Opening the Doors a Bit Wider

The Three-Self Patriotic Movement (TSPM). This is the name of the Chinese government oversight agency for Protestant churches. It is also the name that refers to those Protestant churches that have registered with and report to the government. Also, as I discovered in many conversations with “Three-Self” pastors, it is a name that causes them difficulties. While outsiders see this name as pointing to government control of the churches, the pastors overwhelmingly view it as a sort of bridge that facilitates communication between the churches and the government, not for the purpose of control but for mutual benefit.

This name is made up of two parts. “Three-Self” stands for self-governing, self-supporting, and self-propagating. According to some missionaries and many Chinese Christians from the late 19th century to the mid-20th, these three should be the focus of Christian missions. However, in China, that goal was never reached—at least not until the Communist government appropriated it to be used in a nuanced way to mean “no foreigners or foreign influence allowed.” The other part of the name, “Patriotic Movement,” carried the meaning that love of country was above love of God or religion.

From the early 1950s until the late 1970s, many political, theological, and moral mistakes were made by religious leaders affiliated with the Three-Self. One result was that most Christians gathered in illegal “house” or “family” churches. In the eyes of most of the world, the “Three-Self” churches were ignored as irrelevant or condemned as false. They slowly drifted into obscurity. Lately however, the registered church has been waking up. With at least 70,000 churches and at least 30 million believers, they can hardly be ignored. This issue of the ChinaSource Quarterly provides an updated and objective perspective on the registered church today.

Carsten Vala leads off with his article, “The Three-Self Patriotic Movement: Divergent Perspectives and Grass Roots Realities.” Vala says we need to answer two focal questions in order to understand the TSPM. The first: “Why do Christians today hold such starkly different views of the Three-Self Patriotic Movement association and its official churches?” The second: “Are the TSPM and its churches ‘compromised,’ as some house church leaders claim?” Vala believes we can find answers to these questions in the TSPM’s history and contemporary situation. He argues that the religious oversight agencies have become weak. His use of the concept of the public transcript explains a number of otherwise puzzling behaviors on the part of TSPM pastors and leaders. Vala fears the current situation is not sustainable in the era of Xi Jinping. Overall, this is the best short treatment of the TSPM that I have read.

Jerry An’s and Heather Haveman’s excellent article turns our attention to technology, new media, and the church. They point out that the coming of the coronavirus has forced both registered and unregistered churches to adapt to new technologies. The authors identify two typical church reactions to new media: first, alienation, the idea that new technology is bad and should be avoided; or second, instrumentalism, seeing new media as simply a tool, neither good nor bad. An and Haveman suggest a third way—the church as a shaper of new media. Churches should not abandon new media when the church doors open again. In the post-pandemic era registered and unregistered churches will face many of the same challenges. New technology, if embraced, will help to meet the challenges.

Our third article comes from a background of field work in China. Lorraine Li spent nine years teaching in China, the biggest part of that time doing Sunday school training. The Sunday schools were often bastions of traditional teaching and most Sunday school teachers were recent converts and often the only Christians in their families. Li uses many personal anecdotes illustrating how she dealt with these situations by focusing on three questions: What is Sunday school? Why have Sunday school? How do we teach Sunday school?

Erik Bürklin gives us a more close-up and personal picture of the registered church. The author focuses on the registered church and its impact on society. The church’s impact on society flows out of its character more than its actions. Bürklin identifies five characteristics of the church: Christ-centered, mission driven, gospel motivated, worship focused, and prayer committed. Overall, he describes the church as loving Jesus, loving the Word of God, and passionate about being a witness.

In this issue, Peregrine de Vigo reviews Kim-kwong Chan’s book, Understanding World Christianity: China. He concludes that the book “represents a lifetime of service, listening, and observation, bringing out the multi-perspectival essentials of Chinese Christianity, and presenting the complex web of discoveries in a concise and clear format. Chan… provides thoughtful analysis of many key issues in Chinese Christianity today.”

As Brent Fulton points out, we often gloss over the “vibrant dimensions of Christian life” evident in so many registered churches. We hope that the articles in this issue serve to open the doors a bit wider to see what God is doing.

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Wayne Ten Harmsel

Wayne Ten Harmsel is a retired pastor in the Christian Reformed Church who lived for a dozen or so years in Beijing, working with Chinese churches and pastors.View Full Bio