leadership training.  “Recently, three young believers told us they’d had enough of church and just wanted to stay home and rest. If we don’t find a way to listen better and understand what they are feeling and then speak to those needs, I believe we will lose the next generation of Christians in this country.”

Addressing the challenge now

China’s Christian youth are clearly under siege. They face intense pressure from both their system of school and social expectations—and they face increasing persecution rom the government. Chinese authorities strive to sever young believer’s Christian faith by isolating the next generation of believers from the body of Christ. Youth ministry is more important than ever.

In response to this immediate, dire need for change to youth ministry, and following extensive research and observation, Open Doors now runs youth camp/leadership training seminars. By partnering with Chinese churches, Open Door is able to help local leaders transition their youth ministry to an effective model that helps Chinese students know how much they are loved by God, and how they can better follow Him.

“The two main takeaways for me were acceptance and patience,” says Brother Yang*, a youth pastor from southern China who recently attended one of these training seminars. “The Open Doors staff were so accepting of every young person who participated in the camp. There was no judgment, only encouragement and positive affirmation. For the first time, I realized that it is not my responsibility to change each young believer; God will do that Himself, in His good time. My responsibility is simply to create a safe environment for them to invite God to do that!”

Open Doors understands the profound importance of investing in the next generation of China’s church now. Through your support, we will expand these opportunities and invite more church leaders to be trained and transition their youth ministries to help young believers navigate this difficult time in China.

“We often tell our youth how a whole army of believers around the world pray for us daily and we remind them that God moves powerfully in our lives because of this unseen, global family,” Pastor Jacob says. “These kids truly are a product of your prayers.”

Our dream is that the next generation of believers know and follow the Lord wholeheartedly, eagerly carrying their faith into the future, no matter what. Will you join us?

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