A Land Without Steeples

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In East Asia, the most striking thing to a southerner might be the almost complete absence of steeples. Walking through cities with millions of people and villages with only dozens of residents, the view is the same: buildings for commerce, education, and living, but none for worship. Of course, there are churches in East Asia. Many churches are recognized and permitted by the government, and there are countless more that meet illegally, but no steeples and no religious spires; no architecture points the public toward God. 

East Asia has a massive tourist temple called the Temple of Heaven. It was built in the 15th century and is visited by thousands of people from across East Asia on a daily basis. It was originally built as a place where the emperor would offer a sacrifice for good harvests. It was never a place for the common man to worship or to encounter a divine Father. Today it sits as a World Heritage Site, valued for its history and architecture; you won’t find the worship of God at the Temple of Heaven.

East Asia is a place of vast contrasts. The Great Wall sits as another World Heritage Site, partially restored as a gift from the German government as a symbol that the wall no longer represents separation, but unity. Huge power-generating windmills, like a vision of an alien invasion in a sci-fi movie, sit on hilltops overlooking villages where the people work the soil with hoes and spades just like their ancestors did in generations past. Atheism is a common practice, encouraged by the Communist Party. Their control extends through all religious life in East Asia and forbids the practice of religion by any Party members. Yet, there are makeshift road-side altars where chickens are sacrificed and their blood sprinkled to gain favor from the local spirits. 

Christianity in East Asia actually dates back to the seventh century with the first missionaries arriving from the Middle East. Over the centuries, the Christian faith waxed and waned according to the whims of the governing authorities. Today there are many Christians in East Asia; some, just like in the United States, are happy with the status quo. Others are passionate about sharing the love and truth of Jesus to their fellow countrymen. 

Arthur (his name has been changed) is such a missionary. He is passionate about his work with an unreached people group in the western area of East Asia. He left his job and his family from a city in the east to become a transient worker in a remote village. Currently he and his new wife are shopkeepers who live above the small store where they work. They are supported through very quiet means by a missions-minded church in the American Midwest. They work each day to have meaningful conversations about God and His Son Jesus with the locals. The ministry is difficult, slow and fraught with danger. Proselytizing is frowned upon and is not allowed by most government officials. 

Benjamin (another name that has been changed) is an American citizen who lives with his wife and two children in a very large city in East Asia. Their apartment complex features several towers with more than twenty stories each surrounding a central garden-park area. Out of the hundreds of families that live here, Benjamin and his family are the only non-Chinese. Benjamin has been called to share Jesus to a culture that is absolutely closed to strangers, especially non-Chinese. His work takes him to remote villages where he is gaining an understanding of an unreached people group. This is defined as a group of people with a common language, culture, customs, and history, and no presence of a church.

How do you witness in a village where the police will escort you out of town just because you’re not Chinese and a stranger? Benjamin builds toilets, and he provides fresh water with a new pumping system, and cleans it with an ingenious passive water filtering system that can sit in a home. With these activities, Benjamin builds relationships that allow him to express his Christian faith. More importantly, it allows his Christian Chinese friends, co-workers, and employees to interact with non-believers. 

The Chinese government is fickle. For many years, it has allowed the type of activity that Benjamin does. Then without warning, the government withdrew all permissions for ‘Non-Government Organizations.’ Benjamin is searching for God’s path forward so he can continue to minister to the people that God has brought him. Everyone needs clean water and hygienic facilities. Maybe the Chinese government will see that as well.

Nikki (not her name) was born and raised in East Asia, where she works as a tour guide. She is well-versed in the history of East Asia, Tiananmen Square, the Great Wall, the Forbidden City, the Pearl Market, and the Temple of Heaven. Over lunch, Nikki tried pizza for the first time. She was very reluctant to try the cheese. She had never had cheese before and thought it was going to be very sweet, since most Americans exist on cakes and sugar. Good news! She liked it!

Nikki is a great photographer and tour guide. She is married with a daughter. She struggles with the same things that you and I struggle with: household chores, her daughters school work, her marriage. Nikki lives a world away, under a different government, with different foods, but as a person who needs a personal relationship with Jesus Christ, we are the same. 

Spending time shopping in the Pearl Market is a must for all tourists to East Asia. The multi-level building is like a big flea market with vendors from stalls yelling and cajoling you with their calls of “we give you best price!” One such stall made beautiful decorative scrolls with Chinese typographical characters. An order was placed for a scroll with Ephesians 2:10: “For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.” A moment of confusion was solved while trying to decide how to translate the verse into Chinese when the vendor pulled out a parallel Bible which included both English and Chinese. Problem solved! As Nikki looked on and saw the Bible, she asked, “Is that a dictionary?”

Can you imagine a land where there are no steeples? Can you imagine an entire village that hasn’t heard the name of Jesus? Can you imagine a culture where a very educated person like Nikki has never seen a Bible?

What can you do to support the gospel proclamation in East Asia? 

  • Support Missions offerings through the church. The IMB is still the greatest missionary-sending organization in the world. 
  • Pray specifically for missionaries and the people they serve.
  • Learn about Unreached People Groups at joshuaproject.net.
  • Talk to Nathan Taylor (ntaylor@fbcstarkville.com), our missions pastor, about how you can plug into missions.
  • Pray for God’s leadership in your life as you consider your role in missions.
Tom Jenkins