In 2016, during a large missions camp in a coastal city, the “Religious Affairs Regulations Draft Revisions”1 had just been published; we all sensed a fierce test was coming for the house churches. At that time, the almost six hundred participants in the four-day missions conference deeply felt God’s leading. Since then, the megachurches and large gatherings that had developed vigorously in the first decade of the twenty-first century have gradually disappeared. Within a few years, all turned into small groups. The gap between the first and second decades is so great that it made us feel like we were sitting on the banks of the rivers in Babylon reminiscing about Zion (Psalm 137:1). This article explores the changes that have occurred in Chinese society and the Chinese church during the New Era. From this, we can think about what God is doing through these changes. Finally, we explore the roles overseas workers can play in the churches in China.
Changes Seen in the Past Ten Years
First, the political dimension. The biggest change is the change of the tenure system. China’s current leader is already in his third term, and it looks like he will continue on. The collective leadership model that was established during the times of Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao has been replaced by an individual leadership model.
Second, the economic side. The phenomenon of “the state advances while the people retreat”2 is obvious. The government makes every effort to support state-owned enterprises and strives to guide the economy back to a state-owned economy. At the same time, private enterprise, with its owners’ growing influence, is greatly suppressed.
Third, the social aspect. State surveillance of society is becoming stricter. One aspect is a system that includes grid management and establishing information officers. A second aspect is through technology, including facial recognition. The state continues to strengthen the control or stability maintenance of the entire society. This directly impacts the activities of churches and preachers. Preachers are increasingly being watched and followed, and there is almost no room for unregistered activities.
Finally, diplomatic circumstances. With China now gaining power on the world scene, she is gradually abandoning the strategic ideology of “hiding the light” and shifting to the tough “wolf warrior diplomacy” of “doing something.” The existence of Christianity in China is not just an internal social issue but part of international relationships. The geopolitics of East Asia affect Sino-American relations, and Sino-American relations directly affect the situation of the church.
Development of the Church in China
Can we see how God has been at work in history? As we know, the number of churches and Christians grew rapidly after the Cultural Revolution. Revival began first with rural churches. By the first decade in the twenty-first century the urban church ushered in a “golden age.” Externally, people were friendly to Christianity, and the authorities were relatively tolerant. Internally, the unprecedented “Christianity fever” at that time allowed many churches to move from homes to office buildings, adopting a centralized church development strategy. For instance, almost all floors of a building in a city in the north were occupied by churches, somewhat like a Christian center. One could see many young people and intellectuals in the church. Churches had more resources. Some churches uncritically imported denominational theology and megachurch development models from the United States and Korea. Churches were optimistic about the future and even showed a tendency towards triumphalism. Voices were heard saying that the church should be part of mainstream society.
However, during the second decade the social environment deteriorated drastically. The church’s public space was greatly diminished. The general attitude quickly became nationalistic, and authorities began to control the church more strictly. Internally, the church faced several challenges including intensified theological antagonism as well as the erosion of the church by materialism and consumerism. In fact, many church leaders confess that secularism is a greater threat to the church today than government persecution.
The explosive church growth seen previously had come to an end. The evangelism of young people became more difficult. Due to both generational and political factors, Chinese churches are now facing new challenges to effectively reach youth with the gospel. Some pastors began to pause, reflect, and ask important questions about ecclesiology: What went wrong? Were we too optimistic? Were there too many distractions related to non-essentials3 during the development of the church? What should be the church’s priority? What are the essentials for a church? How should the church be different from the world? Is denominational theology from the US really suitable for China? What about the megachurch model from Korea? Should we take this opportunity to reflect on and renew ecclesiology for the church in China in order to build a contextualized, yet global, indigenous theology?
We see from history that God’s work always has two aspects: one is to uproot or tear down, and the other is to plant and build (Jeremiah 1:10).
