Friday, September 29, 2006

The Long Tail, niche culture, creativity, tribalism and calling

While out of the office for a few days this week, I finished reading The Long Tail: Why the Future of Business Is Selling Less of More, by Wired editor Chris Anderson. A fantastic book - this year's Tipping Point. An enhanced version of Anderson's original Wired article is available here, and the Wikipedia article on the Long Tail concept is a concise introduction (and even referenced in the book itself).

In brief, the Long Tail is about the fact that because we have virtually infinite access to basically everything (books via Amazon, music via iTunes, movies via Netflix, etc.), there's profitability and significance in the long tail of niche items far beyond the "short head" of bestsellers and hits. Anderson argues that we are moving from a hit culture to a niche culture, from blockbusters to nichebusters. This correlates well with something sociologists and cultural commentators have been saying for years, that we've moved from a broadcast society to a narrowcast society. We used to have three networks and three automakers. Now we have seemingly infinite choice in almost every sphere of commerce and media. The frontlist is not nearly as important as the backlist. One person's noise is another's signal - niche products, by definition, are not for everyone.

What this means is that filters and search engines are increasingly important in order to access all those niche products. It's a development from the information age to the recommendation age. You don't get stuff just because it's available - you get it because someone directs you to it, whether a blog or a friend or an online retailer that tracks your purchases and finds parallel items for you. It's the difference between grocery stores with mass agglomerations of possible choices and Amazon's recommendations that people like you liked this or that. Anderson says that this is one of the main advantages of online commerce - besides having infinite shelf space, online retailers can personalize and target the shopper in ways that physical stores can't. When we go to a mall, we might self-select somewhat by going into a Disney store instead of Abercrombie & Fitch or the Gap. But these days retail employees generally don't have access to enough data to tell customers that if they liked this artist they'll probably like that one, or that fans of this novelist also liked this author.

We're also shifting from a consumer culture to a producer culture. I thought this was very insightful. We are less captivated by commercial products because so many of us have the tools and resources to produce our own cultural artifacts. New personal computers these days have digital video and music editing software, so we don't need studios or professional resources to make something that will get tons of eyeballs on YouTube. Anybody with online access can blog. I'm musing over how this is changing how we use commercial media. (As an editor, I think my authors might write books differently now in a blogosphere world than they did five years ago.) And it gives us an alternative to consumer culture - we can exercise the practice of creativity. As I say in my book, the opposite of consumption is production, and Andy Crouch has called Christians to not merely condemn culture or copy culture or consume culture, but to create culture.

Some wonder if customization and personalization will result in hyper-narcissism. Do we only read blogs that affirm our existing biases and interests, and don't challenge us to think outside our tribal preferences? I think the potential for that is certainly out there (the "Daily Me" concept mentioned some years ago), but I don't know that tribalism equals narcissism. Anderson would argue that all of us have always been particular individuals interested in particular topics and belonging to particular communities, and previous generations of mass media and mass culture simply masked the fragmentation that has always existed. He says that we're leaving the "watercooler era" where we talk about mass hits and move toward microcultures that are all into different things. It seems to me that plenty of us still talk about mass hits like Lost or 24, but maybe these in themselves represent particular niche tribes.

Another observation - we're moving from mass production and conformity to mass customization and personalization. Anderson says that we're moving from "I want to be normal" (like keeping up with the Joneses) to "I want to be special." This kind of relates to suburban culture - people have always critiqued suburbia as being cookie-cutter and conformist, but the reality seems to be that even within subdivisions of clone homes, there's all sorts of customization and personalization going on. Of course, these are all major forces in American history - Western individualism and frontier pioneer spirit meet industrial mass production and postindustrial consumer culture . . . so of course what we experience in day-to-day life will be a mix of individual and communal, particular and tribal.

And each of us are in many tribes simultaneously, whether in music, hobbies, gadgets, theology, geek culture, etc. I just saw the October issue of Christianity Today, which is even bigger than the last issue I just blogged about because it's their 50th anniversary, and I think American evangelical Christianity has certainly fragmented and is no longer a monolithic evangelical subculture, if it ever truly was. We don't just have "Billy Graham Christians" anymore - now there are Emergent types that follow Brian McLaren or Rob Bell, the Reformed crowd that follows John Piper and Albert Mohler, the megachurch models of Willow Creek or Saddleback, progressive social activists in the tradition of Ron Sider and Shane Claiborne, never mind the prosperity gospel people or whatever . . . there's no end to tribalism even within evangelicalism.

