Of the many adjectives that could be used to describe the church in China, “diverse” is one of the most appropriate. The Body of Christ in China is indeed multi-faceted, a microcosm of the diverse population of China itself. Here we present four views of the church in China, each reflecting a different aspect of God’s working among the peoples of China.—Editor
The Greatest Need in the Chinese Church
The China Christian Council Confronts the Task of Theological Education
Over the last twenty years we have rejoiced in seeing how God is growing the Chinese church. Since 1979, when the first church reopened in Ningbo (Zhejiang), over 15,000 churches have registered and received permission by local authorities to carry out their ministries. Presently, six churches are being added or opened every single day. In addition, between 30,000 and 40,000 groups of believers, who gather at what are called “meeting points” affiliated with the Three-Self Patriotic Movement (TSPM)/China Christian Council (CCC), are awaiting their turn at registration. Most of these groups meet in homes, public meeting halls or wherever they find room. Most of them are small, but some number in the hundreds even up to 1,000 worshippers or more.
This truly is a remarkable development. Those of us in the West would consider all these so-called “meeting points” as churches. This means that in China today there are a minimum of 45,000 recognized churches in existence. These would not include the multitudes of non-registered house churches spread across China.
With this tremendous church growth comes the challenge of educating new converts with biblical truth. Many do not properly understand the teachings found in the Bible. Much misinterpretation is taking place, especially in the rural, mostly uneducated, areas of China. To add to this problem is the fact that there is only one ordained pastor for every 10,000 Christians in China today. In Jiangxi province, over 400,000 Christians regularly attend 1,600 registered churches pastored by 35 ordained ministers. That is a ratio of one pastor to 11,428 believers.
Only 23 registered theological schools (Bible schools and seminaries) exist in China today. These must turn down over 50 percent of new student applicants for lack of space and money. The need for additional Bible schools and seminaries is dire.
How can the Body of Christ best help the church in China develop future strategies for theological education? First and foremost, we need to pray. Pray that God will supply additional teachers and professors who can teach emerging, young leadership. Most current seminary graduates end up in a teaching position at a local Bible school. As one pastor said, “It is easy to build “hardware” (new seminary facilities); it is much harder to build “software” (training additional teachers).” Pray that God will keep the students who are currently studying at the theological schools close to the Scriptures.
Second, we need to form partnerships with the Chinese church leadership to learn from them how we can best serve them. There are many good theological schools in the West that need to become involved in the theological education of the world’s most populated country. Presidents and deans of these schools would be wise to pay visits to seminaries and Bible schools in China to learn what their needs are and then determine how they can best help meet those needs.
Third, seminary and Bible school presidents in China, who are part of the CCC, need to visit evangelical theological schools located in Singapore, Hong Kong, Malaysia and Taiwan. In addition, it would be good for them to also visit theological schools in the US, Canada and some European countries. These visits would give the CCC leadership a better idea of the kind of training offered in those schools, and how they can benefit from Chinese students attending them.
Theological training is the need of the hour in China. More than that, the registered church in China needs good Bible-based theological education. Only if their future students stay close to the word of God will the registered churches continue to grow as they have over the last 20 years. May we all do our part to see the next generation of Christian leaders serve the Lord with more effectiveness.
Seeking to Hear “Thus Saith the Lord”
Urban Professionals and Intellectual Challenges in an Age of Globalization
As China and the world enter the age of globalization, China’s urban intellectuals are becoming more dynamic, diverse and complex. Opportunities to serve among them remain plentiful, and great discernment is needed.
Globalization and the “Third Mission Field”
Globalization and materialism are leaving their imprint on Chinese minds. Unlike students in the aftermath of June 4, 1989, China’s intellectuals today are less concerned with the burdens of history and China’s future direction. Most are marginalized in society, just as marketing, mass media, high tech, and a hedonistic culture become dominant shapers of Chinese values. Many, meanwhile, have turned to Christ in the 1990s. Professionals serving in China have left their mark as well, bringing blessing and salvation; for this we are most grateful to the Lord of the harvest. Christian communities have mushroomed on most campuses in Mainland China, making these China’s “third mission field.” Leaders, resources and guidance are sorely needed.
