Why Theologians Aren’t as Excited About Chinese Christianity’s Growth as Sociologists

Success for the church looks different depending on your discipline.

On March 1, the Chinese government enacted wide-ranging restrictions on religious communication, teaching, and evangelistic efforts conducted online. Now, only religious groups with government approval can carry out such activities.

Various media outlets around the world shared this news, which is unsurprising. When we think or talk about Christianity in China, its social impact and implications for issues such as human rights and China’s international relations—rather than its pastoral and theological developments and challenges—have received disproportionately large attention in the Western press in the recent decades.

There are many methods and approaches we can apply in observing and interpreting Christianity in China. But this leads to a larger question: How do we read Christianity in general? Religion is a complex social phenomenon, and different disciplines can draw varying—even opposite—conclusions about it. More issues arise when scholars in one discipline begin to cross the boundaries of other fields of study and claim universal applicability for their conclusions.

Church and state relations in the West

A good example of this is how differently theologians and sociologists approach and evaluate the establishment of classical Christendom in the West.

Traditionally, theologians have viewed the church’s transition from a persecuted minority to the state religion as a great triumph. However, in recent decades, they are increasingly considering it a tragedy and betrayal of the vision of the early church.

On the other hand, certain sociologists’ growing interest in early Christianity has led to assessments of the church’s transition from minority to ...

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A Nonconservative’s Plea to Those Leaving Conservative Churches

Roger Olson sympathizes with liberal leavers, but he draws the line at liberal theology.

In the preface of Roger Olson’s new book, Against Liberal Theology, we meet a particular type of exvangelical all too familiar in this age of disillusionment and deconstruction. As Olson describes this tribe, “They grew up in fundamentalist churches, found them stifling, anti-intellectual, legalistic, whatever, and rushed past the middle ground to the opposite end of the Christian spectrum, to liberal Christianity.”

These people haunt him. Olson fully sympathizes with their desire to escape the militant dogmatism of churches on the far-right fringe. But he is baffled by the flying leap they have taken from one extreme position to its opposite. It is a leap that carries them over the broad fields of Christianity itself, skimming lightly past every actual position of any churches along the entire scale of theological possibilities.

Why not touch down somewhere before the antipode? Olson is vexed by this quantum leap. But he is more vexed by the actual landing point: the position known as liberal theology, against which he has written this short book.

Cutting the cord

The book’s title is admirably clear about its main goal. Olson’s thesis is “that liberal Christianity has cut the cord of continuity with the Christian past, orthodoxy, so thoroughly that it ought to be considered a different religion.” But the book also has a secondary goal, indicated in the subtitle: “Putting the Brakes on Progressive Christianity.”

About this thing called progressive Christianity—“whatever that means, exactly,” as Olson mutters in one aside—the book has very little to say. He is not sure that the phrase has any specific meaning, and he suggests that it is “simply ...

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Interview: Meet the Christian Rap Duo from ‘Reservation Dogs’

Hip hop artists Lil Mike and Funny Bone got their start performing at churches. Now they’re acting on FX’s critically acclaimed television series.

When Lil Mike and Funny Bone (who perform as the hip-hop duo Mike Bone) auditioned for the television show Reservation Dogs, they never expected the series to gain much attention outside the Native American community.

Co-created by Sterlin Harjo and Taika Waititi, the show follows the lives of four Native American teens in Oklahoma and finds humor in some of the dark realities of reservation life. Now in its second season on FX, the critically acclaimed series received a Peabody and has been nominated for numerous other awards.

Fans of the show may not know that Lil Mike and Funny Bone—who appear as Mose and Mekko, respectively—have been Christian hip-hop artists for nearly 25 years. Using a style that draws together rap, dance, and comedy, they got their start performing at churches and house parties and eventually appeared on America’s Got Talent in 2013.

CT spoke recently with the duo about using music to fight Satan, throwing pajama parties for Jesus, and working on Reservation Dogs.

Some of our readers will be familiar with you through the show Reservation Dogs, but they may not know about your musical work and careers up to this point. How long have you been making music as Mike Bone, and how did you get started?

Lil Mike: So I started making music in 1992, and it was a form of therapy. I had anger issues. I would black out and try to hurt people. So, they told me, write out your problems instead of acting out. In 1997, we joined together. Funny Bone came and got in and did some comedy.

Funny Bone: Yeah, I would jump on stage and do something funny while he was switching out songs. And then I slowly started to write my own rhymes. I got some skits on different tracks where I’m like slapping Satan, ...

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Egypt Church Fire Kills 41, Sparks Blame of Building Law’s Legacy

Reforms have legalized 2,400 Christian structures, yet Abu Seifein represents problems from when construction and repair permits were impossible to obtain.

As Egypt reels from the tragic church fire that killed 41 worshipers on Sunday, many search for where to put the blame.

“God forgive the fire department,” said Ishak Henin, a deacon at Abu Seifein Coptic Orthodox Church in Imbaba, a dense urban neighborhood of Cairo. “If they had come earlier, they could have saved more people.”

