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30 Million Faces

Less than 30 years ago, Shanghai was a much smaller city and port across from a swamp. Today it explodes onto China’s horizon, reaching skyward and topped by the 128-story Shanghai Tower.

The fastest growing city in the world, Shanghai is currently home to 30 million people. By comparison, this number is three times the size of Los Angeles County or about one-tenth the population of the entire United States.

At every turn, thronging streams of humanity sweep up and down and back and forth on the city’s streets, rushing like rivers through every imaginable space. Shanghai is a sea of faces — 30 million faces with bold gazes. These faces represent 30 million souls, the vast majority of whom do not know Jesus.

People from the Western world likely struggle to describe such an enormous city. Words like massive and overwhelming fall very short.

City of Contrasts

Almost as staggering as Shanghai’s enormity and teeming population are its contrasts. 

Such contrasts are most evident at the Bund, a waterfront area running along the Huangpu River in central Shanghai. One side is marked by the heavy, European-inspired architecture of old Shanghai. A quick turn and the scene changes, revealing the rocketing, futuristic skyline of Pudong — new Shanghai. The city is a place where East meets West and past meets present.

Shanghai’s contrasts extend far beyond architecture. The city’s economic gap is equally startling, with a dizzying array of lifestyles readily evident.

On Nanjing Road, people can purchase goods by Gucci, Prada or Louis Vuitton — the finest designer items money can buy. But one block away, impoverished residents lack even the most basic facilities and can be seen scrubbing their laundry on washboards and hanging it to dry on bamboo poles.

Businesspeople in designer clothes and jewelry and educated Chinese from other parts of the country hustle past rural immigrants on the streets. Some of these immigrants are disabled, while others are trying to help pay for family members’ medical care. Still others crouch behind signs, trying to get help so they can return to their home provinces.

Young professionals face mercilessly competitive business environments and work exhausting hours for comparatively small salaries. Some women forgo months of proper food in order to buy the latest handbags to keep up the appearance of success.

Migrant workers now comprise 40 percent of Shanghai’s population. They move to the city from rural areas out of desperation. Though they cannot get medical care or schooling for their children outside the towns where they are registered, they come anyway, seeking better opportunities for their families. Once in Shanghai, they are marginalized and are given the most menial jobs. They accept these jobs willingly, however, because the worst jobs in the city pay better than the best jobs back home.

Eternity in the Hearts of Men

Materialism is the primary obstacle for the gospel in Shanghai. Most people are so comfortable and/or wealthy, they feel no need for Jesus.

Still, eternity is undeniably stamped in the hearts of men. Signs of it are evident from one end of Shanghai to the other. State-approved churches, mosques, synagogues and traditional temples abound.

At Tao City God Temple, worshippers of all ages cram into the courtyard to burn sweet, smoky incense as they pray. Afterward they funnel down a narrow hallway lined with ornate gods, each one related to a particular birth month and year.  After locating their “personal” god, they decorate it with red ribbons and pray to it. At the end of the hallway is another courtyard where the city gods bask in a luxurious shrine as people bow and kneel before them.

To most people under 30, traditional religions like Taoism are worthy of respect but have no actual spiritual value. Young people in Shanghai are thoroughly versed in atheism and believe the status quo is what gives their lives meaning and keeps their society stable.

“There are no ‘crisis conversions’ in Shanghai,” one leader says. “Their hope is in possessions and wealth. A man’s perceived happiness is in a wife, one child, a home, and a nice car. Salvation is a thought-out process that takes months or more.”

Christians are not prevalent in Shanghai; nevertheless, many are finding hope, happiness and wholeness in Jesus Christ.

While today there is much less of a stigma to being a Christian in Shanghai, it is a challenge for individual believers to serve God in this secular city that makes no provision for the personal values held by believers.

Shanghai Shadows

Much activity takes place in the shadows of Shanghai. It always has. During World War II, thousands of Jews were smuggled from Austria to the safety of Shanghai. The Chinese government official who oversaw the process became known as the “Chinese Schindler.” Even today, Shanghai considers itself a sister city to Haifa, Israel.

Other deeds done in the shadows are contradictory to China’s external values. Immorality rages, despite the great value placed upon chastity and even naiveté.

And despite Shanghai’s incredibly modern progress, prospective in-laws still flock to Renmin Gongyuan (People’s Park) Marriage Market to peruse pictures and statistics of young people essentially being promoted for marriage by their parents.

Highly educated young women are a hard sell at the marriage market. Few Chinese men are willing to take wives better educated or more financially successful than themselves. These  women in their upper 20s and beyond must linger in the shadows or find futures in other places.

But in those same shadows, people in Shanghai are learning that culturally promoted and glamorized behaviors cannot bring lasting peace or satisfaction. Instead they are finding salvation and value in Jesus rather than in wealth, status, education or relationships. They are stepping out of Shanghai’s shadows into the Light, and in the midst of 30 million faces, theirs shine the brightest.


is a staff writer for AGWM Communications.


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