Supporting Article

"House Church" and "Three-Self"

Cooperation Across the Christian Community


The narrative which suggests that Protestantism in contemporary China is clearly divided into the binary opposites of "house church" and "Three-Self" is so ingrained in the thinking of many scholars, observers, journalists and missionaries (among others) that it is arguably one of the dominant paradigms shaping perceptions of the church in China today. I do not think that those new to China should just accept this paradigm as a given. It goes without saying that this paradigm is at the core of much mission strategy both at the institutional as well as the individual level. While I understand that the idea that (Protestant) Christians belong to either a "house church" or a "Three-Self Church" is still championed by some, if not many church leaders and lay believers in China itself,1 I do not think it is reflective of much of the complex reality of Protestantism in China in 2013.2 I hope to demonstrate here that there is a wide range of congregation types in China and that simply thinking in terms of "house church" versus "Three-Self" is a gross oversimplification of what things are like on the ground. I will also highlight some specific examples from my own research in China of how different congregations work together.

Every expatriate who engages with Christianity in China needs to consider the wealth of different types of congregations and the range of different characteristics which help define them. Some congregations are registered with the state and are affiliated with the Three-Self Patriotic Movement (TSPM). These congregations may have close ties with the TSPM or may be affiliated in name only, and they may be categorized by the state as either a "meeting point" or a "church." It should also be noted that some of these congregations meet all of the state-defined criteria for registration while others meet none of these criteria at all. An increasing number of registered congregations are also setting up their own small groups which meet in homes, factories or other businesses. These groups of believers are not large enough to register as meeting points. Some congregations are registered with the state independently of the TSPM; these tend to be distinct denominations such as the True Jesus Church. Other congregations may at one time have been registered but for any number of reasons no longer are; yet they have maintained ties with the state and operate quite openly.

There are also a huge number of congregations across China which are not registered. There are many reasons why congregations do not register or cannot register, and it would be an over-simplification to say that the main reason is theological. Some congregations are not registered but have informal ties with the TSPM while some function freely without being officially registered because they have close ties to key officials. There are congregations that are not registered with the state nor do they have ties with local officials; however, some of these operate openly while others are much more secretive. Some of these congregations are sizable while others are made up of a handful of people.

While the registration status of a particular congregation is not always entirely clear, there are many other characteristics which help define congregations. Some are rural, some urban and others are located in the rapidly-changing suburbs. Some congregations are exclusively ethnic Han Chinese, while others are made up of a range of ethnic groups. Still others are exclusively so-called "minority" churches, for example: Chinese Korean or Miao. There are congregations that are almost exclusively composed of migrants (either all from one specific part of China or from different locations). Congregations may be mono-lingual (Korean, English) or bi- or multi-lingual. Some congregations are predominantly or exclusively so-called "overseas Chinese." There are those that are made up exclusively of non-Chinese nationals such as international fellowships or South Korean congregations; others are a mixture of both Chinese and non-Chinese nationals. Some congregations are marked by their distinct, traditional denominational label (Little Flock or Seventh Day Adventist) while others are newer denominations (for example, Wenzhou). Congregations may be extremely conservative or clearly Pentecostal to the extreme.

There are congregations that are part of a vast and highly-organized network while others operate entirely (and sometimes defiantly!) alone. Some are made up exclusively of elderly people while others are exclusively young people. There are those that are solely for students, young professionals or intellectuals. Congregations may be made up entirely of employees from a single company or enterprise while others are made up of people from a particular trade (such as sea fishing or business). There are congregations made up predominantly of people with a hearing impairment. Some congregations are active in spreading their message while others focus on their own holiness to the extent that they do not let "outsiders" inlet alone attempt to take their message into the community. I even know of a congregation developing within a group of young people who all have an interest in online gaming!

These are just a few of the characteristics by which congregations can be defined or by which congregations define themselves, but these alone should suggest that viewing the Chinese church as being divided into "house churches" and "Three-Self" churches is highly inaccurate. While it is fairly obvious that some congregations may be a combination of multiple categories, it is also important to bear in mind that the defining characteristics of congregations change over time; this will affect approaches and opportunities for partnering.