So is there a Long Tail for Christians or churches? Maybe the upcoming Urbana 06 student mission convention is an example. This year's theme is "You Have a Calling," with a description that says in part, "Hundreds of Conversations, Thousands of Students, Endless Possibilities." A mass of 20,000+ motivated, mission-minded Christians will be exposed to a dizzying array of ministry opportunities from Bible translation and church planting to business as mission or relief and development or TESOL or global justice or AIDS work or microenterprise or whatever. There are search tools to help Urbana delegates filter down to find the mission agencies and organizations that line up with their interests and skills. So I'm glad that there's a long tail of ministry possibilities out there, and convention workshops and resources to help people find their niche in the kingdom.

Friday, September 22, 2006

Why evangelical Christianity is exhausting (and why John Piper is bad)

The September issue of Christianity Today is both excellent and exhausting. It's a whirlwind tour of various corners of evangelicalism: Cover story "Young, Restless, Reformed" on the resurgence of Reformed theology among young evangelicals, a profile of Dallas Willard and his influence in spiritual formation, an interview with Bob Webber and his Call to an Ancient Evangelical Future, plus articles on charismatic issues, social justice, global mission and much more. It's almost dizzying and makes me think that this is both a strength and a weakness of evangelical Christianity. We believe in the lordship of Christ in all areas and are concerned about all these different dimensions and spheres of Christianity's heritage and influence. But does this spread us out too thin? How much can any one of us, or any one church, really do? How can we possibly embrace and do all of this?

This is where a good 1 Corinthians 12 ecclesiology saves me from evangelical fatigue - I don't have to do everything (and can't) because that's what the body of Christ is for. Different folks will naturally gravitate toward different aspects of Christian faith and practice. Some of us are more contemplative by nature, others more theologically minded, others more activist, others more missional. It's a matter of calling and how we're shaped and gifted. I find it liberating and something of a relief to realize that I can't do everything, but that I can do a few things. And I can cheer on others who do the other things that I can't do, even as I seek to do as much as I can.

Of course, some folks use calling as a copout - "I'm not called to this or that (whether missions or social justice or whatnot), so I don't have to care about it." Each of us will probably champion one cause or another in particular, depending on our experiences, theological heritage and personality. But we can affirm the "big tent-ness" of the Christian faith and support all that our fellow brothers and sisters in Christ do even as we pursue our particular callings.

Christianity is big enough to handle the differences in emphasis and style - some like John Piper and others like Bob Webber, but all of us follow Christ. And by the way, if you haven't heard this yet, check out why "John Piper Is Bad." It's hilarious. And all of you young, restless and Reformed Jonathan Edwards fans out there, you might want to know that the Jonathan Edwards Center at Yale has secured the rights to produce the "Jonathan Edwards Is My Homeboy" T-shirt featured on the CT cover.

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

If suburbia were a country

Last Saturday I took my mom to the airport, and she has been reading my book but hasn't finished it yet. She asked me why I went into so much detail about the history and sociology of suburban culture. I said something like, "Well, if you were going to be a missionary in Africa, you'd study African history and culture. If you were going on a mission trip to India, you'd learn all you can about India. Same thing with suburbia. If we're going to be missional Christians here, we should understand as much as we can about suburban history and culture."

That actually made me wonder how suburbia would rank if it were its own country. So I just Googled the most populous countries, and here's what came up (mid-2005 estimates):

1 China - 1,306,313,812
2 India - 1,080,264,388
3 United States - 295,734,134
4 Indonesia - 241,973,879
5 Brazil - 186,112,794
6 Pakistan - 162,419,946
7 Russia - 143,782,338
8 Bangladesh - 141,340,476
9 Nigeria - 137,253,500
10 Japan - 127,417,200

By the 1990s, over half of the population of the US lived in suburbia. The population of the US is projected to hit 300 million this October, so let's give a ballpark estimate that some 150 million Americans live in suburbia. That means that American suburbia, if it were its own country, would rank as the seventh largest country in the world!

Add Canadian suburbia, or Australian or whatnot, and the ranking would be even higher. There's no question that the world is urbanizing and that the majority of the world is living in metropolitan centers. What isn't always noticed is that the suburban slice of that metropolitan whole is huge. Without minimizing the need for global ministry everywhere, I don't think it's too huge a stretch to say that suburbia may well be one of the most strategic mission fields of the 21st century.

Friday, September 15, 2006

Is suburbia safe or scary? Both? Neither?

The other night when I was being interviewed on Moody Broadcasting's Open Line show, one of the callers mentioned that she used to live in the city and now lives in the suburbs. The gist of her comments: When she lived in the city, it was easy to see people's needs and to reach out and minister to them. People knew their neighbors and could look out for one another. But in suburbia, folks don't seem to have problems, or, at least, they won't admit to them. They can take care of themselves, thank you very much. She'd see her neighbors mowing their lawns, but they would be unapproachable. She'd occasionally go to malls and talk to folks who looked open to a conversation, but it was really hard to connect with anybody, let alone minister to them.