Chinese intellectuals overseas (PRCs), who turned to Christ in the early 1990s, often become the majority in overseas Chinese congregations. Many have moved into ministry leadership, including shaping emerging churches. Faith Chinese Baptist of Vancouver and China Bible Church of Toronto are two such churches.
Partnership and Leadership: Two Critical Needs
In the midst of this maturation process, PRC Christians (both in China and overseas), Overseas Chinese (nonPRC), and Western churches are coming to know each other and to serve China in new forms of partnership. Relationships are beginning; we wait to see what steady patterns of cooperation may emerge.
As well-educated Christian communities mature, ministry needs become more complex. Chinese church leaders are looking for more than simple, reproducible tools in personal evangelism and discipleship (China’s churches are developing their own models). They want guidance, direction and discernment in the areas of doctrinal conviction, sermon preparation, and apologetic response to contemporary thought, as well as more practical areas of leadership. Lay leaders are hungry for solid resources in Christian thinking, to guide them in ethics, in spiritual formation, in kingdom service, and in overall personal maturation.
Secularization of Christian Thought: Four Critical Challenges to the Church
Here we find an interesting trend: as Overseas Chinese seek contemporary paradigms and resources in Christian scholarship, often Mainland Chinese church leaders and scholars explore in the same direction. I see four challenges related to the development of Christian thought in the Chinese context. These are alarming, secularizing trends which call for strong, Bible based responses from discerning members of the body of Christ.
- A neo-orthodox view of God’s Word, which makes a strong demarcation between God’s Word (as event, as act, as existential encounter and not as propositional revelation) and Scripture (a human book with cultural limitations and mistakes), made popular by Scottish and Chinese theologians. Existentialism is intensely and hypnotizingly appealing to Chinese intellectuals; thus neo-orthodox theology has a strong appeal. An orthodox doctrine of plenary inspiration, inerrancy and full sufficiency of Scripture is in eclipse in many “evangelical” quarters.
- Modern linguistics and deconstructionism, which tend to deny that words have a stable, singular meaning and suggest that only “interpretation,” not “meaning,” exists in a text, are making inroads in Chinese theology. Chinese biblical scholars increasingly take a postmodern stance toward Scripture. The conviction that the Bible contains a body of doctrines which we can learn, is quickly eroding in a one-sided emphasis on the humanness of Scripture. Rather, the Bible is a confusing mess which only the experts can sort out. The layperson is at a loss as to what God did say.
- Taoist and Confucian philosophy are often viewed as God’s revelation to the Chinese or at least footprints or shadows of God’s revelation. Culture and philosophy, sinful man’s response to God’s revelation, are put on the same level as God’s general revelation (which by definition is non-verbal but absolutely clear, see Psalm 19:1-4 and Romans 1:18-20). The absolute truthfulness, authority and convicting power of God’s revelation in nature and in the human heart are slowly disappearing from the Chinese Christian consciousness. A parallel trend is the overemphasis on cultural relativism and “contextualization” among crosscultural missionaries. While wellintended to foster a servant’s attitude, often these trends do not help the Chinese church build a strong foundation on the inspired, inerrant Scriptures. (The latter was the direction in which the vast majority of China’s churches had been going until the recent influx of overseas resources eroded a good bit of that conviction.)
- Compromising (“integrating”) with secular psychotherapeutic and marketing theories, Chinese churches often seek to please and not offend the non-believer at the expense of a clear proclamation of the realities of sin and guilt and the gospel of grace and pardon in Christ. Sin’s effect on human hearts and cultures is dismissed or ignored. Mainland Chinese Christians absorb these secular and secularizing trends from the Overseas Chinese (in psychotherapy, marketing, church growth and worship music) at an alarming rate. The demands on China’s Christian intellectuals during this urbanizing age are tremendous. Unfortunately, often they can only find secularized teaching and resources from Overseas Chinese and Westerners. Will the orthodox servant of Christ, fully committed to the Lordship of Christ in both thought and life, fully surrendered to the absolute authority of the inerrant, sufficient Scriptures, take his or her stand? Will China yet hear “Thus saith the Lord?”
Broad Trends in the House Church Movement
Any attempt to make a declarative statement on the situation of the house churches in China needs to include a fair share of disclaimers. As I approach this task, I am well aware of my limitations in terms of sources of information and attention to my favorite subjects of interest. However, if the following comments are taken as a springboard for reflection, assessment and prayer, then this exercise may prove to be of value for the church in China.
