Holy smokes, Batman! They’re proselytizing!

Here at GetReligion, we’re a generally amiable group. There’s not a lot of backbiting or harsh words among your friendly neighborhood ghostbusters. We get along just fine, thank you very much.

Except maybe for today.

A little tug-of-war ensued between Sarah and me over who would get to critique the following story. After Mollie shared the link with our crew, I quickly called dibs, prompting this note from Sarah:

Oh shoot! I was literally reading this and thinking how awesome it is for a post.

Kind of like the Jelly of the Month Club in the holiday classic “Christmas Vacation,” this 4,000-word story by Bloomberg Businessweek is “the gift that keeps on giving.”

Story might not be the right word to describe this hard-hitting investigative expose (sarcasm intended) on the fact that, believe it or not, evangelical Christian high schools in the U.S. that enroll students from China teach them about Jesus. (I’ll pause for a moment and let that shocking news sink in.)

The headline says it all about the tone of this report:

Chinese Atheists Lured to Find Jesus at U.S. Christian Schools

The top of the story:

Dec. 21 (Bloomberg) — Haiying Wu’s family in Shandong Province wasn’t religious. After a born-again Texan teaching English in China advised her that Christian schools in the U.S. are safe and academically strong, she enrolled at Ben Lippen High School in Columbia, South Carolina.

Ben Lippen required her to attend church and chapel, take Bible class, and join a Bible study group. At first, she didn’t understand “why you need to believe in something you can’t view or touch,” she said. Gradually, it began to make sense. When the house parents in her dorm showed the 2004 film, “The Passion of the Christ,” she wept. Shortly before her 2009 graduation, she was baptized.

Her parents were taken aback. “In China, I don’t think there’s any chance I would have become a Christian,” said Wu, 21, a junior at Tulane University in New Orleans. “It takes a lot to convert someone. Because Ben Lippen is such a strong religious environment, it makes you feel you have to learn about Christianity, and how come everybody around you believes.”

As evangelical schools capitalize on the desire of affluent Chinese families for the prestige of an American education, many Chinese students are learning first-hand how the Bible Belt got its name.

While proselytizing is banned in China, Protestant — and, to a lesser extent, Catholic — high schools are doing their missionary work on this side of the Pacific Ocean. Through placement agents and religious networking, they’re recruiting growing numbers of students from China, most of them atheists, and encouraging them to convert, in the hope that some of them will spread the faith back home.

As I read the story, I couldn’t help but smile. I imagined the reporter — totally aghast at the wicked proselytizing occurring at the hands of evil evangelicals in the Bible Belt — doing his best to control his blood pressure as he typed. Undoubtedly, an extremely somber soundtrack played in the background as the piece was edited.

I wanted to be irritated at the slanted perspective of the report. Instead, I was reminded of country comedian Jeff Foxworthy’s “My Wife’s Family” bit in which he talks about his father-in-law waking up at 4:45 in the morning and playing the Discovery Channel at full volume while Foxworthy’s trying to sleep. The comedian notes:

It’s a weird sensation to be mad and learning at the same time.

This story fits that description. While much of the piece is laughable to anyone who knows anything about evangelical Christianity — or for that matter, Christian inroads in China — the report contains a lot of detailed information, in many cases hurting its own thesis that proselytizing is harming Chinese students and their families.

Interestingly enough, the story opens with a Chinese student who converted to Christianity and ends the same way (with a different student). In both cases, the students are content with their decision. The piece quotes Christian school officials who freely acknowledge a desire to share Jesus with foreign students (while claiming that they make their Christian affiliations and requirements crystal clear to Chinese applicants). In a story about Christian schools “luring” Chinese students to proselytizing environments, I found this section telling:

Guan Yuntian, a 15-year-old from Beijing, was interviewed by three schools, including Northland.

“Religious school is fine for me,” she said. “The school will be better disciplined than other schools,” and the tuition lower. “It’s not bad to have a religion as it may help me to be stronger.”

Zhang Shaoxuan, the father of another girl at the fair, would gladly send her to a Christian school, he said.