This highlights for me why Christians must take the suburbs seriously. Is it easier or harder to be a Christian in the suburbs? Yes. Here's a quote from Shane Claiborne's The Irresistible Revolution:

Sometimes people ask me if I am scared, living in the inner city. I usually reply, "I'm more scared of the suburbs." The Scriptures say that we should not fear those things that can destroy the body, but we are to fear that which can destroy the soul (Matt. 10:28). While the ghettos may have their share of violence and crime, the suburbs are the home of the more subtle demonic forces - numbness, complacency, comfort - and it is these that can eat away at our souls. (p. 227)

Amen and amen. Suburbia can be a challenging environment for Christian life and ministry precisely because people's spiritual needs are not always immediately apparent, and the forces at work are much more subtle, often invisible and attitudinal rather than structural. I remember back when I was a kid, during the Cold War '80s, people worried about Soviet communism threatening Christianity. And I thought, never mind communism - our Christianity is already being challenged by suburban secularism, deism, isolationism, materialism and consumerism. We just have a harder time noticing those things. Which means that suburbia needs savvy suburban Christians who will think missionally and herald the gospel and presence of the kingdom of God in ways that connect with suburban people.

And actually, we shouldn't be under any illusions about suburbia being "safe." A year ago someone broke into our suburban townhouse in the middle of the night and stole my wife's purse. He then stole a car from a house down the block (and was caught later that day). Shane tells a story in his book about a time in college that he was going into the city and was afraid of being robbed, so he left his credit card in his dorm room. The next day he realized that someone had stolen his card from his room and charged hundreds of bucks' worth of stuff on it. So nowhere is really "safe."

So anyway, as I mentioned during the radio interview, I am very encouraged to hear about pastors, church planters and lay Christians who are intentionally starting churches and ministering in suburban contexts, seeing suburbia as a strategic mission field. Even as I cheer on ministry efforts in urban centers and overseas, I'm encouraged that Christians are taking suburbia seriously and grappling with the subtle spiritual and cultural challenges here. All of us have callings to different locations, and every place needs faithful and contextual Christian witness. So, all you suburban pastors and church planters and intentional suburban Christians out there, kudos to all of you for all you do. May your tribe increase.

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Being incarnational: Fully Christian, fully suburban?

At one point during my Calvin seminar this July, our group discussed what it meant to be Christian writers and the nuance between writing that is explicitly Christian and writing that is done by writers who happen to be Christian. A related topic that came up was the issue of American Christianity (because we had several Canadians in the room), and given the current geopolitical situation, folks were somewhat ambivalent about being identified as American. To what extent should we (or can we) be fully Christian and fully American? Certainly our Christian identity takes precedence and critiques the manner in which we are American, just as Jesus was fully Jewish and yet reinterpreted what it meant to be Jewish, as N. T. Wright and others have pointed out. But it's a tricky tension nevertheless.

So my question for the day is to what extent does being a suburban Christian mean that we can or should be fully suburban and fully Christian? I'm of course borrowing language from creedal statements about the Incarnation, in which Jesus is identified as being fully human and fully divine. The challenge is that our own experience of being human is always tainted by fallenness, and we can hardly imagine (apart from the Gospel narratives) how someone can be completely human without being sinful. That word "fully" is what trips us up, and Christians throughout the centuries have erred one way or another, either diminishing Jesus' humanity or his divinity. It seems like to be fully human inherently creates the impossibility of being divine, if not for the paradox of the Incarnation. For us, being fully human often seems to put us at odds with being fully Christian.

I think suburban Christians can navigate this tension by being willing to self-identify as being suburbanites as well as being Christians. Some folks hate the idea of being suburbanites and only reluctantly come to accept the fact that they are suburbanites after they've lived in suburbia for five or ten years. But identifying as suburban doesn't necessarily mean that we embrace all the fallenness and flaws of suburbia. It means that we call suburbia home and seek the welfare of the suburbs as invested residents, like the exiles in Babylon who were exhorted to settle down, build homes and plant gardens. My sense is that we will have a far more effective presence and ministry in the suburbs if we make ourselves at home as suburbanites rather having some degree of emotional distance from our environment.

I suppose the other tension applicable here is being in the world but not of it. What does it mean to be in the suburbs but not co-opted by the fallen aspects of suburban culture? The latest Renovare newsletter has an interview with Eugene Peterson, and he has this brief comment about the forthcoming third volume in his spiritual theology series:

I think my title for the third volume will be The Jesus Way. And I take the metaphor of Jesus as the way and explore it in every dimension I can figure out. We can't say Jesus is the way - "I'm going to follow Jesus" - and then use all the devil's ways. All the "I like to do" or "have a talent for" or "have an aptitude for" or "have a spiritual gift" language is popular in our churches, but we have to do it Jesus's way. The way Jesus did it is as important as the way Jesus is. I'm just trying to connect ways and means. The means by which we do something can destroy what we're doing if they're not appropriate. And I think the American Church is very conspicuous for destroying the way of Jesus in the ways we do church.

