Imagine a chess game with a strong opponent on the attack. For most of the game, the losing side is on the defensive, thereby using a conservative strategy saving pieces, maneuvering pawns to block and building walls of protection while silently waiting for an opportunity. Then in an instant, the tables are turned. The former defender now takes the long waited advantage, immediately changing strategies to open up, expand and extend in order to win the game.
Bold actions like the following are often predicted before their time, yet a seismic shift is taking place in China that will alter the course of the church. The tipping point is at hand and the game is changing hands. The strategy is changing from defense to offense, from closed to open, from survival mode to expansion.
For the last 60 years, the Chinese church has been on the defensive. The house church went underground in order to survive times of persecution by adopting core values of being low-key, cautious, quiet and closed. Through the Lord’s doing, this strategy not only kept the church alive but caused her to thrive and increase a hundred fold.
This phenomenal church growth coupled with an emerging attitude change by the government has created a game changing opportunity. Not only is there a change in strategy but a change in opponent as well. The church in mission is preparing for expansion. It is preparing to engage the world, tackle its problems and impact communities and society in order to accomplish His will “on earth as it is in heaven.” Leading the change are not only house church leaders from the urban cities as well as rural areas but also those from the formerly traditional house church networks. What are some of these changes?
“Breaking through the Water Surface”
Breaking through the water surface (浮出水面) is a Chinese idiom which describes an object underwater slowly rising to the top and thereby breaking the surface of the water. In the same way, the house church movement that was once underground is rising to the surface as a church worshipping openly for all to see and making a visible impact in society.
In this new shift, the house church movement is moving away from existing as an invisible secret body. The Chinese house church leaders are demonstrating a new boldness calling for a church to be a visible witness as Matthew 5 reminds us: “You are the salt of the earth. You are the light of the world. A city on a hill cannot be hidden.” It is a church no longer invisible and afraid of persecution, but a church that has overcome, taking advantage of the changing environment and making a kingdom impact in its communities and in the world.
At the helm of this change is Shouwang Church (守望教会), a key urban house church in Beijing. The Sichuan earthquake occurred just a day after Shouwang was raided by 30 police during their Sunday worship on May 11, 2008. Senior Pastor Tian Ming (主任牧师天明) publicly stated later that “although having been raided over 20 times, we have never criticized the government.” Contrary to focusing on protecting themselves after the raid, the following Sunday they immediately mobilized their efforts on earthquake relief, raising funds and sending seven short-term teams to Sichuan. Instead of defense, they played offense. Instead of just surviving, they are extending.
Shouwang Church is not the exception. While still under pressure and persecution, thousands of house church Christians throughout China were mobilized for earthquake relief. It has been estimated by a researcher that house church Christians provided sixty to seventy percent of the short-term volunteer relief force and almost one hundred percent of long-term volunteers for the Sichuan earthquake.
Open Door Policy
Another dramatic shift taking place in the house church is the moving from a closed to an open door policy. In the past, house churches closed their doors to outsiders inviting only the trustworthy and truly committed. New believers and seekers were invited to separate Bible studies for a season of observation before joining Sunday worship. This church policy was necessary as house church leaders were often arrested due to secret informants hidden among seekers and even committed members. Furthermore, limited space and resources could not accommodate weekly visitors or casual observers.
Zion Church (锡安教会), another key urban church in Beijing, opened its doors two years ago with an open door invitation for all to join in Sunday worship. Originally trained and ordained in the Three Self Church, Senior Pastor Ezra (主任牧师金明日) returned to China after several years at Fuller Seminary. Upon returning to Beijing, he chose to be independent from the Three Self thus identifying with the house church as well as labeling his church “open and independent” (开放的独立教会). Following in the direction of Shouwang Church, Pastor Ezra also broke from the unwritten house church value of being “low key,” renting a large office space which seats over 200. Today, three Sunday worship services are fully packed with a weekly attendance of over 700 in total.
Is this open door invitation extended to foreigners as well? In theory and practice, the answer is yes. Zion often has foreign visitors and already has an American singing in the church choir. Unlike the past, when the presence of foreigners endangered the local house church, foreigners now may actually help this new breed of churches as their presence could provide more legitimacy to the open church movement. However, before the world rushes to attend, informants will be watching foreign attendance very closely. It could cost a few visas before foreign involvement becomes the accepted norm. The risk to bear is no longer on the Chinese but on the foreigner.
From Marginalized to Mainstream (从边缘走向主流)
Almost completely absent of Christian presence a decade ago, the urban centers are now becoming the center of bustling house church activities. The face of Chinese Christianity is changing from the marginalized to mainstream.
In the 70s and 80s, the house church grew by the millions among rural peasants in the countryside. Beginning in the 90s, rapid church growth moved into the cities as rural farmers migrated, moving the once rural house church into the mega cities of China. However, since the mid 90s, a completely separate church movement (新兴教会) has been taking place among urban intellectuals which include both Shouwang and Zion Church.
Urban intellectuals are now a major part of these new vibrant churches. The term urban intellectual includes lawyers, doctors, professors, scientists, engineers, analysts, CEOs, entrepreneurs, artists, civil servants, professionals, teachers, students, etc. Included among these intellectuals are returnees, mainland Chinese who studied abroad, found Christ overseas and have returned to top positions at leading universities, research institutes, multinational as well as small businesses and entrepreneur startups.
The importance of urban intellectuals cannot be underestimated as they have the means to influence and shape their communities. Lawyers are using legal means to protect house churches from illegal raids, academics are writing and influencing intellectuals concerning the benefits of Christianity toward society, professors and students are challenging atheism at school and on the web, professionals are wrestling with ethical standards in the marketplace. As a result in mainstream China, Christianity is deemed in a positive light.
From Indigenization to Globalization (从本土化转向全球化)
The fourth shift is the stage of the church maturity, moving from indigenization to globalization. In the past, indigenization was important to protect the Chinese church from foreign influences. The Three-Self church based its existence on indigenous principles: self-governing, self-sustaining, and self-propagating. The message was clear to the foreigner: “Keep out of Chinese church control, money and influence.” These indigenous principles for the Chinese church were also important to combat criticism by Chinese intellectuals who claimed Christianity was a foreign religion brought in by foreign devils through imperialism to colonize China.
An indigenous biblical church movement that is completely Chinese reaching China for Christ still needs to be valued. However, if the future of the Chinese church is global, then the needs for a church for global impact will be different. Recently at a leadership conference on indigenous partnerships in Hong Kong, Pastor Tian Ming reminded the foreign participants: “The Chinese church is already indigenous. We can thank the Chinese government for that. Our challenge is not being more indigenous but being more internationalized. Our need now is not indigenization but globalization.”
A church with a global vision for missions must learn globalization. No one is asking the American church to become more indigenous. In fact, a church that is too indigenous can lead to an unbiblical form of nationalism. The end goal is not for the Chinese church to be more indigenous, but to be a church that is effectively reaching its own people as well as reaching cross-culturally in a global world. The Chinese church is doing the first part well. The need now is to become more culturally sensitive and aware of global issues in order to have an impact in the world. Globalization is the growing need for the Chinese church in order to have a global impact in the 21st century.
The chess game has changed hands. We are witnessing in the Chinese church the greatest movement of God in the 21st century. The church in China is on the offensive, shifting from underground to the surface, from closed to open, from marginalized to mainstream, from indigenous to globalization. It is a church maturing from a position of receiving to giving, becoming a church poised for global impact. This game changing strategy will require a completely different way of ministry operations in China. As Chinese church leaders are changing their strategies, is the global church ready?
Image credit: Chinese Chess: Canons & Horses by John Ragai, on Flickr