By Rowan Callick
24 June 2022
Many of us within the Western church world, who think of it wrongly as the ancient epicentre of Christianity, wonder whether we can have anything to learn from those regions closer to Australia.
We quietly believe that surely we’re the ones who take Jesus with us to such places.
But Jesus is already there, alive – transforming people in our region. I have learned this from encounters that I haven’t sought: they have materialised in front of me in places where I had never expected to find him.
I made that discovery for myself arriving from England to work as communications officer for the Anglican diocese of Papua New Guinea. On my first evening there I was the dinner guest of an extraordinarily thoughtful and empathetic Christian family, the Boboms. I realised that God had called me there principally to learn.
That discovery was later framed visually through a visit to a Methodist church in a village on the Fijian island of Taveuni.
On the whole of a great wall inside is a colourful painting depicting the arrival by boat of the first missionaries. They are being welcomed joyfully by the villagers. Standing alongside them, also cheering on the missionaries, is Jesus himself. A big image, in every sense.
I discovered also just how surprising is Jesus’ inventiveness during a visit to a Bible School in Xi’an, whose president was a brilliant, energetic and devout woman.
There were 140 students, resident in six-person dormitories. One group of mainly middle-aged women was especially remarkable. They were doing a one-year course in evangelism, with their focus on spreading the gospel along the Belt and Road, an initiative which China’s leader Xi Jinping created to boost Beijing’s influence across Asia into Europe.
Here, then, Jesus is inspiring his followers to preach him and his message along that same Belt and Road.
Five years ago I spent a week living among the Lisu, a culture of about 750,000 people, part-Tibetan, part-Burmese, who live in mountainous north-west Yunnan province in China.
Their original religion was shamanistic, but for the last century they have been devoutly Christian, with a wooden church at the centre of every village. Only two missionaries, Englishman James Fraser, an eager musician, and his co-worker, Karen Burmese evangelist Ba Thaw, ever came to the area, arriving in 1910.
The Lisu now have 720 churches but just 35 paid pastors. Their worship is congregationally-focused, with discussion sometimes about who will lead the next part of a service.
They still sing today the hymns translated into the Lisu language by Fraser – but unaccompanied and with traditional, breathtaking Lisu harmonies. They perform elaborate dance routines to Christian songs. The churches we visited were full.
Or, I recall strongly a conversation with a 26-year-old marketing manager Wang Wei, as he strained one Maundy Thursday to get inside a packed church in south Beijing. Wang explained why he was there: “Most of my friends talk endlessly about their new mobiles. But what I’ve bought mostly lets me down in the end”. So he started coming to church – for the music, the atmosphere, and in his words, the sincerity.
I have drawn three conclusions from seeing Jesus in action so vividly, when least expected.
First, if we are ever tempted to draw a line between ourselves and others, including people in strikingly different cultures, then we will always find Jesus on the other side of that line. We should have our eyes wide open to see him, ready to be surprised, wherever we go.
Second, people can encounter Jesus through us too, if we walk with him, if we live for others, if we live in him. Our job is to point others not to an ethical code or a system of thought or a group of like-minded people – but to Jesus.
Third, while many may have two or even three passports, we are all “citizens of heaven, where the Lord Jesus Christ lives,” as Paul says in Philippians. We are fellow pilgrims, wherever we may come from and wherever we may travel in this world, we are all one in Christ Jesus.
Rowan Callick is a China expert and a diocesan examining chaplain. This article is drawn from his Philip Harris Memorial Lecture at Christ Church Brunswick, the full text of which is available at: bit.ly/3tMkalK.