The year was 2002, and I couldn’t believe my eyes and ears. I was sitting in a very modern condo in one of the largest cities in China, surrounded by perhaps 25 well-dressed, urban professional Chinese. A contemporary Christian praise music CD was playing on an expensive stereo system as the group joined together in worship. The worship time ended with a song of missionary commitment, with words stressing the desire of those gathered to take the message of the gospel across central Asia all the way “Back to Jerusalem.”
As the strains of the final chord of “Back to Jerusalem” faded, an articulate engineer, who had recently returned to the land of her birth to work after getting her Ph.D in the U.S.A., skillfully led the group through an interactive Bible study. At the end of the study, one of the other leaders clearly presented the gospel, and challenged several non-Christians present to make a decision for Christ.
Our host later told us that there were decisions to trust Christ almost every week at this Bible study. The host himself had only been a Christian a few years, having been led to Christ by his son, who had come to know Christ as an international student in America. He introduced us to his aged mother, who had been a Red Guard, and told us his late father had been a Revolutionary. This experience gave me an early insight into a powerful movement in the cities of China: the development of a new kind of house church among urban professionals, business people, government workers and other kinds of influential people in China.
The Other End of the Social Spectrum
That same week back in 2002, I was exposed to a ministry targeting a very different group: urban migrants. The setting was an apartment set up like a classroom. The students were all migrants from other parts of China to this mega-city, and most had been working in factories when they were recruited to join this training program. The training program was designed to equip them to go back into factories as bi-vocational missionaries, with the intent of planting churches among the migrants from the countryside who live and work in those factories.
These students sang indigenous praise songs for us, simple folk-style songs accompanied only by their clapping and dancing. They shared their testimonies, many of them heartbreaking stories of poverty and other hardships; but their joy was evident, and it was clear that God had his hand on these young people.
And Everywhere in Between
On Sunday we visited a TSPM church where a special service had been started to minister to the needs of young adults who had come to Christ through Bible studies that started as English classes around tables in McDonald’s restaurants—McMinistry, some called it. The entire service was led by young adults brought to Christ and discipled through this ministry.
On another occasion, in another mega-city, we found churches multiplying among working people with one of the congregations meeting in a sales training center. Five churches had been started in six months by this group. We have also found churches meeting in restaurants, factory headquarters and retail shops.
God is Up to Something in the Cities of China!
Church growth in China, until the last few years, has been largely a rural phenomenon. The large house church networks we have heard so much about have historically been made up primarily of rural Christians. Early attempts at urban evangelism and church planting by these networks were largely unsuccessful, due to the cultural divide between urban and rural Chinese.
However, that is all beginning to change. Some house church networks are now reporting that they have more churches and members in the cities than in the countryside. In addition, God is using other means to draw people to Christ and build his church in the cities of China. Christian educators, businesspeople and professionals (both Chinese and non-Chinese) are effectively bearing witness among various segments of the urban population in China. An ever-increasing number of returning international students are bringing Christian faith back with them and sharing it with coworkers as they re-enter the marketplace in China.
Urban professionals are studying Christianity as they look for alternatives to Marxism, which is widely viewed as a failed ideological system. Not all who study Christianity become Christians, but many do, and their influence is considerable.
It is clear that God is stirring up his people to bring about growth of the body of Christ in China’s cities through the multiplication of communities of believers.
Some Concerns and Answers to Prayer
When I first began studying this phenomenon, I noted some worrisome trends that I felt must be addressed if the new urban church planting and church growth movement was to reach its full potential.
At that time, a large percentage of students won to Christ on campuses, in both China and among Chinese studying abroad, were not going on to become active church members when they graduated and moved from the campus into the marketplace. That issue is now being more effectively addressed as campus ministries work more closely with existing local churches and partner with church planting ministries to establish new churches.
The young leaders of the new churches that are springing up among urban professionals often struggle to know how to lead these young flocks. A great need continues to exist for leadership training, not in Western or even traditional Chinese ways of doing church, but in basic biblical theology (including ecclesiology) and obedience-oriented discipleship.
Another observation I made when I began studying the urban church in China was that many professing Christians migrating from the rural areas to China’s cities were not connecting with churches in the city. That, too, is beginning to change, as house church networks learn to adapt their approaches to evangelism and church planting to fit the realities of their new urban setting. According to the leaders of these networks, leadership training provided by groups that understand urban ministry has been a key factor in enabling them to make this transition.
The relative lack of systematic, strategic approaches to reaching whole cities in China for Christ continues to be a serious problem. Evil is systemic in cities, and a systematic, strategic and coordinated approach to discipling the cities of China continues to be urgently needed. We must continue to grapple with the question “What will it take to transform the cities of China?” We must continue to pray for the cities, pleading with God to open the skies over them, thus changing the spiritual dynamics at work in them. We must continue to widely plant the seed of the gospel in the cities, by all possible means. We must nurture the development of more church planting movements in the cities. We must challenge and assist God’s people in China’s cities to be salt and light, meeting social needs and challenging injustice. All of these things and more are being done to some extent, but we must persevere and significantly expand these efforts if we are to see real change and lasting results.
Much more could and should be said about this subject, but space does not permit us to go into more detail here. For more information on how churches inside and outside of China can work together to reach the cities of China, write infoATchinasource.org.
Image credit: Shanghai Evening by Matt Hintsa, on Flickr