What has the New Era been like thus far for Chinese believers who have lived through the previous one? The best way to understand this is to talk with individuals about their own experiences. I want to invite you into the living room of a family I have known for the last decade. You can hear from them what we discussed one afternoon over multiple cups of Chinese tea. My friends graciously allowed me to record our conversation to be able to share it with you.
Aaron and Jennie1 are not originally from Beijing. Aaron came to Beijing from southern China to study in the university and stayed to work. Jennie is originally from western China. Growing up she dreamed of studying at Peking University but was not able to get in. After university she worked as a journalist and then quit her job to come to Beijing to work. Aaron and Jennie met and married in Beijing. One issue they faced was Jennie’s faith. Jennie had become a Christian at the university. Both came from families where their parents were not believers and were opposed to Jennie’s faith. When they were considering marriage, Aaron’s future mother-in-law told him he should listen to Jennie but not about her faith.
When I asked how he became a Christian, Aaron said that it was God’s sovereign choice and action that allowed him to believe and know God. Jennie did have an impact on Aaron coming to Christ, and he began to believe in God. Aaron sees that God was faithful to take his initial belief and deepen it. The church they were attending together also played a role in Aaron’s journey of belief and faith. He mentioned one song God used in a special way in his life. Jennie shared that the church sang this song each week to welcome new visitors. The song is “Jesus Loves You”2 and its first line is “Do you know of the never changing promise? And it says, ‘Jesus loves you.’”
Over the last ten years they have attended several different house churches with Aaron serving as an elder and a small group leader in each church they attended. They have experienced the rapid growth of the urban church, seeing one group go from a small house group to over 500 people. In the last few years, they have also seen a large church have to go back to meeting as a network of home groups as the government has put more pressure on the church.
When we talked about the church situation, they mentioned many examples of tightening restrictions for the in-person meetings including breaking up larger churches and persecution of pastors and other leaders. In recent years this tightening has also been seen in the online world as more materials have been removed or restricted on the internet and social media platforms. Asked about what to expect going forward, Aaron shared that he felt that the COVID-19 pandemic of the past three years had distracted the government with more urgent pandemic control issues. He feels with China moving past a focus on controlling covid, there will be increasing pressure on churches and Christians. He was not optimistic about any relaxation in what churches and people have experienced in recent years.
Aaron and Jennie have three children. Their oldest is in senior high school. Although this family size is the government’s current goal for families, this was not the case when their children were born.3 In a decade they have gone from being criticized and penalized to being a role model for families having children.
As the first Christians in their families, Aaron and Jennie had grown up with a materialistic worldview and started following Christ as young adults. Their children have an entirely different experience where they have known about God all their lives. God has been an integrated part of their lives, education, and childhood experiences. Their children have been educated in the normal Chinese public school system. They felt the educational system offered a good education to their children without a lot of compromises, and this had been true until recent years. Initially their children could make known their beliefs among their classmates at school, and there were no issues or pressure from other students or teachers.
Now that their older children are into secondary education and with the increasing ideological content in the educational curriculum, their children are facing more situations of tensions between what they believe as a family and what is being taught at school. The covid restrictions reduced these conflicts somewhat, since for much of the time during the past three years classes have been online, and it was easier to ignore some of the content that created problems when the teaching was virtual.
They now face a situation where their older children have someone in their class responsible for monitoring political correctness. Teachers present content that they do not agree with, especially regarding worldview or politics. For example, children are taught they should have unconditional support for and obedience to the Party. Their oldest child, while mild mannered, has found his own ways to deal with some of the issues. On some tests, where there is a question requiring an answer with which he cannot agree, he will choose to skip the question (and lose those points on the exam). This has forced him to work harder to make sure he gets enough points on other questions. His teachers have allowed this so far as long as it does not negatively affect other students, but it is hard to watch. They have increasing concerns about their children’s experiences at school.
