Sunday, July 13, 2014

Book Review: China's Reforming Churches

China's Reforming Churches: Mission, Polity, and Ministry in the Next Christendom, edited by Bruce P. Baugus. Reformation Heritage Books (2014), 320 pp.
Cross Focused Reviews Blog Tour

China has more evangelical Christian believers than any other nation, and more people in church on Sundays than in all of Europe -- statistics I probably wouldn't have guessed until I read China's Reforming Churches. This book goes beyond surveying facts, however, or even presenting narratives of believers' experiences.

This is a scholarly book and not exactly a quick read, but the central argument isn't hard to discern: that Chinese churches need biblical presbyterianism, and that many Chinese churches have been reforming themselves toward that end for some time. These essays are mostly written by Chinese pastors or other pastor-scholars having
firsthand familiarity with the church in China. They offer a thorough introduction to the history, present situation, and ongoing challenges faced by Christians there.

My favorite chapters were probably those dealing with the history of Presbyterianism in China. While I was aware of an early Presbyterian presence in China, I didn't realize how strong that presence was -- that there were, for example, indigenous presbyteries that were flourishing well into the early twentieth century, as well as seminaries. In reading the history of seminaries in China, I was struck by the degree to which the Fundamentalist-Modernist conflict impacted China (see Appendix B for a moving account of some seminarians' response in one instance); this struggle was definitely not limited to North America.

I also found the chapters on legal Christian publishing and theological education to be especially interesting. Both also served as a healthy reminder that, while Reformed Christians in the west rightly seek ways of partnering with Chinese churches in mission, we need to be carefully discerning in how we go about it. Possibilities that initially sound promising might prove counterproductive to churches' goals of becoming self-sustaining.

But one can't read this book without being encouraged by the vibrancy of Chinese churches, and gaining a greater understanding of the importance of biblical church structures for the shepherding of God's people everywhere. The existence of church polity can be taken for granted in a western context; it can even be easy to regard the structures and obligations of church governance as something of a burden. China's Reforming Churches is a good reminder that such structures are not only necessary, but beautiful and graciously given by God.

The publisher provided me with a review copy of this book, and I was under no obligation to give a favorable review.