The town of Yingjiang introduced me to something new in China: the town. Prior to this, I had been in major cities like Beijing, Nanjing, or Shanghai, all with many millions of people that would make them among the largest in the U.S. Even Hoh Hot, the capital of Inner Mongolia, is nearly two million people and I seemed to spend a good deal of my time there in choking traffic.
But Yingjiang is different. It has maybe 100,000 people but feels smaller than that. It’s only 30 miles from the border with Burma so there’s a strong Burmese influence. Yunnan Province, where Yingjiang is, has the greatest concentration of ethnic minorities in China so there are a number of different languages, styles of dress, etc. on display in places like Yingjiang. It’s a heavily agricultural region so you pass lots of people working in rice fields, growing watermelon and tomatoes, and planting sugar and coffee for sale.
I was in Yingjiang visiting its Bible training center. As I have learned on this trip, the church in China is growing so quickly that there is a huge shortage of educated leaders to preach, lead services, and generally ensure the church remains the church. In the Yingjiang region, there are 220 village churches and seven ordained pastors. In the last 15 years or so, the church in this region has grown from about 3000 Christians to close to 27,000. Churches make do with leadership from senior lay people most of the time. Some of these lay people are being trained at the Bible school and some may eventually be ordained.
A young lay leader in church.
Why does education matter? I’m sure you can think of several obvious reasons but here are two that emerged as important on my visit. Many people who are becoming Christian come from backgrounds of traditional beliefs so there is a real danger of syncretism. Over and over again I heard Christians in China talk about the need for the true and pure faith to be taught. The other reason education is important is that Yingjiang is a border area and Burmese Christians have been coming across the border. They are often more educated than the Chinese they encounter. Having educated Chinese Christians helps the Christians in the region deal with the Burmese as equals.
Yingjiang Bible school exists to meet these needs. It’s run by Pastor Mi, the senior Protestant pastor in the region, and has several faculty members – trained at other, bigger seminaries in the province and beyond – who teach the students. There is a three-month course during the dry (non-planting) season that about 120 students attend for three or four years. There is a new year-long program with about 20 students, all young and mostly men. The programs cost about $50/month for food. Some students can afford that. Some can’t.
There was an earthquake in Yingjiang in March – it didn’t get as much attention or do as much damage as the earthquake that same month in Japan but it was enough to destroy the main Protestant church in the area. (The training center and the church are part of the same compound on the outskirts of Yingjiang.) Eight other churches in the region were also demolished in the earthquake.
With church-goers on Sunday morning. You can see where the earthquake damaged the wall, which is at our feet in a pile of rubble.
I was in Yingjiang over a weekend and on the Sunday visited two churches in remote villages. Both are in villages of the Lisu people, an ethnic minority known for its colourful clothing, terrific signing, and the fact that many became Christian in the 1920s and ’30s. (I’m sure they’re known for more than that but that’s some of what I learned.) The services were like services in other remote villages around the world I’ve been to – simple, devoted, and attended by faithful, hard-working Christians.
In the West, we hear a lot about the official and underground churches in China. There’s this implicit understanding, I think, that the underground church is somehow better and more pure. In places like Yingjiang, that distinction matters much less. In such small villages, there aren’t enough Christians for an official and underground church. Yingjiang is such a remote place that the government doesn’t seem much bothered by what the church does. By the same token, however, that means the church has to survive on its own dime and its own wits with no government subsidy. The people at the training center are trying to develop their means of support. It is a steep climb.