- House churches in China continue to enjoy God’s blessing as seen in their many and varied strengths. When one thinks of the rural house church in China, we think of a church of prayer, faith, bold evangelistic outreach, dramatic church growth, courage and joy. We remember a church experiencing the miraculous, a church of the cross and a church that is dynamic and creative in its service. There are many signs of health, strength and blessing among this mighty movement of God over the past quarter century.
- Growth has remained steady, if not phenomenal, since 1978 or so.
- A current secondary effect of this growth is the necessity of Sunday Schools that embrace the needs of both children and adults.
- With this growth comes the increasing impact of losing people out the back door. Thus, the net rate of increase may be much less than in years past. (Validating church growth, balanced with a recognition of losses, has proven to be an impossible task.)
- Female leadership will dominate the next generation of Christians. This will be felt in a significant way by 2015 or sooner.
- A growing mass of rural people is migrating to the cities. As we seek to minister to this new generation of urbanites, we need to remember, “We can take the people out of the country, but we cannot take the country out of the people.” This migration will also affect the existing lines of organization and management within church networks. These will become blurred and be redefined.
- There is greater cooperation among house church networks evidenced by the development of a joint theological statement signed by the leaders of several large networks.
- Efforts have increased in attempts to provide meaningful pastoral training. Good efforts are being made with nonformal training, use of VCDs, the internet and even resident schools.
- There is an increasing need to deliberately raise up national Bible teachers, theologians and authors. We must ask ourselves what meaningful, measurable efforts have been realized in developing national theologians and writers over the past 25 years. Are ministry organizations making deliberate plans to address this issue in their ten year plans?
- There is an increasing involvement in cross-cultural ministries initiated by rural house church networks. These ministries are sending missionary teams to minority groups within China; they are sending teams to evangelize in neighboring countries; and they are taking deliberate steps to revive the “back to Jerusalem” movement to reach Muslim nations.
- Cooperative efforts between house churches and registered churches, where mutual respect and trust have been cultivated, continue to grow quietly.
Primary Threats to the Health of House Church Networks
- The proliferation of cults has become the greatest threat during the past decade. There are at least 18 indigenous cults in China with the most vicious, vile, and aggressive being the Eastern Lightning group. While house church leaders are learning to identify Eastern Lightning subversives and their tactics, they are not well equipped to discern between theological nonnegotiables and theological preferences. As a result, secondary issues of theological preferences can become the grounds for labeling a fellow Christian group as a cult. House church leaders must learn to recognize genuine heresies.
- The increased association and involvement with American (or foreign) Christian groups is a serious threat to the health of house church networks. Several major networks are awash in too much money. A lack of accountability is complicated by an assumption that the American, Hong Kong, or Taiwanese church is healthier—if not spiritually superior. Networks are showing signs of selecting foreign groups to assist them by choosing the highest bidder. House churches are even adopting American styles of praise music and worship, in spite of being able to boast of having their own Fannie Crosby. The indiscrete introduction of Western practices and preferences has turned the attention of house church movements away from existing areas of strengths toward pouring their energies and top personnel into favorite Western projects.
- There is the continued, acute shortage of qualified, approved workmen in Christian leadership. As a result, the church remains theologically shallow and vulnerable to the impact of cults, false teachers and the steady erosion of undernourished believers.
Secondary Threats to the Health of House Church Networks
- Government opposition and local harassment, antagonism, and occasional abuse of Christian leaders is an ongoing challenge. This is an old and familiar threat though many regard it as a blessing in disguise. Rather than become politically engaged, most house church leaders seem to feel this issue is best left in God’s hands.
- Poverty is on the increase. Economic hard times prevent some networks from sending out more laborers for church planting and evangelism. At the same time, there are areas of economic development. In this case, the lure of higher income and acquiring more material items is a temptation for some to leave the ministry.
One hundred years ago, the church in China was controlled by the Western church. Former missionaries to China repented of that mistake in the 1950s. Half a century later, one wonders if we are rushing to recreate that same problem, only now control is exerted by Chinese from outside China, as well as by Westerners. Have we learned anything? Are we willing to do things differently today? My hope is that assistance to the house church from outsiders will be given from the posture of a servant offering meaningful assistance. China’s house church movement has much to teach the outsider if we will pause to listen, observe and learn. Only then can we serve in ways that help, rather than hinder, this bride of Christ.
