Many remote observers are sure they know one thing about the work of the ministry in China today: it is fast becoming impossible. That, at least, is the impression cast by reports in many Western media outlets. Some of those outlets, however, have been repeating this theme for decades—decades through which China’s house churches have found ever more room in society to operate. However, now even the most responsible and nuanced sources, like the information and analysis provided on ChinaSource’s various platforms, clearly indicate that the tide has turned and the beaches once opening up for ministry are now awash with a new tide of tightening regulations and stricter enforcement regimes.
As ChinaSource Quarterly readers know, the new tide of restrictions is reshaping life and ministry for millions of Christians who worship and labor in China’s multitude of unregistered congregations. Over the last five years or so, the situation for China’s house churches has become increasingly difficult and prospects for the future are not encouraging. What is more, recent events suggest to many that the situation for China’s reforming house churches—the focus of the articles that follow—may be particularly acute.
On December 9, 2018, in a move that attracted international media and government attention, Chinese authorities arrested one of China’s most prominent Reformed voices, Wang Yi, a pastor and former dissident lawyer, along with more than a hundred other ministry leaders associated with Early Rain Covenant Church in Chengdu. Many others associated with this church—members, students, and ministry workers—scattered for protection. While most of those arrested were subsequently released, Wang Yi was sentenced to nine years of imprisonment. The work in Chengdu has not recovered.
Given all of this, and the profound complications generated by COVID-response measures on top of it all, this winter’s issue of ChinaSource Quarterly may surprise some readers; it offers clear evidence that the work of the ministry among the diversity of China’s reforming churches not only continues but in some respects is thriving in ways that continue to defy Western expectations. Defying Western expectations is, of course, nothing new for China’s house churches. As Rodney Stark notes, smug secular scholars dismissed the Chinese converts Western missionaries left behind in 1949 “as nothing but ‘rice Christians’—cynical souls who had frequented the missions for the benefits they provided.” Also, “It was widely agreed among social scientists that China soon would be a model of the fully secularized, post-religious society.”1
Then, in 1966, China launched into a decade-long crusade to enforce Maoist orthodoxy with fanatical zeal that seemed like it might wipe out any remaining vestiges of Christianity. “In countless places,” Daniel Bays observes, “Christians were put through such abuse that many did not survive the ordeal.”2 Yet, he continues, it appears “that Protestants increased their numbers by a factor of five or six” during the dark decade of the Cultural Revolution. This “very rapid growth rate” translates into roughly “five to six million Protestants” by 1978 when many were actually predicting the end of religion in China.3
During the 1980s the church grew rapidly in rural places. Then in the 1990s, defying Western expectations once again, the gospel leaped into the more highly educated and increasingly wealthy urban centers. Suffocating restrictions did not arrest the growth of the church in the Cultural Revolution and increasing levels of education and standards of living did not do so in more recent decades. Estimates of how many Christians are in China today vary widely, but 80 million seems quite reasonable, the majority worshiping in the nation’s innumerable unregistered Protestant churches.
China’s house churches have a long history of defying Western expectations, and every indication is that this history—which is about far more than numerical growth—has not yet run its course. China’s reforming churches are not drowning in the new tide but rising on it. They are embracing the opportunities they see in the new challenges they face and finding creative ways to meet the needs of the church and reach out to the world around them. They are also diving deeper into the theological sources available to them, thinking and debating anew the pressing questions they face even as they are laying a foundation for the future. In it all, they are thanking God for how he is using these developments to gather in and build up his people.
I trust you will find the following articles both insightful and encouraging. If nothing else, they show that ministry in China is anything but impossible, whatever the age may bring—surely a lesson the global church needs to hear today.
- Rodney Stark, The Triumph of Christianity: How the Jesus Movement Became the World’s Largest Religion, (New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 2011), 405. See also Stark, Byron Johnson, and Carson Mencken, “Counting China’s Christians,” First Things (May 2011).
- Daniel Bays, A New History of Christianity in China (West Sussex, UK: Wiley-Blackwell, 2012), 185.
- Bays, A New History, 185–86.
Bruce P. Baugus is associate professor of philosophy and theology at Reformed Theological Seminary in Jackson, Mississippi, editor of China’s Reforming Churches: Mission, Polity, and Ministry in the Next Christendom (Reformation Heritage Books, 2014) and author of The Roots of Reformed Moral Theology: The Historical Background of an Ecclesial Tradition …View Full Bio