“Both religious school and private schools are fine, the public schools are what you don’t want to be in,” he said. “Because there will be all kinds of odd students there.”

The premise of the report is that Chinese parents are upset by an apparent “bait-and-switch” approach by Christian schools recruiting their children and that the Chinese students are victims of deceptive marketing:

Plunged with little preparation into an intense religious environment, Chinese students often struggle to fit in. Some shed their skepticism and become Christians, delighting school officials and dismaying their families in China.

Missing from the report is evidence to back up the claim that Chinese students often struggle to fit in. Meanwhile, not a single “dismayed” Chinese parent is quoted in the story. (I also wondered if there are perhaps any closet Christian parents in China purposely sending their children to the U.S. Christian schools. That question, of course, is not raised.)

Alas, the story is worth a read. For all its faults, it provides some compelling background and anecdotes. And a few chuckles, too.

Photo via Shutterstock

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About Bobby Ross Jr.

Bobby Ross Jr. is an award-winning reporter and editor with a quarter-century of professional experience. A former religion editor for The Oklahoman and religion writer for The Associated Press, Ross serves as chief correspondent for the The Christian Chronicle. He has reported from 47 states and 11 countries and was honored as the Religion Newswriters Association's 2013 Magazine Reporter of the Year.

  • http://www.bedlamorparnassus.blogspot.com Magister Christianus

    This hardly seems newsworthy since Christian schools are quite up front about their intent to live out the Great Commission. Furthermore, there is no evidence in this story of under-the-table, smoke-filled-backroom dealing to warrant the use of the verb “lure.”

    A more interesting story would be an expose of how supposedly values-free public schools are nevertheless inculcating a host of values that few families are aware of and many would oppose.

  • R9

    Fascinating story. Worth pondering though, would you dismissively quote-mark the word luring, or shrug off concerns over proselytism of unsuspecting kids, if the religion at work was not the one you personally prefer and are familiar with?

  • Deacon Michael D. Harmon

    Be aware that in secular liberalspeak, “proselytizing” is a scary thing that “fundamentalists” do via deception and, for all I know, bribery, mind control techniques and maybe waterboarding. “Evangelizing” may not be proper, either, but it doesn’t have the vibes the P-word has taken on. (Maybe because a lot of writers, as noted in the Crystal Cathedral story below, don’t know the difference between an evangelical and an evangelist….) Anyway, the former is bad, and the latter is, well, maybe not good, but it doesn’t have that evil fundy tinge. Yet.

  • http://www.mikehickerson.com Mike Hickerson

    At the evangelical Christian graduate school I attended, I became friends with a non-Christian Chinese student who had chosen our school because it was Christian. Back in China, she had been a “Christian studies” major at a large public university, and her choice of a Christian school was a continuation of her exploration of Christianity and North American culture. I got the impression from her that a) Chinese students are well aware that North America is majority Christian, b) Chinese students know that North American Christians regularly try to persuade non-Christians of the truth of Christianity, and c) she didn’t particularly see any problem with that practice and wasn’t terribly concerned about her government’s reaction. She may or may not have been typical of Chinese students – I really don’t know enough about China to say either way – but no one “lured” her to America or “proselytized” her against her will.

    Even though the students quoted above are minors in high school, not adult graduate students, they and their parents appear to have been well-aware of what they were getting when they came to the US.

    BTW, what’s the evidence that these Chinese students were “atheists” before coming to the US? The opening lede describes the family as “non-religious,” which is quite different from being a confirmed atheist.

  • Dave

    I second R9′s question but, on the journalism, what is indeed missing is any objection from a parent of a Chinese student put into this environment. If there are none, where’s the story?

  • http://getreligion.org Bobby Ross Jr.

    BTW, what’s the evidence that these Chinese students were “atheists” before coming to the US? The opening lede describes the family as “non-religious,” which is quite different from being a confirmed atheist.

    Good point. It would have been helpful to actually hear from some of the “dismayed” parents.