This is provocative language on Peterson's part, and naturally we'll have to see how he spells all this out, but his stance feels somewhat anti-incarnational, as if it's possible to do something purely Jesus' way that's not at all influenced by modern American post-industrial culture. Doing things Jesus' way would mean itinerant ministries, no church buildings, and preaching in Aramaic. What's transferable? While it's certainly true that American churches do things in ways antithetical to the gospel, it's also true that churches have contextualized their ministries in ways that indeed redeem and Christianize secular ways of doing things. So is it contextualization or compromise? Or a mix of both? Depends on your theological stance, I suppose. I tend toward a "Christ transforming culture" perspective myself, though I recognize that all the various Niebuhrian approaches have merit depending on circumstances and situations.

For me, being suburban and being Christian is a dialectical tension, and I self-identify as a suburban Christian rather than a Christian suburbanite. Christian is the noun, and suburban is the adjective, meaning that my primary identity as a Christian will critique and shape the way I am suburban. I don't know that I (or anyone) can ever be fully suburban and fully Christian, but I hope that I am always becoming more thoroughly Christian in my suburban life and presence.

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

Suburban Christian reviews and an interview

One of the most interesting things for me about the publication of The Suburban Christian is that it's the first of my three books to have been published since the emergence of the blogosphere. So instead of waiting for book reviews to appear in print magazines or other publications, I can search Blogger or Google and see what readers are thinking. (Forgive me if this is a bit self-indulgent. It's not that I need external reviews to validate me - I'm just thrilled that the book is getting out there, regardless of what people think of it.)

Australian Simon Holt has a nice review of my book. He's been reviewing a number of books related to suburbia, and he's captured well how mine is different: "Of all the Christian books that deal with suburbia—some of them I’ve already reviewed—many treat suburbia in its present form as, at best, a problem and, at worst, a corrosive blight on humankind. What I appreciate most about Albert Hsu’s new book, The Suburban Christian: Finding Spiritual Vitality in the Land of Plenty, is that he writes out of a fundamental commitment to suburbia. For Hsu, suburbia is a place of genuine spiritual longing and, even more, a context into which God calls." It's been interesting to read his blog and see Australian perspectives on suburbia, which seems to be even more dominant there than in the States. See his blog for a suburban prayer as well.

DisciplesWorld is a denominational magazine for the Disciples of Christ, and they've run a review of my book that also serves as a quick summary of the content. Some excerpts:
Anyone who has read either of Hsu’s previous books will not be disappointed in their expectation of a thorough, thoughtful, and positive review of the condition and potential of suburbia.

Hsu is deliberate and detailed in his research and employs an average of 28 informative and enlightening resource references per chapter in support of his subject. He establishes the foundation for a good understanding of suburbia by providing the history and current status of life in the suburbs. However, he also writes with a considerable passion for the Christian to see all the opportunity that exists for ministry in these modern-day communities.

As a lifetime suburban dweller, Hsu shares both his concern and his hope regarding the direction in which suburbia is evolving and the steps that can be taken to make for a more positive development. Over half of the U.S. population lives in the suburbs. In many areas suburbs are emerging as a dominant cultural force, having much less dependence on urban centers for jobs, markets, and so on.

However, Hsu sees suburbs often isolating or becoming ingrown in themselves, despite a wide array of opportunities for community and individual spiritual growth. People use their cars to go everywhere, and many suburbs do not have sidewalks, houses do not have front porches, and homes often have high privacy fences — all of which make it difficult for easy and natural community that was a way of life in the past.

Contributing to the breakdown of community is commuter culture, which is a condition of suburban sprawl. Hsu writes, “Suburban commuter culture diffuses our personal relationships and connections over a wide geographical area. We don’t work in our local community. We don’t make friends in our neighborhood. We commute elsewhere to shop, to study, to worship”
(p. 63).

Hsu uses the first five chapters to describe and define the emergence of suburbia, and the present-day status and opportunity that exist there. In the final four chapters, he addresses the many roadblocks to community and ministry in the suburbs, but emphasizes the positive steps suburbanites can employ to overcome these barriers.

The message the reader will experience from start to finish is a hopeful and passionate optimism for Christians to see suburbia as a great field ripe for harvest despite a number of complex barriers that exist. This book will be beneficial for Christians and civic leaders in all types of communities to read.
It's especially neat to see references to my previous books, since it's not automatic for readers of one to find or care about the others. (The only commonalities are that each book has a chapter about community and the topics of the books all begin with the letter S.) But one person's Xanga site mentioned that she's currently reading The Suburban Christian, and someone commented, "hey! it's the same guy who wrote singles at the crossroads!" Kind of cool.

