On a chilly afternoon last October, as my son and I walked through a bustling shopping district in Xi’an, China, we passed a group of teenage girls who were chattering loudly in Mandarin. Obviously they had been shopping in a nearby mall, as several of them were carrying bags labeled with familiar names, including “Gap.” What struck me especially, though, was that one of the young women wore a t-shirt featuring a picture of Justin Bieber.
Earlier that day I had given a lecture to 120 pastors from midwestern and western China, who had been brought together by the Three-Self church leadership for continuing education. In our conversations, several pastors expressed concern about a growing penchant for consumerism in the younger generation, a reality that was confirmed for me by my brief encounter with the teenagers.
I have to confess that I am not completely pessimistic about the new consumerism in China. I first traveled there in 1994, and have returned at least yearly for the past two decades. On the first visit, dull grays and browns dominated the landscape, while a decided malaise affected the people. Things began to change quickly, however, in the following years. Trendy clothing. Lively interactions in coffee shops and fast food restaurants. Young couples walking hand-in-hand on the streets. Creative new architecture. Neon lights.
The Justin Bieber t-shirt, however, went a significant step further. It struck me as a sign of a new social reality in China. A month or so before that visit to China, I had attended a lecture by someone who studies the fashion industry. She observed that a few decades ago teenagers in the United States got their main fashion cues from the ads in Seventeen magazine. Today, she said, it is all about social media. One of her examples was a teenager in Seoul who had bought a blouse at a local branch of Forever 21. That night she tweeted about it to a friend in Omaha, Nebraska. Her glowing comment was re-tweeted and the next day the item sold out in Omaha stores.
The Justin Bieber t-shirt in Xi’an doesn’t only mark the rise of consumerism. It heralds a global youth culture. If I were an official in the Chinese government, I would worry as much about those teenage girls at the shopping mall as about prominent political dissidents. Those young folks are nurturing loyalties to a network of other teenagers around the world, and I wonder whether any totalitarian government can tame that network. I’m no Justin Bieber fan, but I am encouraged by the Xi-an t-shirt.
A few years ago I attended one of the few legally sanctioned worship services in Pyongyang. (Why I was there in North Korea is a story too complicated to tell here.) The choir in that small church, originally constructed by Presbyterian missionaries in the early twentieth century, sang, “What a Friend we have in Jesus.” I was moved to tears, thrilled to see in the flesh people who have the same divine Friend that I have. Whatever I think about the North Korean regime—and those are not happy thoughts—I can never hear a mention of Pyongyang since then without recalling that I have fellow friends of Jesus there.
The Church, the Body of Christ, is a global network. Those of us who belong to that network have loyalties to our Lord and to each other that transcend the particular networks of our regional and national loyalties. The millions of young folks who admire Justin Bieber are a poor substitute for the Church for whom Christ died. But if our Christian global network is going to expand, it may be a real advantage that there are other global networks in place to build upon. It may even be that singing “What a friend we have in Justin” is a providential preparation for teenagers in Xi’an to sing a much more important song.
Richard J. Mouw is president emeritus of Fuller Theological Seminary.