The church in China is a miracle. When you think of China you think of communism, of red flags, of big military parades in Beijing (such as last October for the 70th anniversary of the PRC) and we, as Christians, mostly think of it as a “closed” country to the gospel. But to God, no country is really ever closed, and the opportunities for the gospel to advance are endless. The church in China continues to grow, and believers are making a significant contribution to their society.
Most recently, with added restrictions implemented from the government, we have again heard reports of the “doors slowly closing.” Crosses are being taken down from church buildings, churches have been forced to close down in some areas and, in some cases, have even been demolished and pastors imprisoned. Yet in the midst of all this, the church in China continues to flourish and new converts are joining the family of God all across China.
When we talk about the church in China, we need to identify two kinds. While the church is unified and worships Jesus as the head of the church, there are two different churches in China.
First, there is what is known as the Three-Self church—I prefer to call it the registered church—which has chosen to register its fellowships with the government to give it legal standing. As a result, these churches and their members are free to live out their Christian faith—believers may attend church services on Sunday mornings and Bible studies during the week, young people may attend seminaries and Bible schools to get equipped for ministry, and old people find care in senior living venues run by Christians. The government, for the most part, allows them to function openly and officially since they are recognized as legal religious institutions by the government.
Second, there is what many call the house church movement, also identified by some as the “underground church.” These are the churches that have chosen not to register with the government to maintain a greater independence. As a result, members who attend these churches tend to have a harder time freely living out their faith, and their pastors are regularly questioned due to the fact that the government does not consider them legal religious institutions.
So, there is the registered church and the unregistered church. But most important—they are Jesus’ church; the church in China belongs to him. What is most exciting is that Christians in China attend and are involved in both types of churches.
This article will highlight the ministry of the Three-Self church and identify how this church is having a positive influence in Chinese society.
The “three-self” principle was first coined in the late-19th century by various mission leaders with a strategy to establish indigenous churches. They believed that in order for a local indigenous church to truly flourish in a culture it has to have three principles. First is the principle of self-support, which means that a church needs to have a local congregation that financially supports it and is independent of foreign money. Second is the principle of self-governance, which means that a church thrives best when its leadership is governed by indigenous leaders and independent from any foreign involvement (i.e. missionaries). Third, the principle of self-propagation means the church depends on indigenous missionary work, declaring the gospel in its own cultural context to its own people.
How does the church have a positive impact on society in China?
They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. All the believers were together and had everything in common. . . . They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved (Acts 2:42-47).
This passage reminds me of the Chinese church and answers the above question. What happened in the New Testament church is what is happening in Chinese churches today. Here are some of the key characteristics that are making an eternal impact:
Wherever we go in China, we notice the Chinese characters on the church buildings read, “Christian Church.” Pastors tell us with regularity, “Jesus Christ is the head of our church.” At the same time, they have respect for authority; Chinese believers respect the governing authorities that God has placed over them. During all my travels in China over the last twenty years, I have always been amazed at how humble the Christians are in China. They keep focusing on one thing—Jesus Christ. They not only believe in but live out verses found in Romans 13 and 1 Peter 2. They completely submit to the authorities and at the same time honor Jesus as the head of the church. By doing this, they are a powerful testimony and are given amazing opportunities to share the gospel with unbelievers.
The main mission of the church in China is to preach the gospel and to see people come to faith in Jesus Christ. “I preach inside, now you go out and preach outside,” is what one pastor in Beijing encourages his congregation to do. Hundreds of new converts are being baptized yearly in his church and in thousands of churches across China.
Several years back I had the privilege of talking to a young Christian lady who told me that she uses her opportunity of traveling on the train to be a witness for Jesus. She said,“When I’m on the train going back home during Spring Festival (aka. Chinese New Year), I sit for twelve plus hours in my compartment with other travelers. Since they are stuck in the cabin with me, I use that opportunity to share the good news of Jesus with them.” Christians in China are encouraged to go and preach the gospel wherever they are to as many people as possible.”
Motivated to witness
A direct result of the church in China being “mission driven” is the fact that it motivates believers to be practical with their faith. Most believers are eager to share the good news with their neighbors and those they come in contact with. They are vigilant and passionate about their relationship with Jesus and share with their friends and neighbors the relationship they have with Jesus Christ. This is the miraculous story of the Chinese church, and this is the reason why the church is growing throughout that great country.
I remember the Beijing Olympics in 2008. In preparation for that event there was a discussion among the church leadership of the registered church regarding how they could participant in this global event. They came up with the idea of organizing welcome packs including an English translation of the New Testament that had been printed at the Amity Printing Company with the Olympic logo on it. The purpose was to be a blessing to the nations—the athletes, their families, media personnel, and visitors—who were descending on Beijing. I thought to myself, “How strategic; Western Christian organizations were trying to use the Olympics to bring the gospel to China while the Chinese Christian leaders and churches were using the Olympics to reach the whole world.”
The Haidian Church, in the northern part of Beijing, built a brand-new church building in the university district with the specific purpose of reaching the younger generation in Beijing for Jesus Christ. On top of the building is a huge sign in English that reads, “CHRISTIAN CHURCH.” There is no mistaking nor hiding it—this church is a Christian church declaring Jesus Christ as the son of God. One of the ways the pastors and leaders of Haidian Church are strategic in reaching young people is by having an English service. They understand how popular and desirable it is among the younger generation to learn and speak English. Every week hundreds of young people attend church services allowing them to hear the life-changing message of Jesus.
Chinese Christians love their Bibles; they always bring them to church and are eager to learn from them. Incidentally, the largest Bible printing press in world is found in Nanjing, China. The Amity Printing Company has printed over 200 million Bibles since 1987 when the factory was established. Believers in China also love to sing and worship through music. Most churches have choirs and/or praise teams, and congregations sing with enthusiasm and with all their hearts.
Most churches have cushioned areas near the pulpit where people can come to pray. Chinese Christians take prayer very seriously holding regular prayer meetings in their homes and other venues. They believe in the power of prayer.
We have had the privilege of working with the registered church for the last thirty years. They are men and women who love Jesus, love the Word of God, and are passionate about being a witness. Yes, the church in China is controlled by the government, but they continue to faithfully serve their Savior because they know that, ultimately, Jesus controls everything.
The Chinese church is an example of how Jesus is really the one who is establishing the church in the largest country of the world. As Jesus said to Peter two thousand years ago: “On this rock I will build my church” (Matt. 16:18). This is Jesus’ promise! He said that he is the one who will build it. He said that it will be his church. This is not only what we see becoming reality in China, but we see the same phenomenon around the world. No matter what government systems are in place, Jesus’ church will prevail. Not only will it prevail but, better yet, it will continue to grow. Hallelujah!
Image credit: Mike Falkenstine, One Catalyst.
Erik Bürklin, MDiv, is a third-generation missionary whose grandparents served with China Inland Mission (now OMF) taking the gospel to China before it closed to foreign missionaries in 1950. In 1989, his father, Dr. Werner Bürklin, founded China Partner , and in 1993, Erik joined his father and then …View Full Bio