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EDITOR’S NOTE: For nearly a quarter of a century Asia Harvest has been providing Bibles to the estimated 50 to 150 million Christians who worship in illegal “house churches” in China. In the early years, this consisted of hosting many short-term teams who came to Hong Kong and carried Bibles in their bags and suitcases across the border into China. In the late 1990s they started printing Bibles secretly inside China. This greatly increased the quantity while sharply reducing the cost per Bible. Asia Harvest has now printed and delivered more than 3.8 million Bibles inside China.
The following interview with Asia Harvest director is Paul Hattaway is from the organization’s May and July 2011 newsletters.
Asia Harvest: Are Bibles still needed in China?
Paul Hattaway: Many Chinese church leaders are telling us the need is greater now than at any time since the 1980s. There is a growing emergency in China because of the lack of God’s Word among the rural house churches. If this need is not rebalanced soon, I fear it will have dire consequences for the revival that has been burning so brightly in China for the last 30 years.
AH: If there is such an urgent need for Bibles in China now, how come so few Christians around the world are aware of it?
Paul: There are several main reasons for this. The first is that providing Bibles for China (and many other countries) seems “out of fashion” in many churches today. Someone recently told a friend that helping get Bibles to China’s Christians is “so 1990s!”
It seems to no longer be the “in thing.” If providing God’s Word to hungry believers who can’t access it is no longer a priority, may the Lord have mercy on us!
Another misconception is that many people believe China is now a rich country, so they no longer need our help. One American Christian recently told us, “We owe China billions of dollars, so they can take care of themselves.”
The first thing to say is that the Chinese government owning American debt does not mean the average person in China benefits in any way! About 90% of China’s house church Christians live in rural areas of the country, often thousands of miles away from the glistening skyscrapers of modern cities like Beijing and Shanghai. The revival in China at the moment is burning brightest in remote provinces like Inner Mongolia, Xinjiang, Gansu and Qinghai. Thousands of people in these regions are coming to Christ daily, and they are among the poorest of the poor in China.
I wish I could take people who think China is now swimming in wealth to some of the areas we go. They would get the shock of their lives! The average annual US income at $47,000 per person. China’s is just $3,200 per year, but there is a massive division between what those in major cities and those in the countryside earn.
Many of the Christians we provide Bibles to are among the poorest people in China. They are burdened by grinding poverty and struggling to survive on just a few hundred dollars a year. For most, even if they were able to access a Bible, they would struggle to afford one.
AH: Most Christians have heard that Bibles are now legally printed inside China, so hasn’t that taken care of the need?
Paul: For years there has been a concerted attempt by the government-approved church to convince the world that Bibles are now freely available in China. They have successfully launched a global offensive via Christian radio, television and magazines to announce the “good news” that China no longer needs Bibles. Government church leaders in China —home to one-fifth of the world’s population—say this with a straight face and many Christians foolishly believe them.
The propaganda campaign has been so successful that we regularly receive letters and emails from around the world, informing us that we are so out of touch we haven’t realized that China is now “awash with Bibles.”
It is true that for many years the government has allowed the printing of a limited number of Bibles in China. These are all produced at the Amity Press in the city of Nanjing, and each Bible has an official permit number. I am thankful for every one of them!
These official Bibles are printed primarily for members of the state-sanctioned churches in China, known as the ‘Three-Self Patriotic Movement.’ There are approximately 20 million Christians in these churches. It is usually not difficult for Christians living in most major urban centers to buy a Bible at one of these churches. However, if you want to buy more than five or ten Bibles you will probably find it difficult, and questions may be asked about who they are for.
For the last 23 years we have been serving the unregistered house churches in China, who number more than 50 million believers. I can tell you that it simply isn’t true that the official Bibles are freely available inside China for all Christians. It would be wonderful if it were true, but it is not the case.
Each of the house church networks we serve have verified needs of hundreds of thousands of Bibles just to provide God’s Word to their new converts!
AH: The Amity Press, which prints Bibles with government permission in China, report to have printed tens of millions of Bibles in China since its inception. Surely many of these find their way to the house churches too?
Paul: The numbers of Bibles reportedly produced by Amity Press are impressive. What they fail to mention, for some strange reason, is that two-thirds of the Bibles they print in China are for EXPORT! Amity Press has become one of the largest commercial printers in the world, and two-thirds of the Bibles they produce are in other languages and are exported out of China. If you have a look at an English NIV Bible, for example, don’t be surprised if it says it was printed in China.
The bottom line is that the Chinese Bibles that do remain inside the country are for distribution among members of the Three-Self churches. The more than 50 million house church Christians struggle to pick up more than a few crumbs that fall from the table of the registered church.
My heart breaks for these believers, and the way they have been neglected by much of the Body of Christ. More and more mission groups are signing up to work with the Three-Self Church in China, because it is safer for them to do so. What about the 50 million precious followers of Jesus among the “illegal” and despised unregistered house churches? Should we just ignore them and let them waste away without access to God’s Word?
Although they wouldn’t say so publicly, I know how painful it is to house church leaders when yet another big-name Western Christian comes to China and saddles up with the government. One world-famous preacher, convinced he was an expert after a week or two in China, even had the audacity to rebuke the house churches for their refusal to register with the Communist government.
Such statements show a complete ignorance and disrespect for our brothers and sisters who have suffered so much for their faith and the principles they have taken a stand for. After 50 years of persecution, the house church Christians in China do not need further wounds at the hands of ill-informed Christians from other nations.
We are not ashamed to say how privileged we are to serve the illegal and increasingly-neglected house churches of China. We aim, by God’s grace, to provide as many Bibles to our dear brothers and sisters as the Lord grants us the resources to print and deliver.
AH: What do you say to those Christians who say we must obey the laws of the land, and the laws of China right now say you can not print Bibles except through the Amity Press?
Paul: I agree that we should always obey the laws of governments and those in authority, as long as those laws do not go against the higher law of God. Jesus commanded us to go into the whole world and preach the Gospel to all of mankind.
About 60 countries in the world today do not allow missionaries and are hostile to the message of Christ. Should we obey the laws of the land and forget about the hundreds of millions of people who live in those countries? Should we let them go to hell without hearing about Jesus?
Was Daniel misguided when he refused to obey the law of the land to bow before an idol? Were Peter and John sinning when they defied orders to stop telling people about Jesus? Peter and John replied, “Judge for yourselves whether it is right in God’s sight to obey you rather than God. For we can not help speaking about what we have seen and heard” (Acts 4:19-20).
I suspect many Christians today use the “obey the laws of the land” verse as a self-righteous excuse for doing nothing.
Jesus commanded us to feed those who are hungry, and in China today there are multitudes of His children spiritually starving because of a lack of God’s Word.
We look forward to a day when Bibles are freely available to all people in China—including house church Christians. In the meantime, we continue to print as many Bibles as God grants us the ability to do.
AH: How can people respond?
Paul: On behalf of the Christians in China, I would firstly ask you to pray. The structure is already in place to supply many millions more Bibles to the house churches than are currently being provided. Please pray that the most basic need every Christian has—access to God’s Word—would not be hindered.