Does the Bible Have a Role to Play in Social Care - In China?

28/10/2013 13:56 GMT | Updated 23/01/2014 23:58 GMT

A friend of mine has been at a conference in China this week and sent me this summary. I thought it was worth sharing, and she said she was happy for me to do so, so here you go:

There's a goat outside my bedroom window. Just the one mind you. So it's got free range of the tall grasses that surround the lake just outside Shanghai.

It is, however, oblivious to the political shifts going on in the conference centre just next door.

For it's here that government representatives, theologians and academics are meeting to work out what role the Church will have in meeting China's burgeoning social care needs.

And they are burgeoning. Although China has the world's largest economy, after the US, it also has its largest population with over 1.3 billion people. And so China is not immune to facing the problems of an ageing population.

According to the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, by 2040 nearly 20 per cent of China's rural population will be aged over 65.

So perhaps it was no surprise that, at the conference on the role of Christianity in China, which was sponsored by Bible Society, a government official called on the Church to take care of China's growing number of elderly people.

'It is a big challenge for the authorities and for the Church,' said government spokesman Wang Xinhua.

'The government welcomes the support of the Church. We lack the resources to meet all the needs that we face, so we need religious organizations in order to do so.'

While we're at it, he said, the government would also like the Church to play a role in drugs' prevention schemes and Aids education.

Mr Wang said that the 'beliefs' and 'love' of the Church were an 'advantage' to society.

Not such a big deal you may think. And yet, it represents a seismic shift in attitude on behalf of the government. It's less than 40 years ago that the Bible was banned and churches closed in China. Yet today, they're being welcomed into the social care sector.

There's no doubt that the Church is keen to adopt this role. One of the country's leading clerics, the Revd Xu Xiaohong, Vice Chairman of the registered Church in China told the conference that the elderly 'were becoming a priority for the Church'.

And he added that congregations needed to focus on social care in their communities.

'Preachers in their churches should be encouraging their congregations to care not just about personal salvation, but also meeting social care needs,' he said.

'The Church needs to think about how it changes to meet the needs of a changing society,' he said.

So how do you do that? Like charitable work the world over, it's going to look different depending on where you live. In Shanghai itself, the Church has spent some 420 million RMB ($68 million) on welfare, particularly helping the elderly and poor families.

Across the country United Bible Societies donated 18 medical vans. They take teams of doctors into remote villages, often supplying the only medical care the village has seen in years. ECGs and tests for diabetes stand alongside Bible distribution.

And, the Amity Foundation, China's largest charity is also Christian-based, and specializes in disaster relief.

After the Sichuan earthquake in 2008, Amity was one of the first organizations on the scene.

Some 71,000 people are reported to have died, though the true figure may be more as many were buried under the rubble. Another 374,000 were injured and officially, 4.8 million people were left homeless, but this could be closer to 11 million.

Amity spent £1 million in emergency aid within the first few days of the earthquake. It provided food, water and plastic sheeting for shelter.

It subsequently spent £180,000 on rebuilding homes and churches, giving every household up to £3,000 toward the cost of building and repairs.

David Smith, International Programme Manager at Bible Society said, 'The response that Chinese Christians made to the tragic earthquake in Sichuan province is a testament to the growing social significance of Christianity in China. We see the Chinese Church and individual Christians stepping in to provide vital social services in China, particularly in rural areas.'

He added that 'Christians should be at the forefront of social care provision' here in China, but also worldwide.

'The Bible shows us how to care for the least, the last and the lost,' he said, and perhaps even the goat.