Issue 1: Building for a Harvest
"Not three feet of flat land. Not three days without rain. Not a family with three grams of silver." That's a saying that the Chinese have been using about their remote province of Guizhou for centuries.
Yet this most humble corner of the East is becoming a rich harvest field for a new generation of evangelists determined to spark revival in China. And it's all thanks to the heroic efforts of one pioneering pastor.
China is changing, and is very much the place to be in the 21st century. The biggest population in the world now has the fourth biggest economy – overtaking the UK. Nevertheless, the ruling regime still imposes strict censorship. Even a world player like internet search engine business Google has agreed to censor terms like Tiananmen Square on its Chinese site.
The government's rein on religion is just as tight. The official Church is at least matched in number by underground Christians who refuse to register with the authorities.
Into this difficult situation, the Church Mission Society has been carefully and patiently sowing the seeds of faith for decades. Now all that work is bearing fruit with church growth rates soaring – some estimates put it at one million new believers a year.
Remarkably, the heart of this growth is to be found in Guizhou where Christians have been working with CMS to prepare new Christian leaders for all the opportunities opening up for the Gospel.
Although it is one of the most isolated and poverty-stricken places in the world, Guizhou's resourceful Christians have been able to use the resources of CMS and other international partners to open the largest Christian building their province has ever seen – the Guizhou Bible School.
"It was like a phoenix rising from the ashes," said CMS Asia Director Chye Ann Soh, describing the way the local people have taken ownership of the new school.
"This is such a boost to the community. You cannot describe it until you see their faces. It's not about building buildings; it's about building people."
And behind it all lies the faith and tenacity of one man in particular.
Starting from a humble background, Pastor Rong Tao Tang taught himself both Western and Chinese medicine, and rose to gain official recognition. For almost 20 years, he put the proceeds from his medical practice into mission work.
In an area where illiteracy levels are high, Pastor Tang made it his calling to train the rural population in biblical literacy, church ministry and leadership skills.
CMS first became involved with Pastor Tang's work in 2001. Its supporters were encouraged to stand alongside him and connect with the ‘Hidden Harvest' of Christianity in China.
Pastor Tang's vision was that one day a modern, well-equipped Bible school would rise from the fields of Guizhou as a symbol of the growth in Christian faith that he was seeing all around him.
Chye Ann Soh watched the vision flourish over four years, and was astounded by its progress.
By contributing half of the £300,000 cost of the new building and acting as the lead partner in the China Forum of various denominational groups, CMS was able to help Pastor Tang achieve his dream.
Lack of educational opportunities blight Guizhou. The Bible School has helped to fill this gap, providing its students first with an education, and then equipping them with the skills to teach others. Some of its students have gone on to further education, while others have entered Christian ministry. Thanks to the school, more than 300 villages have gained pastors.
The school will provide a biblical education for at least 200 deserving students every year. Its three main programmes focus on training church planters, evangelists and church members.
It really is a "building for the future". While it stands on the outskirts of the city now, the area will soon be transformed into the administrative capital of the region. In this location it can truly be a witness to the community and administration.
In a nation where religious activity is still closely monitored, it is amazing that in attendance at the opening ceremony was the head of the government's provincial bureau of religious affairs. The impact of the school on the life of the nation was immediately obvious.
In a powerful parallel to Bethlehem at the time of Jesus, Chye Ann Soh said: "People are overwhelmed that something like this has happened in a place so forgotten and neglected."
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