Pastor and Christian Leadership Resources

Ned Graham: God's Ambassador to China

  • Randy Bishop ©Christianity Today International
  • 2020 14 Jan
Ned Graham: God's Ambassador to China

When Ned Graham, the youngest son of Billy and Ruth Graham, first visited the People's Republic of China in late 1990, he had an unusual experience.

On his first night in the country, he was driven through Xiamen, in southern China's Guangdong Province. Thousands of people rode their bicycles through the dark streets. Cars went by, without their headlights on, a peculiar habit of Chinese drivers at the time. The drivers flicked on the car lights only as they passed the bicyclists, their faces illuminated for an instant. A series of still frames flashed before Ned's eyes as he looked out the window: Darkness. Light. Faces.

"I found myself all of a sudden just weeping," Ned, 40, says. "Then it was like somebody took warm oil and poured it on me. I felt this incredible feeling of peace and contentment. ? I felt like I was home?not home in the sense of residence, but home where your life is lining up with God's will. It was absolutely overwhelming. And I realized from that moment, within about 20 minutes, that God was calling me to spend the energies of the rest of my life on China."

A Top to Bottom Strategy

Ned made that first trip through East Gates, which was then an embryonic organization aiming to help believers in China. East Gates had only limited goals and no comprehensive strategy for ministry, Ned says. His mother, Ruth, was on the board, though, and he and his friend David Dove, an attorney, had been helping them get started. As a result, Ned and David were asked to visit mainland China.

On that trip, Ned had his experience in Xiamen. The rest of his stay confirmed God's call in Ned's life? "to change church history in China"?though Ned had no intention of getting more involved with East Gates.

He did, however, challenge the organization's leaders to work legally in China at both the highest levels? top government leaders? and at the lowest levels? small house church groups?in order to improve the lives of all Chinese believers. The idea was not readily accepted.

A couple of weeks later, however, after returning to the United States, Ned was asked to join East Gates' team. He declined but promised to pray about it. After prayer and discussions with his wife, Carol, his family and friends, he agreed to join East Gates on one condition: he would be the president, with total control of the finances and philosophical direction of the ministry.

In 1992, East Gates signed a historic contract with the China Christian Council to print and distribute to house church Christians more than 1 million Bibles a year for five years.

"The greatest single inheritance I have is the name Graham," says Ned, the father of two boys, Alex, 10, and Samuel, 8. "I wasn't about to give my name and the credibility of that name to anything that I didn't have control over."

Ned's offer was accepted. In May 1991, he left his pastoral ministry at Grace Community Church in Auburn, Washington, and became president of East Gates. Today, East Gates, incorporated as East Gates Ministries International (EGMI), is doing extensive work in China. Ned has become a world-class diplomat, developing relationships with Chinese Communist Party leaders and the country's Christian community.

Bibles made in China

Perhaps the most significant accomplishment of EGMI has been Project Light, the printing and legal distribution of more than 2 million Bibles to house church Christians in China since 1992. With government permission, these Bibles are printed in Nanjing by Amity Printing Press, which was established in 1985 by the China Christian Council and United Bible Societies.

The China Christian Council, an official government agency, works primarily with the Protestant churches of the Three-Self Patriotic Movement (TSPM), a government-sanctioned organization started by Chinese clergy in the early 1950s after foreign missionaries were forced to leave the country. Three-Self (Self-Governing, Self-Supporting, and Self-Propagating) churches, claiming an official total of 10 million members, are registered with the Religious Affairs Bureau, the agency that oversees all religious activity in China.

In addition to the Three-Self churches, 15 to 25 million evangelical believers (by East Gates' estimates) belong to house churches. These independent congregations are not part of a single movement, do not necessarily meet in houses, and are not registered with any government body.

Before EGMI came along, most house church Christians had to rely on smuggled Bibles or handmade copies; if they were found with a contraband Bible, they could land in jail. Another potentially dangerous option was to get a Bible from one of the few Three-Self distribution centers. There, they would be required to give their name and residency card number before receiving a Bible. House church Christians feared to identify themselves that way.

But the need for Bibles was acute and sometimes risks were necessary. So, in September 1989, a house church Christian named Chen went to a distribution center and got a Bible. He carried it everywhere until a Public Security Bureau officer stopped him. The officer demanded to know how he got the Bible. When Chen showed him it was printed legally in Nanjing under the China Christian Council's authority, the officer let him go.

The story quickly spread through the house church network. About the same time, the news was spreading that Billy Graham's son was heading up work in China. The house church Christians didn't delay, approaching East Gates about securing permission to print Bibles for them.

