Grappling with the Ghosts of Taiwan’s Past

This past weekend, three friends and I visited TouCheng 頭城 near Yilan 宜蘭 to see and experience the once a year event known as “Grappling with Ghosts”.  As many of you already know, this past month in the lunar calendar has been the celebration of Ghost Month.

Strangely enough, even to most Taiwanese, the meaning of this festival is a mystery. After some research, I discovered the meaning behind the symbolism. It is rooted in Daoist tradition and lore.

In summary, the fir tree towers you see are covered in food (meats, rice dumplings, etc.). The symbolism in the fir trees is related to the wood that ships are made from.

This “feast” is intended to draw all the remaining, wandering “good brothers” that have yet to return to the “other world” together. The originators of this event feared that these “good brothers’ might wish to remain in this world and cause some trouble. They wanted to find a way to ensure that all of these spirits would return to the other world and leave this world in peace.

As midnight approaches, the people send up their champions, racing up the poles in a climb to the very top. The first one to reach the top must snatch a red flag as his trophy, which is then sold to the highest bidder (who traditionally is the captain of a sailing vessel) as an amulet of spiritual protection for the following year. At that point, the crowd breaks into cheers and screams along with the priests chanting, drumming and playing their horns which should scare the “good brothers” back into the underworld.

For pictures of the event and the other activities that occur along with it – CLICK HERE. Warning – it is graphic including animals.

Of course – it actually means nothing. There are no ghosts. This is another tool that the enemy has used to ensnare and enslave the Taiwanese people. They are bound up in fear.

How desperately they need to know that a Champion has already come and done everything needed to free them from fear and slavery. His name is Jesus. There is no need to go on and on endlessly repeating these mindless, senseless rituals. Their powerless idols have left them with no hope.

The State of Affairs

So, I’ve been spending the last few days studying how to share the Gospel in Chinese, reading a lot and also digging into the statistics on the church in Taiwan. People like to throw numbers around and statistics can often be made to say whatever you want them to, so I wanted to see if the numbers added up.

After doing a little legwork and finding the statistics that I wanted (Taiwan is great in this respect, people here like to keep very good records and reports), I was able to put together a fairly accurate state of things. I have done my best to be generous in regards to some things, but a little narrow in what I would call an evangelical church or evangelical. If anyone has information that would help me clarify or better present the data, I would really appreciate being informed.

So, what is “The State of Affairs”

This is a general report on the numbers of churches in Taiwan. It is based on data obtained from the Presbyterian Church in Taiwan’s Annual Report. The Presbyterian Church keeps the most accurate and regular reporting system on churches in Taiwan.

From 1989 – 2013 the number of registered denominations in Taiwan increased from 40-57 (64% increase). Over that same period of time, the number of registered churches increased from 2,660 – 4,101 and church membership also increased from 448,220 to 1,307,842 (291% increase). At first glance, that seems like some amazing growth. But let’s look deeper before drawing any conclusions. During this same period of time, Taiwan’s Population increased from 19.95 million to 23.315. (8.6% increase)

So, as a percentage of the population, church attendance has increased from 2.25 to 5.61%. However, these numbers are deceptive if you are looking for the number of Evangelical Christians and Evangelical Churches. This data is not easy to mine from the information available, but in general, this is what we find.

The reported Average Church Attendance for this period of time increased from 204,179 to 604,632. If you exclude Catholic, True Jesus and Seventh Day Adventist congregations (about 326,000 people), that leaves a number of 278,632. And if you exclude their congregations from the church total of 4,101, that actually leaves 2999 evangelical (I think) churches in Taiwan.

Now, specifically in regards to Taichung, currently there are 439 registered churches. But If we use the percentage from above to remove Catholic, True Jesus and Adventist Churches and their attendance from the numbers, that leaves about 237 potentially evangelical churches in the city of Taichung.  The Presbyterian Church estimates there are 263 evangelical churches in the city. (76 of those are Presbyterian) Compare that to the 899 registered temples (in my opinion this is not anywhere near the actual number of temples in the city).

Specifically for my area of interest, the Chinese Baptist Convention reported 48,733 members in 2013, with an average attendance of 26,170 in a total of 217 churches. The Presbyterians estimate a number of around 20,000. (Over 4,000 of this number are ages 5-12, which means that only a little more than 22,000 Taiwanese people over the age of 12 attend a Baptist church in Taiwan. That is .001% of the population.
This came from a total of 217 churches.

Finally, if you use the number above of 278,632 that attend church on average, that means that just about 1.3% of Taiwan’s population has been reached with the Gospel of Jesus Christ.