Thirty years ago, China was a closed country. It was not until the late 1970s that people from its coastal cities were allowed to leave to visit overseas relatives. Back then, "leaving China" was seen by some as "selling your country" or "anti-revolutionary." Inside its iron door, the Chinese were told that "two-thirds of the people in the world still live in destitution and are waiting for our liberation."
In the 1980s, China's door gradually opened. Starting like a small stream that turned into a fast-flowing river, people rushed through this iron door to scatter around the world. People used whatever means—government sponsorship, studying aboard, visiting relatives, sightseeing and people smuggling—to reach the outside world.
The world becomes smaller as globalization extends to China. Not only are big cities affected, globalization also affects the smaller cities and villages. Thirty years ago, whenever a foreigner with blue eyes and blond hair appeared in a small town, people would quickly gather around this lao wai and traffic would come to a standstill. Today, the "foreigner" walking the same street is likely a young Chinese with dyed golden hair wearing a foreign-brand jacket.
Without question, globalization has influenced China's house churches in positive ways. It has:
- Gained dual channels of spiritual resources: From the late 70s, the overseas channel in the form of broadcasting, books, magazines, later VCDs, and training started to flow into China. These were like "manna" to the house churches. At the same time, the testimony and experience gained by the house churches from years of persecution accumulated in the local channel. Spiritual resources from both channels fed and caused the house churches to grow. However, with the passing of the old spiritual warriors, the latter influence waned with time. While the few that left writings, such as Epaphras Wu, continue to influence, others are simply forgotten.
- Developed a more open view of the church and the Lord's Kingdom: Globalization has allowed the house churches to see that God's church is global, and house churches are part of the global church. This realization has pushed the house churches to slowly surface from the underground and to move cautiously from the periphery towards the center of society. House churches have also begun to cooperate with overseas churches and even reach them directly. For example, Christian Life Quarterly in Chicago often receives phone calls from far away places in China asking questions related to divorce, the falling of preachers, church discipline, depression and other topics. Lately, we are also happy to see more cooperation among house churches with some areas even forming their own church associations, although they do not given them that name. Rather, they use the term "united prayer meetings" which, in fact, is a monthly or quarterly prayer and sharing time for major church leaders in one city or area.
- Expanded their vision of mission: Globalization has moved the house churches to become more global in their mission outreach. House churches have started to spread the gospel to surrounding countries. Short-term mission groups have been sent to Mongolia and Burma. Another significant change is the formation of overseas "house churches." A common saying in China goes like this: "Wherever there is sun, there are Chinese sweating. Wherever there is a moon, there are Chinese weeping." Starting in the 80s, cheap laborers found their way to many parts of the world. On every continent you can find Chinese restaurants opened by immigrants from Wenzhou and Fuzhou (Foochow). Chinese in New York often say there are 52 States in the USadding Wenzhou and Fuzhou. As a result of the labor migration, some Wenzhou and Foochow churches have appeared in New York and Europe. At the same time, "China ministry," the term used to refer to those serving Chinese students and scholars in North America and Europe, expanded to many work sites in Guam or Israelwhere many Chinese laborers were saved.
On the other hand, globalization has also produced some negative influences.
- 1. Heresies and cults follow globalization to China: For example, extreme Pentecostalism had a significant influence on two major church groups in a province in central China. Both groups experienced strong revival for a period of time, but division and desolation followed. Church groups that focused on the fundamental faith and insisted on returning to biblical truth taking the way of "back to the cross" tended to experience a more steady growth.
- Exposure to denominationalism has led to fierce arguments and divisions: Denominational thinking crept in as house churches gained overseas exposure and financial support. A single Chinese church group is sometimes claimed by several overseas organizations as their own. Some house churches keep changing their theological position in order to please the various supporting overseas organizations. Also, some house churches believe they are the true followers of Jesus by claiming that their belief of a certain minor doctrine is biblicalso that others are not. Such narrow views often lead to the breaking up of church groups.
- Impractical mission slogans mislead the direction of house churches: Impractical and unrealistic mission slogans can negatively impact the mission direction, strategy and actions of house churches. Within China, there are 1.2 billion non-believers. Surrounding China, in countries like Mongolia, India, North Korea and Japan, there are major centers of unreached people. Together, they make up three-quarters of the unreached people in the world. These people or countries should be the major mission targets for China's house churches. Unfortunately, some house churches or their members are sometimes confused by grandiose slogans.
Recently, a twenty-year old young man called us from Gansu, China. He told us he saw "Back to Jerusalem" on the internet and wanted to join a medical mission to the Middle East or Africa to evangelize among the Muslims. He is a high school graduate with no special skills or language abilities. Our conversation went this way:
Did you share your vision with the pastor or elders of your church? Did they support you?
They don't appreciate my vision.
Are there many Muslims in your town?
Yes, many. Han people are the minority here. Muslims are the majority.
You don't need to go overseas. You can spread the gospel to the Muslims right where you live!
They don't want to believe.
But, what makes you think you can be more successful in leading the overseas Muslims to Christ?
In the end, we suggested that he study the Bible more and serve at his local church. We also encouraged him to begin sharing the gospel with the Muslims around him and to wait for God's calling.
Joseph Li, a well known house church preacher, once said: "In Chinese villages, many 17 and 18 year olds cannot find jobs in the cities. They are very willing to go overseas as missionaries. In fact, we can easily find 100,000 such willing missionaries, but they are not called by God."
Globalization will impact house churches at an even faster pace in the coming decade. Increasingly, a greater number of full-time and part-time missionaries and overseas Christian returnees are involved with house churches. More and more Chinese Christians will leave China, worship with overseas Christians, and attend various conferences. All these encounters will no doubt influence the future direction and development of China's house churches.
One such conference, The "Gospel for China Conference 2007," to be held later this year, is an example of this kind of influence. Global in nature, it is open to all Christian churches and organizations around the world that have a burden for China. The conference will provide a platform for broad exchanges among Christian churches and mission organizations from all corners of the world. Specifically, it will allow the overseas Chinese churches to gain a deeper and more balanced understanding of mainland churches and vice versa.
This conference has another special significance. It will be held on the eve of the 200th anniversary of the arrival of Rev. Robert Morrison, the first Protestant missionary to China. Against such a historical backdrop, it will provide a point of reflection on how the Lord opened the door of salvation in China via overseas missionaries. It will explore how today's Chinese churches, the fruit of missionary blood and tears, should follow their example by further expanding their vision and mission for global evangelism.
The upcoming 2008 Olympics in Beijing and surrounding cities is another example of a global encounter for the house churches. We believe the house churches should mobilize their members to evangelize at every opportunity they have during the Olympic Games.
China's house churches are at a crossroads today. The need to surface from underground and take a seat among the global church is inevitable. How will house churches change and adapt? Will they respond in a timely manner to societal changes and develop the skills needed to minister to non-traditional groups such as migrant laborers, city white-collar workers, overseas returnees, children and college students? Are they willing to change their old, hierarchical, top-down leadership structures to a shared leadership style that is a common practice in churches around the globe? Are they willing to increase their cooperation with one other to achieve synergy in Christ, rather than working only within their small closed circle? How do they want to live out Christ's gospel in society?
We pray that the Lord will continue to use China's house churches to bring millions of lost souls to Christ. We pray that they will benefit from globalization and avoid its bad influences. We pray that they will establish a solid understanding of the Bible and its teachings, while continuing to hold onto their basic strengths in walking the way of the cross. We pray they will grow mightily in the Lord to meet the challenges of the 21st century.