SHAANXI, China – According to the 6th National Census, 2010, there are 53 million aged 15 and above who are illiterate. In Heyang County, Shaanxi, which has an estimated 10,000 Christians, the illiteracy rate is approximately 20% out of a population of 450,000.
The challenges faced by illiterate Christians are numerous. “It’s a challenge to learn about their faith. Because they can’t read or write, they are not able to remember what they have heard since they can’t write it down. It’s hard to see growth without literacy,” explained Elder Lei Gengtang, 50. Elder Lei from Meng Zhuang (literally ‘Dream village’) travels between eight to nine villages on a motorized bicycle to shepherd the believers under his care. Due to the shortage of pastoral staff across China, Christians especially those in the rural areas only get to see their pastors once every couple of months for spiritual feeding.
As they cannot read the Bible for themselves, illiterate Christians are also susceptible to the negative influence and false teachings of cult groups. One example is Mentuhui (The Disciples), a cult group started in the early 1990s, by Ji Sanbao, a farmer from Shaanxi who claimed to be the second Christ. “When they can read, then we can show them how to differentiate between the truth and false teachings of the cults,” shared Hu Jiangrong, 41, a pastor at another village, Zhu Lin.
To overcome the challenges faced by illiterate Christians, Scripture literacy classes have been underway to help them read and write the Bible text. Hu Yulan, a 67-year-old rice farmer from the Zhu Lin village shared, “I feel very good that I am learning to read. I learned about love today in class. Some (of the characters) are hard to recognize but I believe learning to read will help in my faith and change my life.” Hu has been a Christian for 16 years. She represents one-third of the congregation who is illiterate, mostly farmers who were too poor to go to school. The village has a population of 1400 and 50 have learned to read since 2012.
Wu Liuxuan, a 51-year-old fruit farmer from Meng Zhuang village who came to know the Lord three years ago, found it hard to remember what was preached every week. She shared, “I never went to school but I want to learn to read so that I can make sermon notes and spread the gospel.” Now, with the literacy class, not only will she learn to make notes, she also wants to attend Bible school one day! “People laugh at me, but I will do it step by step.”
Zhao Liangdong, a 29-year-old literacy teacher at Meng Zhuang village has also observed the change in the Christians who have learnt to read and write. “They are able to understand their faith and the Bible better. Instead of sitting at the back of the church, they now sit in front and ask questions.”
Besides helping them in their faith, being literate also helped in the believers’ daily life. “Now they are more confident and their business is getting better because they know what they are reading,” commented Pastor Hu about his congregation.
“As a result of starting these classes three years ago, the illiteracy rate has been halved from 40% to 20%,” reported Elder Lei on Meng Zhuang. “I think literacy classes are going to double up the speed of (church) growth.” Not only has it benefitted the Christians, the class has also attracted non-Christians and the church at Meng Zhuang village has seen 13 come to faith thus far. “This figure is 20% of our congregation here.”
Pastor Hu Jiangrong has also seen growth in his congregation as a result of the literacy classes in Zhu Lin village. “10% of the class students have come to faith. I am so happy to see these people whom I have known my whole life coming into the kingdom of God.”
Interviews: Hazel Southam
Story: Cynthia Oh
Photos: UBS/ Clare Kendall
Edited: Angela Teo
2014 © United Bible Societies China Partnership