Young Chinese Christians Choose to Take the Narrow Path

Worshippers at Early Rain Reformed Church in Chengdu (Jiang Zhongming)

Young Chinese Christians are living unpopular lives that counter both hedonistic peers and traditional-but-unbelieving parents

A layer of smog lies heavy on the gleaming city of Chengdu, blotting out the sun and leaving residents with throats they constantly need to clear and phlegm they need to spit out onto the sidewalk. It’s toxic proof of the economic growth in the past few decades that has pulled millions out of poverty and crowned the country the second-largest economy in the world. Yet it came at a price beyond pollution: broken families as parents leave children behind to work in the cities, an all-consuming appetite for wealth, an unhinged moral code, a widening generation gap between parents and children.

Those born in the 1980s and ’90s, who have only seen China rise, live lives radically different from their parents, who survived the murderous experiments of Mao Zedong, silently watched injustices unfold before them, and went to bed hungry. Millennials who profess Christ face even conflicts with their parents, especially as their faith begins to transform their lives and their worldview. I talked to five unmarried millennials who attend Chengdu’s Early Rain Reformed Church to get a sense of how they try to be salt and light in China, alien to both the traditional views of their parents and the hedonistic pursuits of their peers.

As Grace Guo sat down to eat Chinese New Year dinner with her extended family in late January, relatives bombarded her with the usual questions: “Why aren’t you married yet? Why do you spend all your time at church?” The questions stung Guo, a usually cheerful 35-year-old, yet the aunts and uncles persisted. “You say your God is good? But how come you’ve gone to church for five years now and you’ve gotten nothing? You’re still single—look at your cousins!” Traditional Chinese beliefs place enormous pressure on working-aged women to find a successful man to marry and bear children. Parents with unmarried children are shamed among their family and friends.

Guo’s father, a former soldier, was a strict and terse man. Growing up, Guo felt lonely, as her parents were busy working and didn’t take time to get to know their only child. At school, she was a top student but still faced the wrath of her teachers. One time her history teacher rapped her hand with a stick until large welts appeared because she answered a question from her own knowledge, rather than regurgitating the answer in the book. The teacher said she had to discipline Guo so other students wouldn’t start thinking for themselves.

When Guo professed faith in 2011, her relationship with her father became extremely tense. Yet her mother saw the changes in her life and started to attend church, getting baptized herself a year later. So at the Chinese New Year dinner, relatives turned to Guo’s mother, accusing her of exacerbating the problem: “As her mother, you need to take control of your daughter and tell her not to spend so much time at church. Instead you actually join her in going to church!” Grace retorted that their faith wasn’t based on the tangible things they could get from it, but on the invisible—eternal life and spiritual strength.

All the talk agitated her typically reticent father. After leaving their relative’s home, he turned to his daughter: “You should be ashamed of yourself,” he said. “You are weak and don’t have much going for you: you don’t have a family, you don’t earn much money, and you don’t have a good job.” Guo had recently left her job to apply to an overseas program in Christian education, as she saw the growing need in China’s Christian schools and didn’t want children to go through the same terrible experience she had in public schools.

After a pause Guo responded: “Yes, I am weak. I’m not very powerful, I agree with that. But when Jesus went to the cross, many people also disrespected and shamed him. Perhaps I am in this situation so that I can know that while I am weak, my Lord is strong.” Seeing her daughter’s courage, her mother laughed in delight.

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June Cheng