The Souls of China

Ian Johnson’s book The Souls of China: The Return of Religion After Mao ( is receiving a lot of attention among China watchers. The book covers 5 different religious communities in China, one of which is a group of Christians. This Christian group happens to be folks who we work very closely with and when the author asked if he could interview me 5 years ago I cautiously agreed. We met at a Starbucks near my home and he asked me a series of questions. Looking back I honestly don’t think I can remember a single one of his questions but I do remember him promising me that he will not reveal my identity or the extent of my involvement in his writings. I remember talking mostly about the seminary that I was part of getting started. Sure enough the seminary is one of the features he mentions in the book. How was I to know he was a Pulitzer Prize winner and that this book would come out 5 years later?

After we finished our coffee we parted ways and I never heard from him again. Over the years I began noticing his articles and finally I began to realize that he was someone of significance in the world of journalism and China. Despite the fact that he got some of his facts wrong (our seminary is recorded as costing $1000 per year when in fact it is was only $250 per year at the time, Sichuan University was NOT started by missionaries and the seminary and the primary/secondary school are not located in the same building) the book is a really good read and it was fun for me to see how he portrayed the people who I work with on a regular basis.

In the end Johnson brings out some very important points. One of the points is about how the church has changed over the past 20 years. In Chapter 21 Johnson interviews a foreign couple who had recently married. The wife had served in China for many years when she was single and had been influential in the lives of several of our local ministry partners in the early days of their faith. Things were much simpler in the mid-1990’s when she was in China and since then the needs of the church had changed. She was no longer able to provide the church with what they needed and the section ends with her and her husband walking away. There is a sense of loss and disappointment even though they had a successful ministry.

I’ve seen this happen a lot during my 31 years of ministry with Chinese and it is a tremendous challenge. Those who have served in China many years have found themselves lacking the tools to meet the needs of the church because they don’t have experience in church leadership, preaching, theological education or others areas of education; all of these being things which are in high demand in the church in China right now.

It is humbling to serve the Lord in China and reading Johnson’s book put a smile on my face partly because it has been a lot of fun to work with the people he chronicles in the book and partly because he kept his promise not to mention me.


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