Significant changes are taking place in post-COVID-19 house churches in China, including within the Reformed church.
Reformed house churches in China were beginning to be established around 2000. In the 1990s, the percentage of young and educated Christians in house churches significantly increased, leading many traditional house churches to became Reformed churches. Reformed theology’s rigorous knowledge system, theological structure, and rational approach attracted many educated Christians. Especially through the preaching of foreign Reformed Christian workers, more and more young, urban house churches in China became Reformed churches.
Reformed theology emphasizes the supremacy of the word of God, the purity of doctrine, and the importance of the church. Since 2010, many Reformed house churches have attempted to transition from private house gatherings to more public settings. Some Reformed churches no longer wanted to remain hidden but rather become a city on the hill. This transformation, however, failed. The 2018 Revised Regulations on Religious Affairs and the 2020 pandemic have almost completely changed everything about the existence of China’s house churches. Right now, the gathering of any house church of a reasonable size is almost impossible.
Under such circumstances, the gatherings of Reformed churches are taking on a few new characteristics. The following five trends are particularly notable.
Smaller, Less Visible Gatherings
Small group gatherings within families are replacing public, churchwide gatherings. Since Reformed churches place a lot of weight on the public reading of the word, church sacraments, and cooperate worship, this has been a fairly challenging change for them. For many Reformed pastors and believers, the larger, public gatherings for corporate worship practiced by Western churches were regarded as the correct way to worship. For them, small group gatherings within families were incorrect. Some who thought this way even objected to the small-group model of family worship believing that such gatherings are contrary to the teaching of the Scriptures. However, with the change of circumstances, fewer and fewer people are rejecting small group gatherings within families. More and more churches are adapting to the circumstances, replacing large gatherings for public worship with small group family worship.1
However, these changes alter people’s view of worship. In the past, many Christians believed that a proper worship gathering needed a public space specially dedicated to worship, a full-time pastor, and a choir. Nowadays, designated spaces, choirs, and public gatherings can no longer be regarded as basic elements of worship. What matters most are the correct preaching of the word, the carrying out of the sacraments, prayers, and fellowship (cf. Acts 2:42). Some churches also share a meal after the Sunday worship.
Renewed Focus on Doctrine
Reformed house churches used to focus much more on church membership, church constitutions, and church regulations. Now the focus is on the teaching of doctrines, including the study of the Westminster Confession of Faith and the Larger and Shorter Catechisms. This transformation is a change from a focus on the external to a focus on the internal. Many pastors are spending more energy on studying the Confession of Faith. They publish their study notes online and share with each other. This process has laid a solid foundation for faith. More and more churches are focusing on Scripture reading and prayer as well as on living a godly life every day.
Urgent Need for Laborers
The demand for coworkers increased drastically because churches were divided into small groups. Before the pandemic, a lot of Reformed churches began to forbid women from preaching or serving in authoritative positions. However, due to the severe lack of workers right now, Reformed churches have started to allow women to serve in leadership. Not only can women be group leaders, but they can also preach in front of the congregation.
Because of the great need for workers, the focus of church ministries has also turned toward discipleship and staff training. Churches used to host many different activities and ministries which cost a great amount of time, money, and energy. Now churches are more focused on discipleship training and ministry training. In the model of family small groups, the equipping of group leaders and host families is of utmost importance.
Since the pandemic last year, the Chinese house churches have suddenly started to pay more attention to missions. Many online mission activities have sprung up rapidly, including online evangelism training meetings and online prayer meetings with a focus on missions. Reformed churches in China used to have a more internal focus, paying more attention to teaching and building up families. However, nowadays, because of the influence of other churches, Reformed churches have started to focus on missions. Foreign mission organizations used to play a critical part in missions in the past, but as these foreign workers and mission organizations withdrew from China due to the pandemic, the main force in mission activities is now local Chinese missionaries and churches.
Serving Other Branches of the Church in China and the World
Chinese house churches and Western churches have some obvious differences. These include different understandings of the gospel, the church, and different views of social responsibility. After the pandemic, many house churches in China started to reflect on their theology, ecclesiology, missiology, the gospel, and the cultural mandate. Reformed house churches, in turn, have felt the need to establish an indigenous theological framework that is both scripturally sound and localized to help Chinese house churches more broadly to establish churches that follow God’s will, are filled with the power of the Spirit, and suitable for their unique Chinese circumstances. Such a framework could be beneficial not only to Chinese house churches in general but also to the global church as well.
The above is a rough sketch of the changes in Reformed churches after the pandemic. It is an imperfect description owing to the authors limited observations and own limited perspective. It is, however, this author’s report and is offered for your reference.
Translated by ChinaSource.
- Editor’s note: The Reformed tradition has generally opposed the celebration of the sacraments in private services only open to and held for the benefit of a single individual or family. This was a common practice within elite society in the medieval church and was continued after the Reformation in some traditions. The Reformed tradition recognizes the prudence, or even necessity, of small gatherings of believers in family homes and other settings—including woods, caves, barns, basements, and catacombs at times—when the church is unable to convene safely in larger numbers or in more open settings. Reformed Christians in China may be better served by considering the practices of Huguenots in France, Nonconforming Puritans in England, or even the Waldensians prior to the Reformation rather than ordinary practices in contemporary Western nations. That said, even many Reformed churches in the West have adopted variations of “small group family worship” on a temporary basis under COVID restrictions.