Lessons from the Past: Reflections on A Protestant Church in Communist China

John Craig William Keating has written a historical study of one Large Urban Christian Organization (LUCO) in China (Moore Memorial Church) which is rich in lessons for Christian ministry in China today. A review of "A Protestant Church in Communist China: Moore Memorial Church Shanghai, 1949-1989" is available on the Global China Center website.

1. Connections with foreigners, especially Americans, can become highly dangerous for Chinese Christians, though they may be temporarily advantageous. Both when the Japanese occupied Shanghai, and even more when the Communists took control, all Chinese Christians with connections with foreigners, particularly Americans, were immediately suspected of being lackeys of overseas imperialists.

These suspicions go back into Chinese history, beginning with the Opium Wars of 1842 and later, continuing through the period of American support for the Nationalists and leadership of the U.N. forces in the Korean War, the Cold War, and recent American government support for unregistered churches in China. Though Chinese government leaders seem paranoid, it is futile to try to persuade them that American Christians seeking to help their Chinese brothers and sisters do not have an ulterior, political motive – to de-stabilize the government and replace it with a democratic regime friendly to the U.S.

The government may overlook close relationships with foreigners at times for its own purposes, but at any moment it can go on the offensive, expelling the foreigner and accusing the locals of being tools of the enemies of China. We ignore this possibility to everyone’s peril.

2. Foreign money can be toxic for Chinese Christians. Moore Memorial church was initially built with American gifts, and was restored several times with the help of funds from overseas. These donations have had several deleterious effects: They encouraged dependency, which proved disastrous when the political or economic situation interrupted the flow from America to China. They brought, inevitably, some measure of foreign control, always detrimental to local initiation and indigenization. They opened the Chinese recipients to the charge of being hired agents for the Americans, who were assumed to have political agendas contrary to the interests of china.

The same is true today. Foreign connections are bad enough for Chinese Christians in unregistered churches, but money from overseas brings the taint of foreign control, and the natural suspicion that the foreigners will “buy” the services of the locals in ways that undermine Chinese government authority. However well intentioned may be contributions to help Chinese Christians, they can become like sugar-coated poison.

3. Building-based Christian congregations possess some assets, but more liabilities. On the one hand, impressive structures can attract passers-by and can seem appealing to those with a love of architectural beauty. They can accommodate large numbers of people under the leadership of a few pastors. Buildings can be used for a variety of purposes.

On the other hand: They are expensive to acquire and maintain. They inevitably create the impression that “church” means “cathedral,” rather than, as in the Bible, a group of people bound together by faith in Christ and meeting for spiritual purposes. Usually, congregational life is centered on what happens in the building, rather than on small groups meeting in homes or the workplace. Most of the ministry is also carried out by a few paid professionals, rather than by the participation of each member in the life and ministry of the congregation. These LUCOs are almost always led by “bishops” (often called “senior pastors”) - big bosses who are employed to run a large organization, and to run it profitably. Such bishops acquire power, since they preside over big numbers of people, in big buildings, with big budgets. This power can easily corrupt even the best of men.

It also attracts the attention of the government. In Christian history, “cathedrals” and their “bishops” have either been co-opted by the state, or have sought to exercise some sort of influence, even control, over political policies. Even in the United States, with its legal separation of church and state, this has been the case. Sometimes the relationship is quite cozy, as in China, where the TSPM carefully supervises the personnel and programs of the LUCOs which belong to it. At other times, there is tension, as between unregistered LUCOs in China and the government, Shouwang Church being a major example in recent times.

In any case, it seems to me that the major distinctions among Protestant churches in China are now not those between TSPM and unregistered congregations, but between TSPM LUCOs and unregistered LUCOs, on the one hand, and genuine house churches on the other. The latter meet as smaller groups in homes. They do not attract ambitious men quite as much as LUCOs do, and offer fewer incentives for those with an appetite for power, prestige, or prominence, and fewer opportunities for men with good motives to develop such an appetite. Nor do they attract those who want to be associated with a large, public, and prestigious organization. What draws them is a combination of love and truth that cannot be found elsewhere.

4. A focus on social services often leads to loss of spiritual vitality. Moore Memorial Church was founded as an “institutional church” that offered a wide variety of services to the surrounding community. Though much good was done, and many were brought into the orbit of the Gospel through these activities, when the programs stopped the church withered. Necessarily, also, such services cost money and soak up the energy of the paid professionals who administer them, almost always distracting them from the prayer and the ministry of the Word which the Apostles considered to be primary.

In China the contrast between the churches connected to the China Inland Mission and other “fundamentalist” ministries (including the independent congregations led by men like Wang Mingdao) and the “mainline” churches could not be more stark. The former survived the ravages of the first few decades of the Communist regime, and blossomed into the huge movement which we see now. The latter are once again growing, even filled to overflowing, but are dwarfed in number – and, some would say, spiritual power – by the congregations that remained focused on the preaching of the Gospel, prayer, personal devotion to Christ, and loving Christian community. And they are truly self-governing, self-supporting, and self-propagating, with no help from the state.

There is much food for thought here.

G. Wright Doyle