I would suggest that there are three significant ongoing processes in many parts of China which help to blur the boundaries between congregations. First, many Chinese Christians attend or belong to more than one congregation at any one time. I have met many "lay" believers and leaders who are involved in more than one congregation on a regular basis. In reality, this means that the boundaries of any given congregation can be very porous. This is extremely important to bear in mind for those new to working in or with the Protestant community in China.

In addition, networking is apparently becoming increasingly important for congregations of all types and is facilitated by the relaxing of regulations on residence, private transport and new Internet-based technology. Some networking is done in formal and concrete ways but most is done in very informal ways. This is significant because it allows for the flow of ideas between congregations and also reminds them that they are part of a wider Christian community, both nationally and globally.

A third major factor which results in the breaking down of distinct boundaries between congregations is resource sharing. In one city in which I conducted extensive fieldwork, the sharing of resources was conducted between congregations locally as well as interregionally and internationally.3

Local resource sharing includes such things as joint training programs where personnel and/or materials are shared between congregations as well as regular preaching/teaching. There can be a range of training programs going on at any one time involving different types of congregations. The most common programs I came across were leadership training and training for children's workers. Several congregations worked together to organize and run a short summer program for high-school aged young people, focusing on Bible teaching and evangelism. Part of this involved taking the young people into a downtown area to put into practice what they had been learning in their classes. The classes themselves took place in a church registered with the state and affiliated with the TSPM. Church leaders regularly preached or taught in congregations beyond the firm boundaries suggested by the traditional "house churchThree-Self" paradigm. Many of the so-called Three-Self churches had leaders who had not received their training in Three-Self seminaries. Some of them were even part of the preaching teams in the churches.

There were also several notable examples of interregional resource sharing. One senior leader of a particular network of congregations was invited to work long-term with a newly-planted Three-Self church.4 He was involved with Bible teaching for the church leaders and regularly preached in the youth meeting. Besides this work, the same man also organized short-term Bible school programs in another part of China. The same congregation also employed a "preacher" to run the children's work. She had been trained in an "underground seminary" (her words) and had extensive experience in working with children. She also ran parenting classes for single mothers from the local community.

One congregation which engaged in extensive international resource-sharing was made up almost entirely of those with hearing impairments. They met in the basement of a Three-Self church and some of the leaders had completed seminary training sponsored by South Korean churches. Several additional young, hearing-impaired Christians were undertaking Bible study correspondence courses with a view to becoming full-time evangelists to those with hearing impairments. A Three-Self congregation in the city also partnered with South Korean missionaries who helped with training in discipleship and music.

These are just some brief examples of the many ways in which different congregations share resources in one small city in China. People who work long-term with the church in China will be aware of many more ways in which congregations network and share resources. The expatriate needs to bear in mind that a great deal of the networking and resource-sharing is done quietly or in the background and is not immediately obvious to newcomers. I would suggest that those new to engaging with the Protestant community in China be wary of jumping to conclusions about particular congregations or dividing churches into one of two camps. There is a multiplicity of congregation types in China which do not fit neatly into the traditional "house churchThree-Self" paradigm, and this should be reflected in mission approaches. There will usually be much going on behind the scenes which expatriates may not find out about for some time since many leaders tend to "play down" their contacts and the activities in which they or their congregations are involved.

While I think more needs to be done to develop a useful typology of congregations which would be in line with the reality of the contemporary Chinese church, I wonder if it may be more useful to consider specific congregations in terms of whether or not they are missional5 since the categories Three-Self and house church are becoming increasingly outdated. Expatriates need to be sensitive and careful as to how they judge people and congregations.

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1 I think it is worth mentioning here that this distinction is also emphasized by the Chinese state for a range of reasons which we cannot go into here.

2 Without wanting to make overgeneralizations, it would seem to me that this distinction is less important for many young believers.

3 I have also noted similar processes in other cities in different parts of China.

4 The congregation began with seven people but grew to about three hundred in just two years.

5 The definition of "missional" will need to be appropriate to the localized context.

Image Credit: ChinaHopeLive.net

Mark McLeister

Mark McLeister, PhD, is based at the University of Edinburgh, UK, and researches contemporary Christianity and the church in China. View Full Bio