    Meanwhile …

    I neglected to include another classic line from the story that made me smile:

    Chinese students enhance diversity of evangelical schools not only ethnically but also intellectually.

  • http://getreligion.org Bobby Ross Jr.

    Worth pondering though, would you dismissively quote-mark the word luring, or shrug off concerns over proselytism of unsuspecting kids, if the religion at work was not the one you personally prefer and are familiar with?

    If the story was about students enrolling at the Northside School of Islam and — shockingly — being taught to pray to Allah, then I think I would be just as dismissive.

  • Jerry

    Outside of the headline (lured) which we know reporters don’t write, I did not find the story objectionable nor worthy of scorn. Unless I missed something, I think you’re assuming the reporter’s bias by your comments rather than finding it in the story.

    I’m not saying that the story was perfect, but I found it to be a good story with a lot of very interesting detail. For example, I think the cultural points made in the story are quite accurate.

  • R9

    Fair enough Bobby. But that’s assuming they’re familiar with Islam, and religious schools and are ready to enter a culture that expects them to join that religion.

  • northcoast

    Meanwhile Chinese Christians have been been very effective in spreading their faith since the Government expelled foreign missionaries, and the current Government tolerates Chinese Christian churches without approving of them. I wonder about the young people returning to China and fitting into that situation.

  • mark

    The other main problem with the story is that religious repression in China is barely touched on and presented in a very incomplete fashion. It strikes me as very relevant.

  • Deacon Michael D. Harmon

    Many free people all over the world have zero tolerance of Communism and with excellent reasons, because of the tens of millions of lives those who follow it have taken and the intolerance its adherents have displayed towards the basic freedoms inherent in being a human being, including the right to worship freely, but also the right to speak freely, to choose one’s own leaders, to travel without government permission, to raise one’s children without undue government interference, to seek education and employment under the same conditions, etc., etc., etc.

  • Matt

    For amusement, you guys might like to pop over to Dawkins for the take amongst the community there. Unintentionally funny.


    >”Is there no depth of dishonest behavior a true believer will not descend to so as to spread the “TRUTH”?”

    >”Religion makes me puke.”

    >”People who come from cultures where god-belief is uncommon or preaching is forbidden, may be ignorant of religious views, (like babies) – never having been exposed to them.
    Many people in Asia are superstitious, despite not believing in gods.”

    Brilliant stuff.

  • Braden

    I was hoping for an interesting reply to my posted comment. Was it deleted?

  • http://getreligion.org Bobby Ross Jr.

    I didn’t delete your comment. I’m assuming one of my colleagues did, probably because it did not focus on media coverage. This is a journalism site, not a place to argue personal ideology or beliefs.

  • sari

    “I neglected to include another classic line from the story that made me smile: Chinese students enhance diversity of evangelical schools not only ethnically but also intellectually.”

    My child attends a school with a disproportionate number of Asian students. Many were born in China or have parents who were born in China. Others come from Korea or Vietnam. The school has become an unofficial TAG school of sorts, because most Asian parents have extremely high expectations of their children. I don’t believe it’s that Asian students are inherently smarter or more intellectual (nor have I seen evidence that this is so), but they are taught to work and to achieve, and that makes a huge difference in the kinds of questions they ask.

    The comment above rang true to me, especially given the students’ brusque challenge to the teacher (in the article). And in a homogenous environment, such students will raise the level of classroom conversation by challenging unproven but widely accepted “facts”. I think the reporter got this aspect right.

  • Bern

    I’m with Jerry: it’s the stupid headline that taints the whole story. As for not quoting upset Chinese parents that might be a tough one unless the reporter spoke Mandarin. And, the delicacy of the religion issue in China can’t be overestimated. The article does quote school administrators and recruiters as acknowledging not only that some parents might be upset but the government as well.

    “Intellectually different” is IMHO an exceedingly poor way to put what having the Chinese students in class offers to their classmates. As sari points out, Asian students have a culturally different way of approaching school, learning, and authority. I roared laughing at student’s challenge to the teacher–until I thought how truly agitated s/he must have been to challenge the teacher that way.