God is doing new things through these recent changes that are testing the church. He is removing secondary things that came out of the churches’ rapid development over the past thirty years, and, by refining, he is building a community that will be separate from the world and faithful to Christ even in the midst of trials. How we wish that such a community would become a more mature, prophetic, indigenous, and contextualized church in China.
When we think of the church situation in China today, we remember the early church. According to Alan Kreider’s book, The Patient Ferment of the Early Church,4 the most prominent feature of life in the early church in the first three hundred years was patience. Whether individually or corporately, the most distinctive traits in life, living habits, or even in commerce, were patience and generosity. However, during the Roman Empire patience was regarded as weak and was most lacking in Roman society. According to the Church Fathers, the patience of the early church stemmed from the endless patience shown to them by God. Will the church in China become faithful disciples that live out their faith in this hostile world? In the midst of many trials, in China and on the global mission field, people are seeking the meaning of life again. Will God’s people play the role of patient leaven? Let us humbly watch God at work.
New Roles for Overseas Workers and Churches
In this new context, how should overseas churches and workers adapt their roles? Together, let us consider the following challenges and recommendations.
First, we need to look at God’s mission from a long-term perspective so that we will not be shaken due to changes of context but instead stand firm. There is an interesting phenomenon from the history of missions to China: the pendulum swings from peripheral areas to the homeland. Due to the closed-door policy during the Qing dynasty, in the early days, missionaries such as Robert Morrison and others were not able to set foot on Chinese soil. They were forced to stay in peripheral areas from 1807–1842. When the door was forced open,5 missionaries moved from surrounding areas and were able to work in China for around 100 years (1842–1949). Then, during and after the Cultural Revolution, they were pushed to peripheral areas again from 1950 to 1978. With reform and opening up, there has been a renewed shift from the periphery to the mainland. In recent years, due to the shift in national conditions, we have again seen a shift from the mainland to the periphery.
Yet, from this historical pendulum phenomenon, we find two constants. The first constant is from the missionary perspective. Despite times of moving forward and times of withdrawal, our sovereign God, who is the God of history, never leaves. He is always present with his people and has never left this land. The second constant, although we have witnessed the weakness of human beings and a moment of frustration, from a long-term perspective God’s church has kept moving forward and kept growing. If we look back at the 200 years of history of how Christianity came to China, we know how the churches have experienced drought, plague, turbulence, revolution, war, opposition, and persecution. Yet, from a tiny seed she has grown to become a tree planted by the river, full of green leaves even in the year of drought (Jeremiah 17:7–8). Furthermore, the time has come that God is no longer just moving missionaries from the mainland to the periphery; God is sending Chinese missionaries from the mainland to the periphery. Is not this what Robert Morrison and Hudson Taylor had hoped to see two hundred years ago? Despite the many trials churches face today, we should never lose this historical perspective.
Second is the importance of the ministry of presence. As it is more difficult and costly for overseas workers to stay in China, the ministry they are involved in is more precious and valuable. Their presence represents brothers and sisters from the global church, which is a great spiritual comfort and encouragement to local brothers and sisters. Most cross-cultural workers have expressed that compared to what they used to do four or five years ago, their doing now is much less, yet their being and sense of belonging with local brothers and sisters are much stronger. When there is a high cost to pay due to the external environment, the mutual trust and bonding become deeper. Those who consider themselves pilgrims or servants of the gospel may see these ministries as minimal, yet their presence with suffering brothers and sisters indeed demonstrates the mode of mission—our weakness truly reveals God’s power (see 2 Corinthians 12:9). Lesslie Newbigin referred to this idea as mission from a position of weakness,6 and John Stott described it as power through weakness.7 We trust all those who are able to stay on this soil would agree this is worthwhile.
Third, is the understanding of missiology based on holistic mission. To be able to practice a ministry of presence in China, one must be a professional or business person. But rather than using one’s work just as a platform or means of being resident there, it is essential to establish a mission theology based on a holistic gospel and integral mission. In other words, your social status and your work are your ministry, and your life carries the gospel message. This writer knows a couple doing business in a minority area in the western provinces just like Priscilla and Aquila. Their business and mission are not divided but are nicely integrated as a whole.