Ned approached China Christian Council leaders in Nanjing, including then-president Bishop K.H. Ting, all of whom were open to the idea. In 1992, East Gates, based in Sumner, Washington, signed a historic contract with the China Christian Council to print and distribute to house church Christians more than 1 million Bibles a year for five years, a contract that has since been extended into the 21st century.

Today, Bibles subsidized by East Gates are available to house church Christians at distribution centers throughout every province in China. House church Christians file a request for a Bible with a contact in Shanghai, who then sends them to East Gates' Hong Kong office. Or, they can write the China Christian Council directly and make a request using a code word specific to EGMI. House church Christians no longer are required to leave their name or ID number at the distribution sites.

Bibles made in China


Next: Training Believers

The need for Bibles in China is no longer as acute as it was ten years ago, Ned says. Amity Printing Press has distributed more than 18 million Bibles through Three-Self churches and other organizations, in addition to the 2 million it has printed for East Gates. More significant, the number of Bible requests received by both East Gates and Amity has declined in the last few years. Bibles are even carried by some bookstores, which shows how much China's attitude has changed.

But there is a continuing need for more Bibles, as well as other Christian literature, including study helps, devotionals, concordances, and commentaries. In the past two years, East Gates has started meeting this need by distributing Christian hymnbooks, classic devotionals like  Streams in the Desert, and biographies of Christian leaders such as Martin Luther. East Gates is negotiating for the Chinese language rights to numerous basic Christian works.

Perhaps the most critical need of Christians in China, especially those in house churches, is leadership training. Many pastors have little theological or pastoral training, which has created a situation ripe for problems, including the rise of cults. Recently, East Gates has been working with the China Christian Council to develop training opportunities for both house church and Three-Self pastors.

Building bridges between the official church and house church leaders is another part of East Gates' ministry. Over the past 40 years, the two groups have built up a wall of mistrust, but recently relations have begun to improve because of East Gates and men like Bishop Ting. Though there is much work to be done, Ned has found passionate followers of Christ in both groups and believes the future may yield a unified, post-denominational Chinese church.

Clearly, God has done amazing things in China through Ned's involvement with East Gates. But, Ned isn't the first of his family to serve the people of China. His grandparents, Dr. L. Nelson Bell and his wife, Virginia, were missionaries to China for 25 years. (Ned, short for Nelson Edman, is named for his grandfather.) His mother, Ruth, grew up in China and has always had a great love for the Chinese people. And his father preached throughout the country in 1988.

As a young boy, Ned spent many nights listening to stories about China from his grandparents and other missionaries. He heard of successes, failures, and martyrdom but more than that, he remembers their great love and respect for the Chinese people.

"Having been in China 40-some times, I (now) understand exactly what they meant," Ned says.

Scared of ministry

Ned's path to ministry wasn't a straight line from his parent's home to China, though. Like his brother Franklin, he bucked against all he had been taught. No one really expected him to end up in ministry.

"I thought Ned would be in jail," says his oldest sister, Gigi Tchividjian.

Mixed up in drugs, Ned lived a dare-devil lifestyle in high school and college. However, he wasn't rebelling against society, his parents, or God.

"What I rebelled against, in hindsight, was God's call in my life to ministry. I didn't want that responsibility," Ned says. "I was a coward, and I ran from it."

All through those defiant years, Billy and Ruth Graham stood by him, leaving the channels of communication open. Even though they despised his behavior, they loved him, respected him, and allowed him to work through his own problems.

"That unconditional love eventually became irresistible," Ned says.

It was a long process, but God and his parents eventually wooed him to a place of Christian service. After receiving a communications degree from Pacific Lutheran University in 1985, Ned felt he should at least consider the possibility that God had called him to the ministry. He enrolled at Fuller Theological Seminary's extension program in Seattle.

An assignment for his first class?a paper on the meaning of Christ's death? began to shape his future. Realizing anew both God's anger toward sin and his love for the lost, Ned recognized God had special plans for him. At his home in Washington state, Ned's years of rebellion ended as he worked on the paper.

"I broke down and wept," he says. "I probably wept for 30 to 40 minutes, just crying, really realizing Christ's sacrifice. At that point, I said, 'Okay, God. I'm here. Whatever you want me to do, Lord, fine.'"

About a year later, as he finished his last six months at Fuller, Ned was offered an internship by Pastor Larry Finch of Grace Community Church (formerly Baptist Bible Church) in Auburn, Washington. Ned stayed on as pastor of adult ministries until he accepted the presidency of East Gates.

