The Beijing Ganwashi Seventh-day Adventist Church elder smiled as she greeted Pastor Jan Paulsen, the Adventist world church president. "We thank you for encouraging us," she said. A day-stop in the capital city of the People's Republic of China concluded a weeklong visit, May 13-19, the first for the church president.
Before his departure, Paulsen summed up his encounter with Chinese Christians, and particularly, the Adventist faith community in the nation of 1.3 billion people by saying, "Many things have changed here over the past two decades, which affect the presence of Christians."
Standing outside Tian'anmen Square in Beijing, Paulsen said, "This place 20 years ago became synonymous with the cry for freedom, and we are all familiar with what happened at that time. [But] so many things have changed in China over the last two decades, and while freedom -- the increase of freedom -- is difficult to compare, I am very, very grateful for the fact that so many changes have taken place in this country.
"Now churches, not just our church, have come together freely, worship and share their faith, share their experience as a community and [also] experience very, very significant growth," he said.
Reflecting on his meetings with Adventist believers in China, Paulsen said, "Last Sabbath we had the privilege to visit Shenyang and worship with one of our church's congregations, where twenty years ago we had less than 50 members. Today, that Seventh-day Adventist community numbers 7,000 and we have the largest Protestant church in the city, seating 3,000 members. It was a wonderful Sabbath," he said.
"All of this testifies to freedom, while at times elusive and difficult to exercise, but finally expresses major changes happening in China, and I praise the Lord for that and I am very, very thankful."
The Seventh-day Adventist delegation visited four Adventist congregations, as well as the national and local Christian Councils/Three-Self Patriotic Movement in Shanghai, Wuxi, Shenyang and Beijing and two regional seminaries, Northeast and Yangjing. In China, there are nearly 400,000 Adventist believers among the estimated 20 million Christians.
On the last day of the visit, May 18, Paulsen was received by Guo Wei, director for Foreign Affairs of the State Administration for Religious Affairs (SARA), who noted that it was the first time that the top Adventist Church leader visited SARA.
"Most Chinese people do not have a concept of different denominations," she said. "We need to learn from you because of your advantages and experiences," she added, referring to Adventist involvement with health and charity work.
Paulsen commented on a mosaic of religious faith in China and said that, as Adventists, "We recognize and respect other religions, and that among Christians there are shades of difference. [It] is important for Christian believers [to] practice their convictions without being critical and hostile to other believers.
"I want the Adventist believers in China to relate to all other expressions of belief and faith, and be not only good neighbors to other Christians, but also to Buddhists and Muslims. Negativism is something we reject.
"My hope and prayer is that our church will grow and expand," he said.
During a stop at the Yanjing Theological Seminary in Beijing, the delegation met two Adventist seminary students, Wang Xiaoling and Zheng Shengqing. "We hope that there will be more Adventist students here," said Reverend Yu Xin Li, a veteran Protestant leader and the seminary principal. "The Adventist Church serves as an example to us, especially your hospital and education system. We can learn from you," Xin Li added.
Paulsen explained that the Adventist Church is a global community and is growing rapidly. "Everywhere we are, we establish schools and strive to have good relations with other religions. We are staunch defenders of freedom of conscience and worship," he stated. "China has made progress in recent times in this area." Paulsen also expressed the church's interest in exploring ways to expand further ministerial education for Adventist pastors.
Xin Li, who also serves as president of the Beijing Christian Council, commented on a prominent phenomenon in China -- the majority of ministers are women. Recognizing that the Adventist Church in China is also largely led by women pastors, Paulsen commented that as a church "We encourage women to enter ministry."
He referred to his meeting with two prominent women leaders he met in Shenyang, Hao Ya Jie and Zu Xiu Hua. Their parishes number thousands of believers. "I am impressed with their spiritual commitment and calling. I know that God is using them effectively," he said.
In Beijing, the Adventist worship services at the Gangwashi Protestant Church are conducted by Chen Liyan, a 30-year old pastor of a 2,000-strong Adventist congregation. Similarly to Wuxi and Shenyang, also in Bejing, believers listened intently, with many taking copious notes from the sermon.
"We like to do this and then share what we heard with others," explained one of the local church leaders. His was a one-sentence commentary on the witnessing power of Adventist believers in China.