Taiwan, formerly known as Formosa, is situated in the South China Sea, approximately 100 miles from the Chinese mainland. It is a leaf-shaped island slightly smaller than Switzerland. Its population of twenty-two million is mainly urban and crowded into the western coastal plain, one of the most crowded parts of the world.
Except for about 325,000 aboriginal people, the people of Taiwan originate from the Chinese mainland. Some emigrated four hundred years ago and consider themselves indigenous Taiwanese, while others moved across from mainland China after the Chinese Civil War (1949).
The official language is Mandarin Chinese, although recently there has been a resurgence of Taiwanese. In the past, the Portuguese and Spanish, and later the Dutch, established trading and military outposts in Taiwan, but it was the Japanese who finally occupied the whole island (1895 – 1945). Even today some of the older people still speak Japanese.
Witness an ordinary street scene in Taiwan. A newly opened shop is holding the traditional opening ceremony. Large red plastic lanterns swing gently from the shop-front portico, proudly announcing the new business.
A small group of shop workers, dressed in suits and ties, tight skirts and high heels, is gathered around a table. The table is laden with various fruits, canned foods and a roast chicken, an offering to the god of business, Tu Di Gong.
Pungent incense masks the smell of cordite from recently exploded firecrackers. Tell-tale paper fragments litter the street. A few staff nonchalantly peel notes of ‘spirit money’ from large wads and throw them into a red brazier. The flames from the burning spirit money dance upwards, as do billows of ash-laden smoke. The manager of the store hovers in the background, talking urgently on his cell phone. Traffic roars past the largely ignored ceremony, scooters weaving between yellow taxis.
This scene captures some of the contrasts in this society. The very modern, fast-moving, entrepreneurial, technological society exists alongside a deep-rooted, ever pragmatic, traditional religious life.
If asked why they were carrying on these rituals, the people involved might give very vague answers. The specific meaning is uncertain, they would admit, but, in general terms, the ceremony is deemed to provide insurance.
Such insurance is seen as necessary because life is full of uncertainty, risk and danger. Why risk failure of one’s enterprise simply because one failed to pay attention to a god who may be influential? Rather be safe than sorry.
Anyway, it is reasoned, it is what everyone does, and has done, since it can be remembered. So, it is concluded, there must be some benefit in it. Clearly, it is not just the elderly who keep religiously to the traditions, but the youth also, who in appearance and lifestyle are so totally different from previous generations.
Taiwan is a secular, democratic state with freedom of religion. The majority of people subscribe to Chinese traditional religion, a blend of Confucianism, Buddhism and Taoism with strong emphasis on ancestor worship.
If the number of temples per head of population measures idolatry, then Taiwan ranks as one of the most idolatrous places on earth. This does not take into account the ubiquitous god and ancestral shelf in homes and businesses. One seminary teacher has described Taiwan as being like Pergamos in Revelation 2 – the place where Satan has his throne.
The Christian presence in Taiwan is relatively small. Protestant Christians comprise only about 2% of the total population. Of these, most are located in the three large urban centres of Taipei, Taichung and Kaohsiung, and are generally well educated and professionals.
The secondary and tertiary cities and the counties (mainly classified as countryside areas), including the counties surrounding the three main centres, are still largely untouched by the gospel. Here, traditional religion and thinking largely hold sway.
Thus, generally speaking, the working class and the more marginal sectors of society have been bypassed by the gospel. There is also a small, barely viable church amongst the Hakka people, a minority Chinese group who make up 15% of the total population.
Growth in the church occurred predominantly between 1940 and 1960, but the next thirty years saw a decline in church membership. This was partly due to the church’s ‘large back door’ through which many left after having been baptised. Furthermore, many key Christian leaders emigrated to the West.
Indigenous organisations, ‘the Year 2000 Gospel movement’, and the ‘Cell Group Church Movement’, have recently sought to redress the decline, and in the 1990s it appears that church attendance growth rates crept ahead of general population growth.
In 1987 the Year 2000 movement set the ambitious goals of seeing two million believers in 10,000 churches by the year 2000. This will probably not be realised, but the further goal of sending 200 Taiwanese missionaries to other countries was surpassed in 1998. Furthermore, the movement has stimulated church renewal and a greater vision for evangelism and church growth. It has also increased the unity between churches.
There is a real need for the church in Taiwan to be demonstrating and proclaiming the gospel in a society that has undergone massive and rapid change over the past forty years. During this time Taiwan has developed from a rural agricultural economy to a high-tech industrialised nation.
The economic success, now under threat from economic collapse throughout Southeast Asia, has made the Taiwanese eager to acquire greater wealth, an ambition that dominates many people’s lives.
Greater prosperity and the very evident materialism have not been achieved without costs. Traditional structures, particularly the family, are showing signs of strain, with domestic violence, divorce and juvenile delinquency on the increase.
As the future becomes less certain, some turn to traditional religious practices for comfort, hoping that the gods can be manipulated to ensure prosperity and well-being. Others become less resistant to the gospel. In any situation where people do not recognise Jesus as Lord and Saviour, of course, the task of evangelisation is incomplete.
With 98% of Taiwan’s population still outside of God’s kingdom there is much work for the church to do. There is a shortage of full-time pastors and trained lay leadership. The level of Christian education in the church is often inadequate, leading to weak and shallow faith, divorced from everyday life. There is a need for well-equipped and godly leadership, so that the church in Taiwan can respond to the spiritual and physical needs of the island and beyond.