Establishing trust in high places

Even through Ned's prodigal years, God was uniquely preparing him to reach China. His parents' example of unconditional love, in spite of his actions, instilled in Ned the values needed to effectively approach his relationship with the massive Chinese bureaucracy. Rather than condemn the Chinese government, East Gates works to win their trust through honest dialogue and long-term strategic education.

Top Chinese leaders have a fear of secret societies (including religious sects) because, in the past, such groups have been responsible for the country's dynastic overthrows. Communist Party officials also have often considered Christianity as a form of Western imperialism. To combat these negative images, East Gates is committed to meeting with top government officials and helping them understand orthodox Christianity and their own country's Christian population.

Ned tells these leaders that Christianity is neither Western nor imperialistic, emphasizing that Christians can be among the most productive citizens in China.

"We've been open and vulnerable. We don't have a hidden agenda," Ned says. East Gates never violates any of China's laws and always operates above board.

The organization does not take a political stance; its mission is to help believers in China no matter who controls the government. In a recent letter to East Gates supporters, Ned explains. "The government of China has done many bad things, and probably will continue to do so. But so has our government and all others. So did Rome! As Christians, we are not called to battle governments. We are called to build up the body of Christ in the church."

In line with this philosophy, East Gates also does not take a position on the annual renewal of China's most favored nation (MFN) status, which has become a contentious issue in Congress recently. By renewing China's MFN status, the U.S. promises to extend it the same tariff rates on imports as it extends to its regular trading partners. Human rights lobbyists and some members of Congress have pushed for revoking China's MFN status because of human rights abuses, including religious persecution.

East Gates acknowledges that religious persecution exists in China, but Ned emphasizes that the Chinese government has no official policy aimed at destroying the Protestant church. There are officials in China who go beyond the scope of their own laws and punish Christian believers? out of ignorance, ideological extremism, or cruelty? but they are exceptions, not the rule, Ned says.

In fact, though some U.S.-based Christian organizations may disagree, Ned claims there are relatively few cases of persecution of evangelicals in China today. He says most religious harassment in China is aimed at Tibetan Buddhists arguing for independence, radical Muslim separatists in Xinjiang Province, cult leaders, and those who advocate formal ties with the Vatican.

And, in the cases when house church evangelicals in China are persecuted, the cause is often bureaucratic corruption, not a systematic policy of discrimination. For instance, Ned gives the example of a farmer who wants to extend his land holdings, but is thwarted by a church that meets on an adjacent lot. The farmer calls his brother-in-law in the Public Security Bureau who contacts a friend in the Religious Affairs Bureau. Next thing the church is shut down and the farmer takes the land? an injustice stemming more from greed than religious hatred.

East Gates is working to help Chinese officials clarify their laws on religious freedom. Behind closed doors, Ned has no problem discussing his concerns with the proper authorities. They listen and, out of respect, he refuses to grandstand about their faults.

A Church Growing Stronger

Overall, Ned is excited about the church in China. "There is far more happening in China within the Christian community that is positive than negative," he says. "God is doing some wonderful work in China."

When Communist leader Mao Tse-tung and his army took control of China in 1949, there were perhaps 3.25 million baptized Christians (Protestant and Roman Catholic) in the country. This small Christian community found itself under increasing pressure in the following years, and some began meeting secretly. During the ten-year Cultural Revolution (1966-1976), all official churches in China were closed, Bibles were burned, and many of the country's religious leaders were sent to labor camps, imprisoned, or killed. Even so, the church did not die; Christians continued to meet privately in very small groups.

Believers flocked to services when the government reopened churches in 1979, and since that time, the total number of Christians has grown to 25 to 35 million in a country of 1.2 billion, Ned says. With most of the new believers under the age of 40, the future of Christianity in China looks more positive than ever before.

The future of East Gates looks bright, too. The organization is looking for new ministries in China and in the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (North Korea), which has an extremely small Christian population. East Gates supplied emergency food and medical supplies to North Korea in 1996, following devastating flooding there. Since the flood relief effort, Ned has returned again, and hopes to continue cultivating relationships with high-level North Korean officials.

Ned hopes he and his staff will eventually work themselves out of their jobs. "If we're successful, we'll no longer be needed," he says. "Our goal is not to foster or nurture dependence but to nurture independence and especially interdependence.

"When we're no longer needed in assisting the church in China, I would like to see East Gates transformed into a facilitator that brings Chinese Christians, evangelists, and pastors to the United States to teach, to let us learn from their wisdom."

For now, East Gates is still very much needed in China. Millions of believers have benefited from Ned's vision and rejoice that this reluctant minister finally accepted God's call "home."

To contact East Gates, call 800-959-3464.

1998 by the author or Christianity Today International/Today's Christian magazine.

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