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Evangelism and the Olympics

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In the really vigorous competition to use the Olympics as an opportunity for persuasion, one sector to watch involves outside Christian missionaries. Think of their commitment to spreading the Word as a very passionate case study of the many groups seeking to gain adherents to products, different ways of life, changed political philosophies, or, as it is sometimes put, to "transform China."

In May, statements of Franklin Graham, son of Billy, rekindled controversy over this question of speech, persuasion and its regulatory limits in China.

In the background is the kind of report (here from the AP) bearing the headline: "Missionaries to Defy Ban and Evangelize at Beijing Olympics." Within the evangelical community there is a debate over the extent of China's limitations on outside missionary activity, and whether the opening provided by the Olympics (and now by the demand for relief work in Sichuan Province ) should be seized by Christians worldwide who feel a deep and committed need to evangelize and convert. How should these visitors deal with China's restrictive rules and regulations or not?

Franklin Graham was in China last month and made it clear he believed that evangelizing Christians should show respect these rules, urging moderation and saying that he would not support "illegal activity."

Graham positioned himself as what might be called a dialogic kind of leader, not a confrontationalist.

Here's an excerpt from an interview with Kyra Phillips at CNN on May 19, 2008:

PHILLIPS: Well, tell me what you meant by those comments that you are opposing evangelizing and mission work during the upcoming Olympics. Explain to us why you're taking that view.

GRAHAM: No, I'm not opposing evangelism. I'm an evangelist. I support evangelism, but, Kyra, I think outside groups coming from the United States or other areas of the world, going into China to break Chinese law, you want to be very careful because you're going to get the churches in trouble. Long after the Olympics are over, the churches are going to have to pay the price.

And I would recommend anybody who would like to know what Chinese law is, they can go to billygraham.org. We have it on our Web site, and they can read and understand the Chinese law for themselves.

And I would just say beware as you go into China. It is a different country. It is a communist country, and there are strict regulations. So just beware before you go in. I hate for you to go naive and get in trouble.

The interview continued as follows:

GRAHAM: Evangelism can be done but you've got to do it their way.

PHILLIPS: Their way, and that's where the controversy lies here is how far do you push. I mean, if you look at the more than 20 million Christians that are having to live underground because they want to practice the word of God and the government is not supportive of that, and you look into the response of the comments that you made from one of the leaders there within the country, and I'm talking about Bob Fu, one of the most respected religious leaders there. He said with regard to what you said, "Christians cannot and will not concede to a faith moratorium in order to please an atheistic government during the Olympic Games, even if that means enduring imprisonment and torture." He went on to say, look, it's worth the risk. It's worth the torture and not give up mission work.

So how do you balance in your mind, OK, how far do I go? How far do I risk? These Christians here say, look, we're going to do whatever it takes to spread the word.

GRAHAM: All right, Kyra, listen, there's two issues. I support the church in China doing evangelism, but what I really caution on are people from the outside from the United States going in for 10 days breaking Chinese law and then leaving, and giving possibly the church in trouble.

I'm all for the church in China evangelizing however they see fit. And so, my comments are not towards the church in China, but it's towards outsiders going in.

For an additional sample of reaction in the Christian press to the Graham statements, and an example of a group that advocates that "Christians should witness during the Olympic Games," see 4 Winds Statement on Olympic Evangelism in Response to Franklin Graham, and for some perspective on Christian coverage, see the earlier China Puts Evangelical Christians on Potential Olympic Troublemakers List ("China's intelligence is reportedly compiling a list of potential troublemakers at next year's Olympics Games in Beijing that includes human rights activists, non-governmental organizations, and evangelical Christians").

One question is whose voice within China one listens to in order to understand the meaning and effect of legal restrictions and whose counsel one follows. On May 13, Graham met with Elder Fu Xian-Wei, chairman of the Three Self Patriotic Movement, and Rev. Gao Feng, president of the China Christian Council at the organizations' national headquarters in Shanghai. Elements of the Christian press criticized Graham for dealing with the "official" church -- the Christian organizations sanctioned by the Chinese government. The most recent issue of "Christian History and Biography" (from Christianity Today, Inc.) has background material about evangelism in China and the role of the rapidly expanding "underground church" and house church system there.

In November 2007, Xinhua, the Chinese government news service, sought to quiet rumors about a supposed ban on Bibles being brought into Beijing by visitors to the Olympics. The report purported to "rebuke reports that [the government] would ban foreign athletes from bringing Bibles to the Olympic village during the Beijing Olympic Games next year, dismissing them as "sheer rumors." "We have taken note of the reports and checked with the relevant authorities. The facts prove that the reports are sheer rumors," Foreign Ministry spokesman Liu Jianchao told a routine press conference." The report asserted that "According to the Provisions on the Administration of Religious Activities of Aliens Within the Territory of the People's Republic of China, foreigners are allowed to bring in religious publications, audio-video materials or other objects for personal use."

According to Liu, the quoted spokesperson, "We are suspicious of the ultimate motivations of those who spread such rumors. They should be responsible, and not do things that are not beneficial for themselves and undermine mutual understanding between China and the world."

The relationship between evangelism, the Olympics and earthquake relief in Sichuan is discussed in two articles at the end of May in the Wall Street Journal: China Opens Doors To Quake Relief, But Not Missionaries, and Christian Groups Step Delicately in Sichuan.

The role of faith-based charities and their role (when government financed) in relief efforts has been a constant thread. In 2003, the relationship between evangelism and relief was the focus of inquiry in the newly occupied Iraq. As an article by Joseph Loconte in the Weekly Standard put it (presenting one view).

"Old stereotypes of Bible-pounding, cross-waving missionaries are alive and well. In reality, most relief organizations subscribe to a "code of conduct" established by the International Red Cross to protect the rights of people receiving assistance. It includes a "humanitarian imperative," emphasizing that aid be given regardless of race, creed, or nationality. Most Christian humanitarian groups, including Samaritan's Purse, operate pretty much the same way: They dispatch workers to dangerous and impoverished parts of the world to provide food, water, medical care, and other services in the name of Jesus. Franklin Graham, son of evangelist Billy Graham, is not shy about his aim to "share the news of the only One who can bring true peace." Yet when Samaritan's Purse distributes water systems and medical kits to 100,000 Iraqis, as it plans over the next few months, it will do so without regard to the recipients' religious views.

Officials told me they knew of no Christian agencies that condition aid on their ability to evangelize. "When our workers go into a place to provide relief, their primary concern is to offer a tangible expression of God's love," says Mark Kelly of the International Mission Board of the Southern Baptist Convention. "They respond to questions people ask, but there are no aggressive attempts to persuade people about matters of faith."

One place to learn about the regulations concerning evangelical activity in China is the billygraham website.