Egyptian authorities stated they arrived almost immediately after the 9 a.m. fire was first reported. Eyewitness testimony varied; some stated 15 minutes, others over two hours.

Abu Seifein means “the father of two swords” and is the Arabic moniker for second-century martyr Saint Mercurius, whose icon reflects his military origins.

But the word church may give the wrong impression to overseas audiences, as the sanctuary was located between ground floor shops and towering residences. Illegally repurposed in 2007 from one of many tightly packed apartment complexes, the now-charred chapel traced back to an era when Egyptian Christians were unable to obtain permits to build new houses of worship.

The law was changed in 2016, and a Coptic legal expert stated Abu Seifein was officially licensed in 2019. Since the latest batch in April, the slow-moving process has now legalized 2,401 churches and affiliated service centers.

Yet many remain in their original condition, below safety codes, and according to the law full legality can only come once all regulations are satisfied.

Abu Seifein's four-story building housed two daycare facilities, and 18 children died in the blaze. Around 100 people were present at worship that morning; authorities stated most deaths—which included the local priest—were caused by smoke inhalation and the resulting stampede.

One family ...

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Ukrainian Seminary President: 400 Baptist Churches Gone

As refugees flee, the war-torn country is left in a pastoral leadership crisis.

About 400 Ukrainian Baptist congregations have been lost in Russia’s war on Ukraine, said Ukrainian Baptist Theological Seminary (UBTS) president Yaroslav Pyzh, who is working to restore pastoral leadership to impacted cities.

While volunteers at six humanitarian relief We Care Centers across Ukraine are helping internally displaced people winterize their homes, replacing roofs, windows, and doors, Pyzh said the real challenge for UBTS is to rebuild pastoral leadership in places pastors have been displaced.

“Since the war started, six months already, we lost about 400 Baptist churches. And so the real build is the rebuilding of leadership capacity, because if you rebuild buildings and you have no pastors to lead churches, I don’t think it’s going to do any good,” Pyzh, a graduate of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas, told Baptist Press last week. “So the real challenge is not so much rebuilding walls and windows and doors.”

“The real challenge is similar to Nehemiah’s challenge,” he said, referencing the biblical story of Nehemiah. “It’s not only rebuilding the walls of Jerusalem. It’s rebuilding the nation of Israel, of worshiping God. … That’s the same thing here in Ukraine.”

Many pastors were displaced from war-torn areas, Pyzh said, leaving no one to bring godly hope in the midst of fear and hopelessness. About 2,300 Baptist congregations existed across Ukraine before the war began in February, according to the All-Ukrainian Union of Churches of Evangelical Christian Baptists.

“Our main challenge in the future, when the war will be over, is to bridge the gap in leadership that we lost,” ...

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Does Jesus Wear Undies?

My kids ask the darndest theological questions—putting my seminary degree to the test.

I was six months pregnant when I walked across Fuller Seminary’s commencement stage in 2012. Underneath the cap and gown, my mind and body felt full: the former with all the theology I’d read to complete my master’s degree, and the latter with anticipation for my forthcoming life as a mother.

After graduation and before my first daughter was born, I had a dream of propping her up on my lap to look at an ABC board book that began with Augustine and ended with Zizioulas. This was, I think, my psyche’s way of creating some continuity from one chapter of life to the next. But as all new parents can attest, babies don’t work like that.

Arriving a little past her due date at just past 3 a.m., my firstborn was a healthy, pink tornado that ripped through my orderly and cerebral life. Then three years later, my second daughter, Olivia, was born.

For an exhausting decade, my husband and I have juggled two kids and two full-time jobs with little time between sending emails and changing diapers (and then Pull-Ups and big-girl britches) to read theological texts.

I’ve got what many call the “mommy brain”—I’m a whiz at detangling bedhead hair, getting slime out of the carpet, and making Razzle Dazzle Berry Smoothies, but I’d be hard pressed to describe the variety of atonement theories I learned about in Systematic Theology II.

Yet even if I had remained in tiptop intellectual shape, explaining the Christian faith to my daughters would likely be just as mind-bending as it is now.

Why? Because children make for a unique audience, quite unlike what you’d find in most seminary classrooms—they are simultaneously “religious” and “secular.” ...

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Doubt Be Not Proud

Frederick Buechner diffused the power of disbelief and brought hope to wandering hearts.

In The Alphabet of Grace, the late writer Frederick Buechner gave an account of his conversion. He was agnostic at the time but had been attending a church because he liked the preacher, George Buttrick.

Queen Elizabeth had recently been crowned, and Buttrick made a connection to those events by saying that unlike the queen, Jesus has been crowned again and again in the hearts of those who trust him. Here’s how Buechner describes it:

He said in his odd, sandy voice, the voice of an old nurse, that the coronation of Jesus took place among confession and tears and then, as God was and is my witness, great laughter, he said. … At the phrase great laughter, for reasons that I have never satisfactorily understood, the great wall of China crumbled and Atlantis rose up out of the sea, and on Madison Avenue, at 73rd Street, tears leapt from my eyes as though I had been struck across the face.

