CHRISTIANITY HAS for so many centuries been identified with Western civilization that we who are Christians from the West tend to forget that this long association is a historical phenomenon and is therefore subject to change. In fact, our age is a period in which Christianity is beginning to lose its Western character and is taking on new forms and identities in other parts of the world--identities that have been forged through bitter struggles for survival and have come to reflect the social and cultural experiences of the peoples in whom the faith has taken root. Of all the churches in the non-Western world, the one whose story presents what is perhaps the most moving and dramatic challenge to Western Christendom is the church in the People's Republic of China.
My own exposure to the experience of the Chinese church and its implications for the Western conception of Christianity came during the years of 1981 to 1983 when I was in China doing research at Nanjing University. Before I had left the United States, I had met an elderly retired missionary who had lived in Nanjing in the '20s and '30s. She was intrigued by my impending journey and gave me an old photograph of her former church, bearing the inscription "Han Djung Church, 1937," and casually suggested that I try to discover whether it was still standing. The first Sunday I was in Nanjing, I managed to locate the only Protestant church then open in the city. I was taken aback when I recognized the Mo Chou Road Church as the building pictured in the faded snapshot and read the original name chiseled in stone over the front doors.