Here’s a powerful example of how spiritual globalization works in this new age.
A Chinese evangelist, Brother Yun, is touring the U.S. this month and drawing some impressive crowds. According to Zondervan’s schedule page, he’ll be in Ann Arbor tonight, then he’s working his way through Illinois for a few days with appearances leading up to Wheaton College on Sunday, then he’s off to Chicago, Denver and a couple of stops in California before he’s done.
He’s a best-selling author of an earlier book “The Heavenly Man,” which is an evangelical autobiography sharing his testimony from years living under persecution in China. In other words, he’s a big name on the global scene for quite a few readers. And yet—earlier this week, I tried to find any coverage of Brother Yun in major secular newspapers and magazines—and he’s virtually an unknown person in those spheres. I had to turn to other sources to research his life and work. Having “read up on him” now, I can tell you:
I think he’s fascinating.
He’s also troubling.
And, oddly enough, he’s a man stepping into the West from a century-old version of evangelical Christianity in Asia. Nevertheless, his central message in this new “Living Water” campaign appears to be in tune—at least in its critique of the existing Christian church in the West—resonating with the conclusions of emerging Christian voices like Phyllis Tickle, Brian McLaren, N.T. Wright, Tony Campolo and Rob Bell.
Why is he troubling?
Brother Yun is the main international evangelist for a group called Back to Jerusalem, which sprang up in China in the 1920s. Envision the globe for a moment and you’ll see that for Chinese evangelicals, moving toward Jerusalem geographically describes a mission field that also was extremely popular with American evangelicals in the early 20th Century: southern Asia and the Middle East, including big Hindu and Muslim countries as well as hundreds of tribal areas.
Over the years, the Chinese group’s mission field has expanded to cover the entire “Silk Road” region. The group now talks expansively about trying to reach all of the countries across northern Africa eastward to Japan.
This week, I interviewed Brother Yun (who only speaks Mandarin) through his interpreter Brother Ren (a friend and co-worker from Germany who speaks several languages). And Brother Ren was very clear in stressing that Brother Yun’s current book tour across the U.S. is definitely not a fund-raising campaign for Back to Jerusalem, although the group will be highlighted in his talks. Brother Ren’s claim that they’re not fund raising also is a little puzzling, because Brother Yun does accept free-will offerings for his group at his stops along the U.S. tour. (The photo above shows both Yun and Ren at an event.)
I’m not arguing against fund raising, in general. Every non-profit and ministry is passing the hat these days—and they should be, we have said. It’s the way Back to Jerusalem talks about its mission that I think is troubling for American audiences. Especially in the heat of the 2008 presidential campaign, well-heeled political forces are doing their best this autumn to whip up American fears about Muslim countries—and a touring evangelist even briefly talking about the idea of evangelism in Muslim countries can sound particularly jarring at this moment.
I’m not an apologist for Brother Yun. Here at ReadTheSpirit we are a prominent voice for religious diversity and we proudly host www.SharingRamadan.info, a special Web site that features inspirational stories from the lives of Muslim men, women and young people. We recently hosted a major story on Hindu inspiration in the West. We believe that the primary calling of our age is to help people find spiritual inspiration in whatever form that religious message may take. Like Gandhi, we want Christians to be the best Christians they can be, Muslims to be the best Muslims, Buddhists to be the best Buddhists—and on and on.
This particular theme of religious conversion within Brother Yun’s work and his tour needs to be mentioned here, because he makes a point of mentioning it wherever he goes. And passing the hat for it.
Is he really a big challenge to Muslim countries? No. In my research into his ministry, to put this in perspective, I really don’t see much evidence that his Back to Jerusalem movement is actually doing much in these traditional Middle East mission fields. His voice seems to be most influential among Western Christians—and that leads me to why I think he’s so fascinating.
Why is he so fascinating?
As much as American evangelicals may want to throw their arms around Brother Yun and welcome him as the full flowering of their hopes for prophetic voices to emerge from Asia—he’s also got a powerful critique of Western Christianity. So, along with Brother Yun’s embrace comes a pretty strong rebuke.
In fact, there’s a whole lot of rebuking going on right now in prophetic evangelical circles. Brother Yun certainly is not alone. Stay tuned to ReadTheSpirit, where we’re planning to publish an in-depth interview with Rob Bell about his upcoming book, “Jesus Wants to Save Christians.” You want to hear a rebuke of the church in the West? Wait until you read Rob’s newest book.