Last Wednesday I was interviewed by a radio station in Minneapolis, and you can listen to the interview here. I always feel weird listening to recordings of my own voice; for most of us, how we sound to ourselves is different from how we sound to others. And for this particular interview, during a break the producer asked me if there was a better phone for me to talk on (I was talking on a cordless phone), so I had to run upstairs to get to a landline. So if I sound out of breath on the segment, that's why. I also had a brain freeze and blanked out at one point, which is embarrassing. I've done enough interviews at this point that I have stock answers to most questions, but even so, it's hard to summarize a two-hundred-page book in a few minutes. You just have to pick a few things to highlight and hope it comes out halfway coherent.

A friend just asked if publishing a book is like having a baby. In many ways, yes, except that the baby is immediately sent off to college or the real world to fend for itself! Authors can do some things to try to help a book find its way, but basically it's on its own, and we keep tabs on how it's doing by Googling for reviews. I remember reading a Twila Paris interview where she talked about how her song "He Is Exalted" has been translated into various languages and sung around the world, and she just cheers, "Good job, little song!" That's how we authors feel about our books. We hope they get out there and do some good.

Friday, September 08, 2006

Back home, and thoughts on two Revolutions

We got home Monday night, and I've been digging out from being gone for twelve days. And I've noticed something - when people ask me how my trip went, I'll mention a few highlights, but then tell them to read my blog. It's almost easier to point people to the blog posts and the various observations I made during the trip than to try to recap the whole thing. (See pictures here.)

I've been jetlagged all week. One morning Ellen and I were both up at four a.m., so we watched a movie before the kids got up. I'm still waking up at two or three and using the time to catch up on my reading. Here's an interesting compare and contrast: George Barna's Revolution and Shane Claiborne's The Irresistible Revolution. Plenty of folks have already blogged about their content and themes, so I'll just make some comments about their approaches and styles.

Despite the similarity in titles, the two books could not be more different. In sum, it's the difference between the analyst and the activist, the data cruncher and the storyteller. Barna's book is somewhat polemical and makes broad, declarative generalizations with few concrete illustrations of what his revolutionaries' lives actually look like. Nor does he give much self-disclosure about his own journey - by the end of the book you still don't have much of a sense of why Barna is so worked up about the church. It didn't capture my imagination at all, even though I probably agree with him on many points. Barna just doesn't feel like someone I'd want to hang out with.

On the other hand, Shane Claiborne definitely comes across as likeable and approachable, a fellow traveler on the journey. Full disclosure - I've met Shane and interacted with him at a couple of gatherings, and he endorsed my suburbs book. So I'm inclined to like his book because I like him. But you really get to know Shane through his book. He tells dozens of stories about his upbringing, his experiences with Mother Teresa, at Willow Creek, in the inner city and elsewhere. He's both self-effacing and prophetic, and he has the credibility of living out what he believes. And he doesn't come across as an angry activist (in a bad way) - he's winsome and engaging, even when he's being provocative in his critiques of the church.

Basically, Barna made the error of telling without showing, while Claiborne has mastered the art of both showing and telling. Naturally, different authors have different capacities and styles; a Barna report is not going to feel like one of Claiborne's stories. Both books have a place and will likely appeal to different readers. Barna represents a certain kind of boomer Christian, whereas Claiborne is what many Xer and millennial Christians wish we could be like. I appreciate the fact that he's theologically grounded and has a wholistic integration of theory and praxis.

Barna may well be right that people are leaving traditional churches to follow Jesus in different ways. If so, then I hope they're reading The Irresistible Revolution. Shane Claiborne models for us an exciting, hope-filled vision for what today's Christians could be living like.

Sunday, September 03, 2006

Church in China

This morning we went to church at Beijing International Christian Fellowship, a church that is led and attended only by foreigners, not Chinese nationals. You need to show your foreign passport at the door in order to go in and worship. It’s a thriving multi-site, multi-congregation church with about three thousand attenders from sixty countries at two campuses, with main services in Chinese and English, plus additional Cantonese, French, Filipino, Indonesian, Japanese and Russian services so people can worship in their native heart languages.

