Dear Praying Friends:

A few months ago, we discussed ways in which ministry among Chinese worldwide must reflect the twin realities of China’s rapid rise and America’s precipitous decline.

Now let us think a bit about another aspect of the fast-changing situation facing Chinese Christians and all who would serve them.

Relative Freedom

For a number of years, large unregistered (sometimes called “house”) churches in China have enjoyed considerable freedom of action.

Meeting as large congregations numbering several hundred in rented or even purchased premises in semi-public places (like office buildings and restaurants), conducting a full range of ministries, and even publishing much of their news on Web sites, they have been largely left alone by both local and central government officials.

These urban churches are composed mostly of younger professionals, highly educated and confident. Though not at all anti-government or eager for political power, they have, in effect, defied government regulations with impunity.

With occasional exceptions, even cooperating with Western and other foreign Christians seemed to be tolerated.

Many of the leaders of these churches have formed informal networks with their peers within metropolitan areas and even across the nation. The 200 or so who attempted to attend the Lausanne Congress in Cape Town last October represent the epitome of this sort of nation-wide association.

Experienced leaders were saying that the age of “red persecution” (suffering for the faith) had been replaced by “white persecution” (the temptations of rampant secularism in a post-modern society).

Recent Restrictions

When the would-be delegates to Cape Town were prohibited last October from leaving the country, the earlier optimism took a blow. It seemed that both the political rulers of China and the leaders of the Three-Self Patriotic Movement (TSPM) just could not countenance the presence of so many unregistered church leaders forming even closer connections with a worldwide movement.

Then the leaders of Shouwang Church in Beijing were told that they could no longer meet in the restaurant where they had been gathering as they waited, vainly, for the keys to the space they had purchased in a large office complex. Rather than returning to the small- group format with which they had started, the top leaders, in a highly-controversial move, decided to take their Sunday worship outdoors to a pedestrian area near a big shopping area. For several weeks now, the police have prevented their members from gathering and the leaders have been placed under house arrest.

Other unregistered church pastors have come out publicly in support of Shouwang, and have even sent a petition to the National People’s Congress calling for re-examination of religious regulations, but not many are optimistic that the government will relent any time soon.

Meanwhile, a few church leaders who had tried to go to the Lausanne Congress have been arrested, academic conferences have been cancelled, and there are reports of foreign Christians’ visas being denied or not renewed.

Government organs have insisted that they will enforce the regulations which call for all Protestants to meet under the auspices of the TSPM, and angrily denounce all expressions of support from the West.

 There is a definite chill in the air. No one knows how long it will last; most believe it is connected with official paranoia about the possible spread of the turmoil in the Middle East to the Middle Kingdom, as well as to intra-party struggles between hard-left Maoists and more moderate “liberals” in the run-up to a change in top government and party leadership in 2012.

For now, aside from those in the group that tried to attend the Lausanne Congress, most unregistered churches seem to be unaffected by the latest restrictions. Perhaps the impact will be limited.

What to do now?

How shall Western-based Christians who love China and want the church there to grow peacefully respond?

Prayer. As always, our only hope is in God, who is still on His throne, and fully capable of advancing His kingdom against all opposition. We can come to Him with humble supplications for Chinese Christians, Chinese government leaders, and all who seek China’s welfare, that wisdom, peace, and gentleness would prevail.

Silence. I know many will disagree with me here, for there are calls for Christians in the West to speak out in support of our brothers and sisters in China.

Considering the historic, and now heightened, suspicion by the Chinese government that Chinese Christians are tools of American strategic policy, however, I think we should keep quiet for a while.

Indirect Ministry. A variety of avenues for sharing God’s love remain open to us: The Internet; radio; distribution of Scriptures and Christian literature; legitimate relationships formed through business, education, the arts, and travel; equipping Chinese Christians living outside of the mainland; genuine hospitality to Chinese studying and working in the West; low-key contacts by discreet visitors to China who refrain from open evangelism or training.

Please remember us and our team members in your prayers, for we have many such openings to share the love and truth of Christ.

For example, both Dori and I plan to travel in June to Taiwan, where I have a number of preaching, teaching, and lecturing engagements. (Ephesians 6:18-19)

Yours in His mercy,