That’s why I think Brother Yun is absolutely fascinating. Coming out of the East from a much different cultural context than Bell or McLaren or Tickle, he sees much of the same complacency and problematic practices in the church that they are addressing.
Why does Brother Yun see things this way? Well, just think for a moment about the history he embodies. For more than half a century, Chinese evangelicals suffered imprisonment, torture and even death in the belief that this was their faithful mission. What held them tightly to their faith was the belief that they were quite literally living out life-and-death stories emblazoned across the pages of the New Testament. Their movement would survive the worst terrors their government could impose on them in the faith that, one day, their followers would be free to preach to the whole world.
Yun himself was imprisoned and tortured. He tells dramatic versions of these experiences in his autobiography.
The two vintage Chinese photographs shown here come from the 1940s flowering of the movement, when it was known as the Back to Jerusalem Evangelistic Band. These are haunting images because the bright enthusiasm of these men and women was just about to run full force into the Communist regime that would be their nemesis for more than half a century.
Brother Yun was born in 1958, so his entire life was formed by inspirational stories from this early history retold in the midst of a long, harsh era of Communist persecution.
Imagine the shock when Yun finally left China in 1997 with his wife, Deling, and their children Isaac (now 24) and their daughter Elin (now 18). The Yuns settled into Germany and Brother Yun began to explore the larger world. Perhaps a bit like Rip Van Winkle awakening to a far different world than he anticipated, Brother Yun found that the Christian world in the West wasn’t at all like the brave house-church movement his friends risked their lives to keep alive.
Instead, he found millions of evangelicals comfortably settling into the middle-class oases of megachurches and he found mainline denominations anxiously trying to maintain their aging religious franchises in an era when men and women are restlessly searching for fresh voices of inspiration in many places.
That’s why his new book is called “Living Water”—and why his “Back to Jerusalem” nameplate is taking on another important meaning these days. He wants Christians to get back to the basics of their faith.
Here’s Brother Yun himself, speaking through his interpreter Brother Ren, in our interview this week about this really prophetic edge he’s preaching. This is his theme as one Eastern Christian speaking from the heart to Western Christians in his audiences. Using the water metaphor that’s central to his writing and preaching these days, he said:
”I have recognized that there is a tendency in the Western church to build lakes instead of sharing the living water the way Jesus taught us,” he said. “Churches now want to become megachurches and the water is not flowing out from these lakeside resorts we are building. People want to come and enjoy staying at these lakes that people are building.
”But Jesus never came to establish these kinds of lakes. He said there will be a river flowing from within you and it will be unified with the living water flowing from other lives and together we will be a witness to this new life.
”That is the picture I have seen of a Western church that is so established that it builds bigger and bigger buildings, sometimes their own schools, too, and their own retired people’s homes and in the middle of all this they have this lukewarm lake where people are spending their lives day out and day in. Jesus taught that the river is to run out into the desert, into the dry lands where people need to hear the gospel.
”The main purpose of this new book is to encourage every believer to become a true disciple of Jesus Christ and to become like the woman at the well of Samaria who could not help sharing the water so that this water can flow through the lives of people in every generation.”
It’s when he’s preaching this message that his prophetic voice begins to sound like the emergent voices coming from Tickle, McLaren, Campolo, Wright, Bell and so many others these days.
Well, stop by one of Brother Yun’s appearances and see for yourself. Please, we’d like to know what you think about his mission and his message. You can click on the “Comment” link at the end of our story, or send an Email directly to ReadTheSpirit Editor David Crumm.
Tonight at 7:00 p.m., he’s speaking and signing copies of his book at a Zondervan event inside First United Methodist Church, 120 S. State Street, Ann Arbor, Michigan. Check the Zondervan schedule for his other upcoming stops.
CARE TO READ MORE?
Zondervan provides a helpful “home page” for Brother Yun and “Living Water.” There’s even a short video that gives you an idea of his style.
There’s a sample chapter of “Living Water” on the Zondervan site as well. (There’s a link on that page to download a PDF of one chapter.)
We’ve hosted Conversations With leading voices across the Christian spectrum. Click on any of the famous names at the top of this story to jump to in-depth interviews with them.
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