During their lifetimes they have seen some of the best years China has had in the past century as standards of living, education, travel, and personal freedom have reached new heights. They have experienced the hard work of millions of Chinese that has resulted in the increased prosperity and openness seen today. However, in recent years, they have become more pessimistic about the future. They used a Chinese proverb4 of things becoming worse year by year to express their feelings about the future. They feel China is on a path similar to the one taken by Mao Zedong and feel this will not be good for their country. They are concerned about the direction their country is taking as they see China’s reputation falling in many countries around the world. They worry and are pessimistic about their children’s future if China continues this new trend of development.
They experienced the rapid growth of urban house churches when they first became Christians. They have also seen the situation change dramatically in the past decade. The covid restrictions did not help as many churches could not meet in person for more than a year. They knew of one church with over 1000 members where, after COVID-19, they are down to less than 300. The bigger impact has been because of increasing government pressure and restrictions.
Jennie felt that too many churches have relied on a kind of prosperity theology in their rapid growth. There was a lot of teaching on practical issues of family and work. With the pressure increasing on churches and individual Christians, it may be a time where God is purifying the church. When there is external pressure and individual believers suffer, it makes them more aware of God in their lives. There is a realization that accumulating wealth or career success does not ultimately answer the deeper questions about purpose in life. The increased pressure may result in a better witness to those around them.
Previously, they felt it was easy to share their faith. There was a general openness and acceptance, and it was easy to publicly declare yourself to be a Christian. That has changed. In the current environment, they find people are often afraid to listen to a message that may cause them problems. They know of believers who were not able to work in government departments or state-owned enterprises because of their religious beliefs.
I asked about what helps them grow and sustain their relationship with the Lord. Aaron mentioned that their church is more limited in what help they can provide since the church has been split up into many small groups and is under constant pressure from the government. They continue to host a small group in their home with several families. He finds that his own Bible reading and prayer is what helps him the most.
We talked about praying. Jennie said she prays for the government leaders every day. Regardless of how she feels about what is happening, she prays that God’s will and ways for their leaders and country will be done. She knows that the hearts of the leaders are in God’s hands, and this is the basis of her trust and prayers.
As we finished our chat, I asked what they hope that Christians outside of China would pray for in remembering China. Aaron and Jennie mentioned three things. First, they asked for prayer for pastors. Church leaders come under intense pressure, so they ask for strength, wisdom, perseverance, and protection in the midst of increasing pressure and persecution. They gave examples of pastors being on a blacklist for travel and having unannounced intrusions into their homes. Second, they asked prayer for a revival. Jennie mentioned reading about historical events in the US and UK when revivals have broken out on a large scale and impacted the church and country for decades afterwards. She lamented that such a large country like China, with so many people who have never heard about Jesus, has yet to see such a revival. She prays and hopes to see a China revival. Thirdly, Aaron asked for prayer for Christians in the marketplace. They need teaching and role models to live out their faith. He feels this is an area where ethnic Chinese Christians can make a particular impact.
Finishing our tea and chat was a quiet, sober experience. I could see Aaron and Jennie’s trust in God made them confident even as they expressed deep concerns for their children, their church, and their country. They trust God will use what happens in China in the coming years even as they anticipate continued and even increased challenges. My hope is that those of us outside of China will pray for Chinese brothers and sisters, that when they have done everything, they would stand firm.5
- These are not their real names. Pseudonyms are used throughout to protect their privacy. This conversation took place in November 2022 during the height of the zero-COVID lockdowns around China.
- The song title: 耶穌愛你, “Jesus Loves You” by Stream of Praise Music Ministries. You can listen to the song in Chinese with English subtitles at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OSjjpGHiozM.
- During China’s one-child policy (1980–2015) (see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/One-child_policy for more details), families were restricted to having a single child. In 2016 China allowed families to have two children. In 2021 this was further relaxed to allowing three or more children. Unfortunately, China’s birth rate has continued to drop with 2022 being the lowest since 1949. See Andrew Mullen, “China Population: 7 Takeaways from 2022 Figures,” South China Morning Post, January 18, 2023, accessed February 6, 2023, https://www.scmp.com/economy/economic-indicators/article/3207109/china-population-7-takeaways-2022-figures.
- This is one of many Chinese proverbs: “王小二过年，一年不如一年”; its meaning is that each year is getting worse and worse.
- See Ephesians 6:12–17.