News of current events, coupled with two recent books about Chinese Christianity, raise several important questions about the way forward for Chinese Protestants belonging to unregistered congregations.
First, the news:
Beginning almost three years ago, the government in Zhejiang has not only been removing crosses from the tops of churches in Wenzhou and surrounding areas, but also demolishing large church buildings. Since most of these buildings belong to congregations which are affiliated with the official church (China Christian Council), we can see that the previous relative “immunity” of state-approved churches no longer applies. The news also includes stories of pastors of very large official churches, including one in Hangzhou, being deposed from their positions and detained. They had criticized the cross-removal campaign.
Churches in the southern province of Guangzhou have also been harassed recently, with many being told they must cease their operations. See the story, Campaign Against China's Christians Spreads to Guangdong Province (February 12, 2016, Radio Free Asia), in the February 18, 2016 edition of ZG Briefs.
These developments, though perhaps only directed at unusually prominent structures and their leaders, may also be part of a comprehensive tightening of Party and government control over all aspects of life in China. Most pundits believe that this campaign, which began when Xi Jinping came to power, will likely continue for several years, putting more and more pressure on Christians and imposing more and more restrictions on the public practice of the Christian faith.
Now for the two books:
China’s Urban Christians, by Brent Fulton, (see a review at: http://www.globalchinacenter.org/analysis/reviews/chinas-urban-christians-a-light-that-cannot-be-hidden.php) repeatedly emphasizes that many urban “house” church leaders believe that Christians must have more of a public presence in order to influence society. This public presence already includes meetings in large rented spaces; websites on the Internet; public statements by groups of church leaders, like the one supporting the leaders of Shouwang Church a few years ago; networks that seek to present a united voice to the government; organized works of charity; Christian schools and orphanages; and, occasionally, especially in Wenzhou but also elsewhere, substantial church buildings with crosses prominently placed on the top.
Many urban church leaders believe, however, that this is not yet enough, and want to expand on all these fronts.
Farther out on the edge, Christian lawyers have been defending the legal rights of Christians and Christian churches, and some pastors believe that the church should advocate for more political and legal freedoms.
These same leaders, however, observe that the spiritual life of their church members has not kept pace with numerical growth, and that urban churchgoers’ daily life and driving ambitions seem to differ little from those of unbelievers around them. Many Christians within and outside China, meanwhile, point to the glaring weaknesses of pastors and other leaders of the church, including little time for a personal devotional life, marriages and families in crisis, an imperial leadership style, and disturbing examples of financial corruption, abuse of power, and sexual sin.
In other words, quantitative growth has not been matched by qualitative growth, and much of this has been linked to the greater size of the new urban congregations, which have moved out of homes into rented premises, often with hundreds of worshipers attending.
Furthermore, A Star in the East, by Rodney Stark and Xiuhua Wang (reviewed at: http://www.globalchinacenter.org/analysis/reviews/a-star-in-the-east-the-rise-of-christianity-in-china.php), carefully traces the rapid expansion of Protestant Christianity in China over the past fifty years and comes to the conclusion that the church has grown best when it has met in homes, with believers inviting friends and neighbors into intimate fellowships that multiply organically and naturally, meeting in more and more homes and staying very low key.
These home-based congregations influence society slowly, but deeply, through prayer, the preaching of the Word of God that transforms lives and value systems, and the resulting impact on the way that believers conduct themselves at home, school, work, and in society.
In contrast, very few new people are brought into the church through the Internet or preaching in larger meetings. Most come through the changed lives, loving example, and warm welcome of friends and family members.
It seems right therefore, simply on pragmatic grounds alone, for urban Chinese Christians to re-think their strategy and to consider seriously whether, having left their roots in home meetings, they have brought upon themselves a host of serious and avoidable problems.
In fact, that process has already begun. One young deacon from a church in Wenzhou whose massive structure had been demolished said to me, “We are now wondering whether we should have spent so much time, money, and effort to construct that huge building. It distracted us from evangelism, our personal spiritual life, and care for each other. To tell the truth, some congregations compete with each other to see who can have the biggest, fanciest, costliest building. By necessity, we have now re-organized into small groups meeting in homes, and are finding that this provides us much more vitality, love, and evangelistic power than when we all met in that huge cathedral.”
Can we go further and say that there is a biblical reason that home-based churches “work” better than building-based congregations? For a very tentative response to that question, see “A Theology for House Churches.”
For a briefer case for home meetings, see “House Churches” in my book, Reaching Chinese Worldwide, 142-145.
-G. Wright Doyle