Partnering with China’s Unregistered Church
Pioneer Church Planting among China’s Minorities
After being up in the mountains again, I entered our little apartment on the second floor of a big gray building, lost in a sea of other big gray buildings. In addition to my family, the familiar faces of two leaders in a large unregistered church were sharing dinner with us. They had been spending about one night a week with us, since they were wanted by the police at the time, and needed a place to rest, away from the rigors of ministry. Our friendship had grown over the past couple years, and they felt comfortable enough to chat and even joke with us. We put no demands on them; they had enough already, and that may have been why they kept coming.
Around that dinner table one of these friends asked me why I traveled up into the hills to share Christ in little minority villages. The implication was, “Aren’t there a lot more people in towns and cities and what can a big awkward foreigner that can’t even speak the language well do anyway?”
My answer was pretty simple: “I have two reasons; first, I go because no one else is going there, and second, I go to be an example to you, because if big awkward foreigners can do this, you can do it more easily and better.” I had not meant to put them on the spot and had intended my answer to be, in part, humorous, but I had been waiting a long time for them to ask. I think that God used the incident to open their eyes to new ministry opportunities; however, it was three years before a Chinese believer went with me on a trip into a minority area. Slowly, a cross-cultural vision sprouted and grew.
Two years ago when both of these church leaders were up in a minority village with me, I just had to smile as I watched them preaching and teaching all evening to a newly planted church. They had sent their own “missionary” out to that place over a year earlier and had others coming and going regularly.
Below are some principles we’ve learned. Not only for cross-cultural partnering with Chinese believers, they can be applied beneficially in any partnerships.
- First and foremost, work at building strong friendships and serve their needs. Do not fall into the trap of using people to accomplish your ministry goals, however noble those goals may be. Friends don’t coerce or manipulate. All too often I have had Chinese friends come to me complaining or asking me to intervene because some other foreigner is subtly pressuring them to do something, attend something, or travel somewhere. Sometimes as foreigners in China, we have such a clear-cut idea about what we want the Chinese church to do or to become that we want to take over.
- Second, Chinese believers ultimately need to own the vision. If serving their needs means imparting some vision, as much as possible, let them work through the steps of developing their own vision. Be a resource, not a driving force.
- Third, don’t throw money at China. In an international China conference several years ago, a Chinese leader gave me a letter to be read to everyone imploring them to consider wisely and very carefully how they invest financially in Chinese ministry. The letter referred to abuses, waste, deceit and good Christians who were corrupted through money. In another case, a very highly respected unregistered church leader told me that more than half of foreign ministry investment did more harm than good. While the West is not always at fault, in financial matters God’s standard demands “taking pains to do what is right, not only in the eyes of the Lord but also in the eyes of men” (2 Cor. 8:21).
- Fourth, armed with their own vision, the ongoing encouragement and partnership of good friends, faith in a mighty God, (and yes, maybe some investment but maybe not) awesome events may happen faster than we expect. Do not underestimate either the fruitfulness of this arrangement or the need for encouragement when things get overwhelming. Be there for your friends!
While up in that village, after the young Chinese pioneer church planter dismissed that flock of joyful minority believers, he began to share his heart with me. He loved it there and loved the people. He didn’t want to leave that place, and saw such potential in that growing church. He also complained a bit about the food, about the facilities, about how he didn’t understand the local language well enough, and that he was impatient and frustrated when no one would interpret. I began to chuckle at my friend’s last complaints. He stopped and asked me why I was laughing. I told him that my family and I had felt the same way at times when we first moved into China. He said, “No way, you were in the city.” Then he stopped, remembering that I, too, was once brand-new to a foreign culture, food, facilities and so on. We laughed at and with each other and talked on into the evening.
Erik Bürklin, MDiv, is a third-generation missionary whose grandparents served with China Inland Mission (now OMF) taking the gospel to China before it closed to foreign missionaries in 1950. In 1989, his father, Dr. Werner Bürklin, founded China Partner , and in 1993, Erik joined his father and then …View Full Bio