The 2008 Summer Olympics drew the world's attention to China, but there is a lot more going on inside the giant Asian nation than what is telecast from the Water Cube or the Birds' Nest.
I had an opportunity this week to sit down and talk with a longtime friend who has been serving as a Christian missionary in China for more than 10 years.
Jon, who asked that his last name not be used or he would lose his visa and be kicked out of China, is in Beijing officially as an educator, but his real, unauthorized purpose is to evangelize.
A native of northwest Ohio, Jon still has relatives and friends here but by now considers China to be "home" for him, his wife, and their two young children.
Years ago, when Olympic officials announced they would visit China while choosing the host country for the 2008 games, Beijing officials ordered everyone in the city to paint their drab gray concrete or plain brick houses.
Because time and money were tight, Jon said, most home-
owners painted only the three exterior sides of their buildings that were visible from the road.
Officials also erected brightly decorated walls to block views of rundown neighborhoods, and even spray-painted the grass a rich shade of green along the route Olympic committee officials would drive.
The Chinese government's policies toward religion are not unlike Beijing's buildings, with their three freshly painted walls and spray-painted lawns - the image up front is not the complete picture.
The government says Christians are free to worship - but only through the officially sanctioned Three Self Church (self-funding, self-governing, and self-propagating).
That church is closely monitored by the government, which exerts political pressure on the pastors and restricts their sermon topics (nothing on the Second Coming, for example, which could be viewed as a "threat" to prevailing powers).
The same official "Three Self" organizations are in place for Chinese Muslims, Hindus, and Buddhists, Jon said.
He said the government keeps a close watch on all religions not for ideological reasons, but to ensure its control over the diverse nation of 1.3 billion.
"There is a ruling party and it intends to stay in power," he said.
While the official Three Self Church has 13 million members, a much larger number of Chinese Christians belong to the House Church, an underground network that the government tolerates because of its size - between 60 million and 120 million members.
Free of government oversight, the underground Christian church generally emphasizes the authority of Scripture and a depth of spiritual experience, according to Jon.
Illustrating the government's unofficial policies toward the House Church, authorities used "intermediaries" to warn underground churches that "the Olympics is not the time to push the limits - and if you do, you'll regret it," Jon said.
While most House Churches are located in rural areas and their members generally are uneducated, working-class citizens, things are different in the city.
For Jon, who works at an urban university, his goal as a missionary is to develop personal relationships with students and recent graduates - the urban professionals who had been brought up as atheists.
These educated and influential Christians are commonly called the "Third Wave" church.
A few years ago, police raided a home where a Third Wave group was holding a meeting, Jon said. When confronted, the Christians knew the laws and their rights better than the police did.
"These are people of wealth and influence and they asserted themselves. That's something that doesn't happen in the rural House Churches," he said.
Working below the government's radar, pushing the limits as far as possible without crossing the line, Jon strives to spread the Gospel quietly in a low-key, small-scale way.
It's the relationships he and his wife and colleagues build over time with the young Chinese that make a difference.
"It takes longer to see the fruit, but the fruit tends to last longer," Jon said. "And when I ask people why they became Christians, they almost always say: 'I saw something in you that I didn't see in other people, and it made me hungry for it.'•"
Modern-day Chinese who grew up under Communism and atheism are increasingly curious about spiritual issues and have plenty of questions for Americans.
Jon is hoping that his biblical answers will change their lives and help put Third Wave Christians in positions of influence in China, helping to shape the future of a country that is playing an increasingly major role on the global stage.
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