Notwithstanding a few amusing typos in the PowerPoint slides (“Yes, Lord, yes, ahem!”) the service was much like you’d see at any contemporary service in the States. I was particularly moved during the singing of “Salvation Belongs to Our God,” in which the lyrics went:

And we the redeemed shall be strong
In purpose and unity
Declaring aloud
Praise and glory, wisdom and thanks
Honor and power and strength
Be to our God forever and ever
Be to our God forever and ever
Be to our God forever and ever, Amen

These words took on new significance as I realized just how powerful a declaration this really is. We, the redeemed Christian believers living in Beijing, China, shall be strong. Despite governmental regulations and restrictions, we shall declare aloud praises to the one true God. Stirring stuff. And to give a sense of the kind of ministry impact this church has, I’ll just share one prayer request from this week’s bulletin that you can pray yourself:

Pray for every new international family that will come to Beijing this fall. Pray that God’s grace would bless them as they seek to adjust to a new culture. Pray against family stress as marriages and parent-child relationships are strained by this new city. Pray that God would provide ways for the BICF to reach out to these families and minister the love of Christ in powerful, practical ways.

Then this afternoon we visited the Temple of Heaven, which traces back several thousand years to a time when China was monotheistic, long before the advent of Buddhism and Confucianism and communist Marxist-Leninism. There are hints that ancient Chinese culture connected to the Old Testament story somehow. For example, the pictograph for “boat” incorporates the number eight, which some think may have been an allusion to the eight people on Noah’s ark. The word for “righteousness” possibly involves a sacrificial lamb. We can surmise that God has placed eternity in the hearts of all peoples and cultures, and there are elements of Chinese history and culture that point to the gospel of Jesus Christ.

Some members of our group have a relative who is working as a teacher in an international school about an hour and a half away from Beijing. She’s a graduate of a Christian college in the States and has been in China for three or four years. I asked her if she has a community of twentysomething expat Christians to hang out with, and she said yes, many of the foreigners in her area are Christians – basically only people with kingdom purposes would choose to come to that particular place to work. She said that it tends to be an adventurous crowd that say, “Hey, let’s go to Tibet for the weekend! Let’s go to the market and get hepatitis on a stick!”

We met and heard about many Americans who are what have traditionally been called tentmakers, folks whose day jobs give them legal reason to be in Beijing, but then also spend much of the rest of their time doing ministry work of some form or another. Some work with children, one has a street ministry and feeds the homeless, others do direct church planting. Our guide could not go into detail about what exactly they were doing, but we understood that these are the real reasons they’re here in Beijing. At another level of scale, we also met a business professional who has started a number of what are known as Great Commission companies, which are entrepreneurial profit-making enterprises that are strategically located in limited access areas, providing economic development and jobs as well as opportunities for Bible studies and church planting.

I’m thrilled to hear about these kinds of efforts because it means that the options for mission work can be as creative and varied as the entire range of business and vocation. When I was in college, I got the vibe that the only “real” ways to do missions were either church planting or Bible translation. But Christians are doing kingdom work through international business, relief and development work, education and health care, and yes, book publishing. It’s very exciting to see how we and other people can contribute to God’s global mission in ways that align with our vocational experience and skills.

If you want to read more about these kinds of models, read IVP’s books Penetrating Missions’ Final Frontier by Tetsunao Yamamori and Great Commission Companies by Steve Rundle and Tom Steffen. I was the acquiring and developmental editor for Great Commission Companies a few years ago, and here on this trip I just made the connection that one of the case studies in the book is the (disguised) story of the business entrepreneur we met here this week. When I get back I need to re-read that chapter!

Some of our group went to a Three-Self church evening service, but Ellen and I couldn’t go because we had dinner at the home of a publisher that Ellen works with. After becoming a Christian in university he met his wife through church. (A tangent and a bit of a reality check: We showed our hosts some pictures of our family, and they reacted with slight surprise and then said somewhat wistfully, “Look, they have two children.” We completely take for granted the freedom to have multiple children in the United States, something that is generally not possible [legally] in China.)

He now leads a Bible study group and is part of a house church that has some five hundred people, though they are shuffling their meeting groups because of some challenges. We asked him if he has any estimate of how many house churches meet in Beijing, and he said he has no idea, but that it must be very, very many.

He said that things have been getting much better in recent years. The whole field of Christian studies is growing in the Chinese academy, and many of the professors and scholars who teach Christian studies are themselves Christians. He has been able to publish a number of Christian books through his press, and they have sold quite well. It’s exciting to think that the church in China is now getting some excellent published resources to help them grow and mature in the faith.

It has been such an honor to meet all the Christians who are faithfully living out their commitment to Christ in Beijing, whether foreigners or Chinese nationals. They are truly an inspiration and heroes to me. They’re doing amazing things in very challenging environments. Please pray for them.

Saturday, September 02, 2006

Children in China

We spent the day focusing on issues relating to children in China. There are untold thousands of orphans in China, many of whom are unwanted simply because they are daughters, or because they have disabilities. Even fairly minor things like a harelip or cleft palate may cause parents to abandon a child, because the cost for the medical procedure is beyond their means. Sometimes a parent will be killed in a car accident, and the remaining spouse is unable to care for the child alone, so the child is abandoned. Increasingly, many children are also orphaned because of AIDS.

