The early church history course came to a memorable end. The final session concerned the rise of Islam and its effects on the churches of North Africa and the Middle East in the seventh to eleventh centuries.
We looked at the terrible legacy of the Crusades in terms of the lasting bitterness which resulted, and the consequent failure of western missionaries to make a significant impact on the Muslim world.
I closed by suggesting that the burden of responsibility for evangelising the Islamic world may well now lie with Christians from East Asia, who are not saddled with that debilitating history; and by expressing the hope that God will grant them success.
The translator suggested that we finish with prayer. But nobody could pray; at least, not openly. It seemed as if the Holy Spirit came down and everyone was weeping before the Lord.
That was the end of week 2 of a recent trip to China. I was in a province on the north China plain, in the north east of the country. It was bitterly cold. We had snow one morning and, since 15 March had passed, the country’s heating had been switched off — it is all centrally controlled here!
I was with a class of 32 very able young people. They are doing a full-time theological course. The seminary is located in a factory owned by a Christian businessman. One wing of his premises has been made available for the training and fitted out with dormitories and a classroom. The students are hard-working; classes lasted for eight hours each day.
The previous week I had spent in a location 1000 miles to the west and 7500 feet above sea level. The weather that week had been pleasantly mild and medication had been provided to counteract the effects of the altitude.
Here, I had a select group of 11 students. Most of them had had at best a very basic education (one student could barely read). The timetable was less intense, with just four and a half hours a day allocated to study. We sat round a large table in the board room of a shopping mall.
I really enjoyed meeting this group. Despite their lack of educational opportunity, they were warm-hearted and keen to learn. It proved necessary to abbreviate the course drastically.
We were studying hermeneutics (biblical interpretation), and I decided to focus on how the Old Testament must be interpreted in the light of Christ. There was not sufficient time to do more, and they needed to take it slowly, with plenty of time to practise opening up particular passages to see their Christ-centredness.
We spent much time looking at the Passover, in the light of 1 Corinthians 5:7, ‘Christ our Passover lamb has been sacrificed’. I sensed that by the end of the week they were truly understanding the main point.
In this western area, I had the opportunity for the first time to observe the situation in one of China’s Islamic heartlands. I was in a province inhabited by one of the minority nationalities that is solidly Muslim.
I was able to observe 20,000 Muslim men participating in Friday prayers at one of the most important mosques in north west China. They spilled out of the grounds of the mosque on to the pavement and into the road.
It occurred to me that, if God were to send a gospel awakening to that people group, their impact could be very far-reaching.
I learned though that the church in this particular province is weak. In many cities there are no churches at all, perhaps just a handful of believers meeting in a home. This makes it hard for them to engage in the evangelism of their numerous Muslim neighbours.
By contrast, many of the churches in eastern China have a great burden for the Islamic world, including the minority nationalities in their own country. They are regularly sending teams west, to try to engage in outreach to Muslims and train local believers in effective Muslim evangelism. We must pray that their labours will bear much fruit.