China is in the midst of what is arguably the most massive human migration in history, as hundreds of millions flock from the countryside to the cities. This migration spells fundamental change for the rural house church networks that have been the stronghold of Christianity in China for the past three decades.
One of the most significant challenges concerns how workers in the rural church will be supported in the future. Evangelists in China's rural house church networks have traditionally relied upon agriculture as their economic base. The seasonal nature of agricultural work allowed evangelists to spend part of each year traveling and church planting. Today, with the shrinking agricultural sector, the industrialization of the countryside, and more evangelists moving to the cities, this model has become less and less viable.
From Farmhouse to Factory Floor
New models are emerging that provide Christians who move to the cities with a means of support, a legitimate status within the city and a platform for ministryoften to migrants like them98selves who work on construction sites, in the homes of urban families or in the factory towns that have sprung up in the Pearl River Delta and elsewhere. Separated from family and the familiar surroundings of the countryside, these peasants are particularly open to the Gospel at this transitional stage in their lives. While rural Christians generally find it difficult to relate to sophisticated urbanites, they are well-positioned to minister to their fellow migrants in the cities.
One model that has been proven successful involves providing evangelists with short-term loans and basic training on how to run a small business. Located near a factory, the business becomes a convenient contact point with migrant workers. This "shop church" also provides a location for worship and training. As migrant workers are discipled and then eventually return to the countryside, the evangelists can connect them with existing churches in their home towns.
New Opportunities for Partnership
According to one Christian worker who has spent years serving alongside the rural church, helping rural believers to maintain economic viability while developing new ministry into the cities is one of the most significant contributions those outside China can make to the church at this time.
"If more foreign 'China workers' would give themselves to this vision," he urged, "they would discover their true purpose and role for this time in China's history. All [the rural Chinese believers] need is a vehicle to take them into their future and destiny and our part is simply to provide that vehicle. They are already leading, discipling and growing faster than any church in the world at this time."
While China's rural Christians grapple with the implications of urbanization for their ministry, we who would seek to partner with them must also be willing to consider new avenues of involvement. Leadership training and the provision of spiritual resources remain critical needs, but now business expertise and strategies, vocational training and micro loans are joining the list as practical ways to encourage China's growing church.
Brent Fulton is the founder of ChinaSource. Prior to assuming his current position, he served from 1995 to 2000 as the managing director of the Institute for Chinese Studies at Wheaton College. From 1987 to 1995 he served as founding US director of China Ministries International, and from 1985 to... View Full Bio