The homes we saw are different than the actual state-run orphanages. We didn’t visit those, though we heard some horror stories – situations where the staff goes home at night and simply locks the children in their rooms, including the babies. Babies dying constantly because of lack of care. Very sad situations. We heard that sometimes Christians can work in these settings and try to improve the quality of care, but that it’s very difficult to change things. So Christians do other things to care for orphans, like these group homes.

The group homes we saw are located in private houses, with perhaps a dozen kids each. These particular homes specialized in caring for orphans that have had medical surgeries or have special needs. Some are there temporarily, while others have been there for years. The home often serves as a halfway house for kids who are in the process of being adopted – they have already been matched up with adoptive families in the West, and they are at the home as an interlude between their medical treatments and being picked up by their families. So the staff also teach the children basic English. When we saw the kids, they were watching Sesame Street, and they sang the alphabet song with us.

One little boy, maybe three years old, came running up to Ellen and wouldn’t let go. An eight-year-old boy, whom I’ll call Jiang, beckoned me over to the bed where he was sitting. He couldn’t walk because he has severe club feet, and his arms and limbs are quite deformed. He asked me to hold him and carry him around the house so he could show me things, saying, “Let’s go. Let’s go.” He pointed to pictures and told me in English, “Horse. Butterfly. Flower.” He looked through an Olympic sticker book with me and asked me to identify the various sports that were pictured. The staff told me that Jiang probably singled me out because not many men come to these homes; the staff are all women, and he and other boys are hungry for male affirmation and interaction.

Jiang has already had three surgeries, and they don’t think they can do any more for him. He will likely never walk. He gets around the house by rolling on the floor. Jiang has already been at this home for several years, and it’s not likely that he will ever be adopted because of his disabilities and also because he’s older.

As we drove away, I was terribly sad about the situation of Jiang and other orphans. The other day on the way to Tiananmen Square, we saw quite a number of beggars who were missing limbs or had other physical disabilities. Is that Jiang’s future? What kind of life will he have?

One of our guides told us a story that gave me some encouragement. Some years ago, she and a few friends were going to a McDonald’s, and outside was a man who had no legs, begging. Feeling the nudging of the Holy Spirit, they invited the man in and bought him a meal. One of the friends very zealously shared the gospel with him, which is rather risky to do in such a public way. But the man responded well and built enough of a relationship with them that he eventually started attending a church and became a Christian. He even got married later, and the church helped him get prosthetic legs and the therapy to learn how to walk. He now has a pretty good life working at a food shop.

So there is hope, and there are success stories. But so much depends on the willingness of Christians to reach out. The group homes find some funding from local and overseas churches, but the needs are so great and they could always use more help. We also saw a school that provides education and vocational training to the children of migrant workers; they don’t have the legal standing or financial means to go to regular schools. Their resources are quite basic – except their computer lab, which has thirty new computers, donated by a Christian businessman.

Christian singer Steven Curtis Chapman has become a great champion of adoption in China as a pro-life cause; if American Christians really want to be pro-life, then one of the best ways to live that out is to adopt. Abortion is extremely common in China, often state-enforced for families who have a second pregnancy. Families who want to keep their second child often need to go into hiding, and even if the second child is born, he or she may not have legal standing or official status to go to school or be employed. One of our speakers told us that perhaps 80% of Chinese college students and young twentysomethings live together or cohabitate, which is a radical departure from the past. Cohabitation did not really take place at all twenty or thirty years ago. For cohabitating couples, when pregnancies occur, abortion is the norm.

Another issue that’s a little more encouraging – attitudes about the value of daughters have been improving. Traditionally, Chinese culture has always emphasized sons, which has led to the abortion, infanticide or abandonment of millions of baby girls over the years. As a response, now pregnant mothers are not permitted to find out the gender of the baby beforehand, to prevent abortions of unwanted girls. Also, people are realizing that daughters actually take better care of aging parents than sons. So the traditional preference for sons over daughters is changing somewhat, especially in cities. Not so much in the countryside yet. And ironically, girls are becoming more valued precisely because there’s such a shortage of them, and people are worried about the social ramifications of having 70 million men without potential marriage partners.

We also heard about the need for published resources for children and teens in China. Very little exists right now – basically just a Bible story picture book and some Max Lucado children’s books. Churches don’t have Sunday school materials or curricula and don’t know how to put together programs. Often churches minister to kids the same way they minister to adults, with hour-and-a-half-long preaching, with kids from ages 3 to 15 all lumped together, without understanding of developmental differences or interactive teaching methods. And there’s next to nothing available for teens.