I study apologetics, especially the dynamics of faith and doubt, so Buechner’s testimony is doubly significant to me. I can hardly read that passage without tears of my own. I confess that the gospel often feels too good to be true, even as I long for it to be true with every fiber of my being.

But if I find myself with faith, it’s at least in part because I know the feeling of being claimed by “tears and great laughter” while hearing the gospel or receiving Communion. I know of no writer other than Buechner who captures what I might call the incredulity of joy—a doubt-tinged hope that insists on “whistling in the dark,” as he put it.

I was raised in a religious context that emphasized certainty, moments of decision, and the clarity of Scripture over experience. Those ...

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A Seminary Room of Her Own

Historically, evangelicals have been ahead of the curve in women’s education and also way behind it. My pursuit of an MDiv is now part of that mixed legacy.

This week I’m packing up my 18-year-old daughter as she heads off to college. In a twist of providence, I’m also returning to the classroom after 21 years away. While she’s navigating the firsts of freshman year, I’ll be navigating the firsts of a master of divinity.

These last few months of applying to schools, securing funding, and planning out our schedules have been a sweet time for us. In God’s wisdom, he’s decided that we’ll share these milestones. But this time has also made me wrestle with how the evangelical church both facilitates and impedes women’s academic development.

My education story doesn’t begin with me and my daughter. It starts with my maternal grandmother, who left home at 16 to attend college—not because she was drawn by academics or a career but because she felt called to a life of Christian service.

She came of age during the post–World War II years, when a great youth revival was sweeping the nation. As my grandmother’s best friends settled into lives of factory work and marriage, she moved 800 miles away to study for church work. There she eventually met my grandfather, who was funding his own ministerial training through the GI Bill.

Ironically, my grandmother never considered herself much of a student and even decades later carried a sense of “imposter syndrome,” despite her college degree. But her brave steps established a norm for her daughters, who all pursued higher education—at least higher Christian education.

The same evangelical culture that called my grandmother, mother, and aunts to higher education also reminded them of the importance of home and family, and the balancing ...

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Indian National Day of Prayer Raises Tricolor and Red Flags

Hundreds of churches bless the world’s largest democracy as India celebrates 75 years of independence amid its many growing pains.

After 75 years of independence, Christians in India are proud to be part of the world’s largest democracy. But they also know it could use lots of prayer.

So on Sunday, hundreds of Protestant and Orthodox churches dedicated 30 minutes of their worship services to 40 prayer points, seeking God’s blessing for their nation as well as peace and prosperity in Indian society.

The Evangelical Fellowship of India (EFI) launched the National Day of Prayer (NDOP) six years ago, joined by the National Council of Churches in India (NCCI) two years later. The event is observed on the Sunday closest to India’s Independence Day, thus this year it fell the day before the August 15 holiday.

Denominational leaders told CT this year’s NDOP was different and significant, taking place during the Indian government’s 75-week initiative called Azadi Ka Amrit Mahotsav (Elixir of Freedom) “to celebrate and commemorate 75 years of independence and the glorious history of its people, culture, and achievements” from March 12, 2021, to August 15, 2023.

“God loves the nation of India and is at work in it,” stated EFI and NCCI in their joint call to prayer. “The Church has been called to pray and work for the peace, prosperity, and stability of the nation. The state of our nation and the challenges it faces stirs us to look to the face of the Almighty God and to pray for His unceasing blessings on India.”

The two umbrella bodies appealed to Indian Christians to “earnestly intercede for our country, our leaders, and our fellow citizens.”

Churches in India “pray for the nation and its needs every Sunday and in our various weekday prayer meetings,” said EFI general secretary ...

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4 Sri Lankan Christians Seeking Their Nation’s Rebirth

How believers are living out their faith amid unprecedented political upheaval.

On July 9, after months of taking to the streets, Sri Lanka protesters successfully pressured President Gotabaya Rajapaksa to resign and flee the country. Demonstrations began in early April as prices of fuel, food, and medicine began to soar.

Gotabaya’s tenure, which began in 2019, failed to mitigate much of the damage that his brother Mahinda Rajapaksa had put in place when he served as president from 2005 to 2015. Corruption and disastrous economic policies characterized their respective administrations. COVID-19 dealt the final blow to an already struggling, poorly managed economy, with Sri Lanka even defaulting on external debt for the first time in its history. No one in the island nation of 22 million people has emerged unscathed.

“For the first time in my living memory, the protests have united people from all walks of life and all ethnic and religious communities,” said Christian political blogger and International Fellowship of Evangelical Students (IFES) leader Vinoth Ramachandra.

This includes Christians, who comprise 7.4 percent of the population (evangelicals comprise less than 2 percent). Despite suffering persecution and scores of casualties in 2019 terrorist attacks, many have felt compelled to come alongside their countrypeople in this political moment.

“What better way to love God and love our neighbor as we love ourselves than to work towards the much-needed change in this country, from governance to the grassroots—a cultural change that will lead to a ‘system change,’” said Nadishani Perera, head of the Sri Lanka chapter of Transparency International. “To speak for those who cannot speak, to share our resources with those who have none, as God loves them ...

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