Christian revival from within: Seventh- day Adventism in
Introduction China is still ruled by a powerful one-party state even though it has the fastest growing economy in the world. The revival of Christianity reflects a broader phenomenon of growing interest in religion and spirituality which has taken place since the 1980s. The Chinese are caught in the space between collapsed traditions and discredited Communist ideology on the one hand, and the pursuit of wealth and the Western lifestyle on the other. They are struggling in a competitive market economy, but are disillusioned with repressive politics and bewildered by conflicting values. This raises the level of social anxieties and drives many to seek solace within these confusions. Some people are turning to traditional religions; others are seeking salvation in Christianity. Explanations for the resurgence of religious fervor vary, such as a crisis of faith that resulted from the collapse of Maoism as a compelling ideology and the strong human inclination for meaning that manifests itself as a desire for salvation in times of uncertainty. But it remains unclear why people subscribe to Christianity specifically, and why Chinese converts actively proselytize and plant churches in urban and rural areas (Liao 2011). This chapter looks at the growth of Seventh-day Adventism, a Protestant denomination characterized by Sabbath observance and its belief in the imminent second coming of Jesus Christ, in contemporary China, focusing on two parallel phenomena. The first is the transformation of Adventism from a persecuted religion in Maoist China into a fast-growing religious movement in the Reform era. The experience of church-state conflicts of the 1950s is crucial to understanding the continuities and ruptures of Adventism today. The reemergence of the Adventist churches points to the utter failure of the state to control the religious sphere. Many Adventists did not merely survive religious persecution under Mao’s rule (1949-76); they rejected the subservient role that the Three-Self Patriotic Movement had assigned them. They liberated themselves from the state-run religious patriotic institutions and organized autonomous and diffuse worshipping communities. The second phenomenon is the construction of a new Adventist identity among individuals and groups in a fast changing and globalized environment. As Fenggang Yang (2005) points out,
many people convert because Christianity advocates the idea of a transcendental God and provides a clear path towards modernity and cosmopolitanism, akin to why some young urban believers like to meet at McDonald’s for prayer groups and Bible study. Besides these spiritual, psychological and material incentives, Adventism offers an attractive system of religious worldviews that consolidates people’s faith, and a set of congregational norms that addresses the challenges of social and economic inequalities, the unpredictable risks in a market economy, and the uncertain interactions with the socialist state. This study examines how the present-day Adventists negotiate their positions in the religious field vis-à-vis the state-controlled Three-Self Patriotic churches. It argues that the church-state conflicts of the 1950s greatly affected the political and religious orientations of Chinese Adventists in the Reform period. Many Adventists favored a decentralized model of church governance over the top-down hierarchy created by the American missionaries before 1949. They cultivated transnational religious networks with the Adventist headquarters in the United States through Hong Kong. They challenged the post-denominational emphasis of the Three-Self Patriotic Movement by adhering to Sabbath observance and the belief in the imminent advent of Jesus Christ. The Adventist revival has to do with the church’s resilience against persecution and the believers’ ability to rejuvenate their faith and to set clear boundaries against the secular society. Beginning with an overview of Seventh-day Adventism in China, this study highlights the complex political environment that the Adventists experienced under Mao. It then discusses the Adventists’ strategies for survival, the emergence of schismatic groups, and the process of faith intensification in the Reform era.