But our guides told us about their efforts to translate and contextualize some elementary school level materials. Some exciting things are happening, both in unofficial printed materials and official published materials. Both have challenges and opportunities. Unofficial printed materials can be more explicit about Christian content but need to be distributed more carefully. Official published materials need to be more cautious about content, to get past government censors, but once published, they can be sold and marketed quite openly. So if people get challenged for using them, they can say, hey, we bought this at the bookstore down the street, and it has a government-issued ISBN, so it must be okay. I’m encouraged by both avenues to getting Christian materials to China’s children.

As a second-generation Taiwanese American, I feel a certain connection to the kids we’ve met here in China. I look at their faces, and I think, well, they look like me, this could be me. I look at the children with disabilities and hear about babies with Down syndrome who are abandoned, and I think of my son, Elijah, who has Down syndrome. If he had been born here, what kind of life would he have? It’s immensely daunting to think about the sheer numbers of people (some 400 million children and teens in China – that’s more than the entire population of the United States!) and how hard it will be to alleviate poverty, to care for orphans, to challenge cultural thinking about the value of girls and the disabled, to share the gospel and provide ministry resources and all the rest. But Christians in China and around the world can make a difference. So please pray, and give, and send, and go. The children of China need us!

Friday, September 01, 2006

Christian book publishing in China

Christian book publishing in China is a growing industry, though still in its early phases. In 2003, there were only about sixty different Christian books available on the market. Now there are about four hundred. Considering that over 220,000 books are published in Chinese each year, there’s plenty of room for growth for Christian book publishing.

But it’s not easy. We had a mini-seminar today with various guest speakers talking about various aspects of the Christian book world in China, and there are challenges in both publishing the books as well as selling and distributing them. First of all, only state-run publishing houses are issued ISBNs, the book code numbers allowing books to be sold and distributed. Independent Christian publishers, if they want to publish books with actual official ISBNs, need to partner with a state-run publishing house. That means the content and overall package needs to be approved by the government. In many cases, this means toning down the Christian content. Christian editors and publishers can sometimes find creative ways of working through this. For example, they might take out the parenthetical Scripture references but retain the actual verses, or paraphrase Bible verses instead, so the biblical content is still there, even if it’s not explicitly visible. And interestingly enough, some government censors are actually Christians who are able to have some degree of subtle influence in their positions.

Right now, much of the Christian publishing in China consists of translations of English-language books from the United States or Great Britain. There is some indigenous publishing of original Chinese authors, but not a lot. Many of the Christian books are on topics like marriage, parenting, relationships, business and other such areas of Christian living. Many of these sell in general market bookstores and are bought by non-Christians who just happen to be looking for topical books. After all, there aren’t “religion” sections for these books, so they are shelved alongside all the rest, in a neat form of unintentional stealth witness.

Ironically, a lot of Chinese Christians are not as interested in these kinds of Christian living books and prefer to have books on more directly “spiritual” topics like prayer. This attitude seems to come from pastors and church leaders who tell the laypeople that all they really need is the Bible, that all the answers are found there. While this is in some sense true, it also creates the implication that reading a parenting book or a leadership book is somehow “worldly,” even if they are Christian books. This echoes American evangelicalism of thirty or fifty years ago or so, where the church was skeptical of many kinds of Christian books, whether on psychology and counseling or the arts or sciences. The American church has mostly come to see the value of Christian books in all disciplines, and we can be hopeful that the Chinese church will likewise grow in these directions.

Christian bookstores often get inspected by government officials, and they may need to defend themselves as not being “Christian bookstores” but rather as “commercial bookstores” that just happen to carry books on various topics, including religion. Our hosts this week have a division that is working on children's materials, and it’s harder for them to create Christian resources for children because there are laws against proselytizing people under age 18. So the materials are written to the parents, who are then encouraged to talk to their kids about spiritual things. And then the challenge is that culturally, parents are uncomfortable with that role because teaching is done by teachers.

So Christian publishing in China has lots of challenges. But there are also encouraging signs of hope. Book publishing creates opportunities for public witness that otherwise might not be possible. For example, one Christian publisher was able to put together a launch event for a new book that enabled Christians and their friends to gather and hear from the book and other Christian content. By itself, this kind of thing would normally be disallowed, but in this case, it was permissible because the event was part of the marketing for the book, and that kind of commercial venture was seen as okay.

If you have a chance, do pray for the Christians in China who are trying to live out their faith in uncertain and ambiguous situations. Chinese Christian publishers and booksellers tend to be undercapitalized and lack the resources for widespread marketing and distribution. Pray that these Christians will remain faithful to their calling and find creative ways and means to bring Christian literature to those who need it.