While they practice a biblical value system in their business management, they also exercise cross-cultural discipleship with their local employees. Cross-cultural here refers to crossing the mission field culture (Han mainstream culture and minority culture), and the co-workers’ own culture. It also refers to the “kingdom enterprise culture” and “secular business culture.” Evangelism and missions mean crossing or breaking boundaries. When overseas churches and workers realize this breakthrough in the concept of missions, they will discover that the door to missions in China remains open.
Finally, the role of overseas workers and their mode of service need adjustment. Since many changes have occurred in the Chinese church over the past forty years, roles of overseas workers should adjust accordingly. Overseas workers must reduce their frontline work and large-scale training and instead strengthen journeying with local pastors one-on-one or in small group work. This will help speed up the pace of indigenization as well as reduce risk.
I cannot stress enough the importance of journeying with local pastors. Many of the local frontline workers, especially sisters, face many difficulties and needs in their lives including personality issues, family problems such as marriage and parenthood, or trauma arising from their family of origin. Some churches emphasize only work which results in burnout. These pastors really need one-on-one care and spiritual support, but they also need an understanding of what discipleship is and how to train small group leaders. Overseas workers need to switch roles from being teachers to being good listeners.
Many Chinese pastors are first generation Christians and belong to a spiritually fatherless generation. Under internal and external pressures, plus many uncertainties, they so much want to share their stories but are in need of people who will listen to them. Who will journey with this fatherless generation? Who will listen, ask questions, and journey with them so that they can discern God’s will for themselves through God’s word?
The twenty-first century is an era of global mission. The characteristic of global mission is that it is not a one-way encounter between giver and beneficiary but rather a two-way learning and interdependence in God’s mission. Meanwhile, the context of the global mission field is no longer from the haves or the powerful to those who have not or are powerless; instead, it is more like the early churches where the powerless went to a powerful country. China’s context today calls for our learning and practicing global mission which is God’s mission. How we long to see the Chinese churches that are currently in a “spiritual bitter winter” as the faithful minority standing firm for their faith in a hostile environment, just like those who did so during the Cultural Revolution. Despite the fact that they are not in the mainstream, yet they stand next to the cross to testify to our God and persevere so that once again they may experience true revival. What an honor that they are inviting us to journey together with them!
- See Brent Fulton, “New Religion Regulations to Take Effect in February,” ChinaSource Blog, September 13, 2017, accessed February 1, 2023, https://www.chinasource.org/resource-library/blog-entries/new-religion-regulations-to-take-effect-in-february/.
- The Chinese phrase 国进民退 expresses the idea that the state-owned part of the economy is expanding while the private sector retracts and shrinks.
- Because the church had more civil space and resources during this time, the focus of church leaders gradually moved to externally visible development such as large meeting places and numbers in attendance rather than discipleship and indigenous theology development.
- See Alan Krieder, The Patient Ferment of the Early Church: The Improbable Rise of Christianity in the Roman Empire (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2016), 336.
- During the late Qing dynasty, the “door” was finally opened, not as a voluntary opening, but by military force (the Opium Wars) and a series of unequal treaties. These treaties included an agreement giving foreign missionaries permission to propagate their faith. As a result, the hearts of Chinese people were tightly closed especially during 1842–1900 when, according to statistics, 800 anti-foreign explosions broke out.
- Lesslie Newbigin, The Open Secret: An Introduction to the Theology of Mission (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1995), 5, 62.
- John Stott, Calling Christian Leaders: Rediscovering Radical Servant Ministry (London: InterVarsity Press, 2021), 39.
Image credit: Mike Falkenstine, One Catalyst.
Shuya Kim (pseudonym) left Korea in 1991 and has been working with an international missions organization. He is a former field director of Chinese ministries in that organization. Currently he is journeying with indigenous Chinese missions organizations and missionaries as a mentor and friend in the context of global missions.View Full Bio