Tuesday, February 21, 2012

What’s next for China’s house churches?

By Brother Luke

China tolerates Christians by insisting that they must align themselves with one of the two officially sectioned religious organizations: the Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association and the Three-Self Patriotic Movement, for Protestants. However, a large number of Chinese Christians chose to associate with unofficial, unregistered house churches (also known as “underground churches”) that reject the Communist controlled idea of the church. Because of that dual allegiance system, most of data about Christianity in China continues to be unreliable and it certainly is incomplete. There is however, a mounting body of visible evidence that the Chinese house churches are growing in number and in influence.

On my recent trip to a number of house churches in western and southern China, I was able to observe a very determined, self-confident, emerging “Christian culture” within a larger Chinese society. All of house churches that I have visited assemble in apartment buildings that have been converted to accommodate church activities and services. All house church units are small – a typical setting serving about 30-40 worshippers. The largest house church that I was able to visit was capable of accommodating as many as 300 worshipers at one time; it was accomplished by transforming a three story residential house into three, open space, floors that are connected by a short-circuit TV communication system. However, a vast majority of underground churches in China are small, fragmented, and inward looking. That approach is adopted for security purposes as well as logistical reasons; small groups know its members and cannot be easily infiltrated by the secret police. On the other hand, the size of the church is also determined by the size of the dwelling; often, when an original house church outgrows its location it either splits into new house church units or increases a number of worship services in the same location (a number of house churches hold worship services on two-three different days during the week; a gathering on Wednesday may not know worshipers who attend Sunday services, with the pastor being the only link between the two groups churches often). In some of the China’s largest cities it is not uncommon to find church leaders who serve – indirectly, via associate pastors – as many as 200 cell-like church units.

The evidence of growth of “Christian culture” is best observed with those mega-house church units. Pastors of such churches serve as spiritual and organizational leaders for thousands of underground Christians. I was told that there are at least 200 such pastors in China right now. I interviewed a couple of such mega-church pastors recently; I was impressed with their spiritual, intellectual, and organizational abilities. Each pastor recognized his unique leadership role in among Chinese Christians; each insisting on the need for ongoing, strategic, inward evangelism in their respective communities; for a quality, transparent, self-management of their ministries, and for providing Christian training and education to all believers. As a church historian, I cannot miss the fact that the known records of Christianity always show that a small, struggling, emerging, Christian communities – akin to the early Church – have been mostly concerned with the survival of its teachings and protection of its members. However, in the China house church today, the major emphasis seems to be the discipleship of believers and on training of the next generation of leaders – and that alone could be used as a proof that Christianity in China is growing in strength and stature. Every one of the leaders of house churches that I have had a privilege to meet did share the very same passion for Christian education in general and theological training in particular. Each pastor stressed the desire to develop and staff local Christian teaching centers, sponsored by house churches, all over China and especially in its major cities.

Many of these mega-pastors continue to be harassed by the secret police and some are being frequently, if irregularly, “invited for tea” meetings; yet, for all that police surveillance (some of which is very overt while most is undercover), as a visitor I was surprised by what I came to consider a very minimal security precautions by the numbers of each house church. (An interesting side note to the police visits: there seems to be an surge in the use of the biblical stories by the secret police in such “meetings” and “talks” and “interrogations” with the Christian pastors suggesting that the basic knowledge of the Bible and Christianity community – even if frequently quoted out of context – is spreading even among the persecutors.) Another sign that house churches are growing in complexity is the talk among the pastors as well as the church members of follow 'best practices' in ministry; established as well as emerging church leaders meeting informally (and frequently) to learn from each other what forms of ministry and education work best (and which do not) in today’s China. Many of mega-leaders serve as evangelists first and senior executives second by 'managing' numbers of cell pastors who serve each small, apartment-based, congregations. One of organization of the mega house churches in southern China is so large that it requires a business manager, a scheduler, and even pastoral care minister for its many members and staff. Finally, growth of Christianity in China can be counted by an increasing number of full time (vs. part-time, bi-vocational) pastors who are financially supported by their own churches.

Even as Christianity in China seems to be growing in strength, the key leaders see a time of uncertainty and possible even a violent spike-up in crackdown again the house churches in the very near future. That possibility, too, can find an analogy to the early Church. The vast and vicious persecution of Christians by the emperor Diocletian was quickly followed by the conversion of emperor Constantine and formal, final, recognition of Christianity as a legitimate religion of the Roman Empire. It is possible, according to those pastors, that a persecution of Christians in China will decline and possibly cease altogether if and when it becomes ineffective and counterproductive to keeping the Communist Party in power.


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