The Shop Church: The Second Mile

I have been experimenting with the strategy of shop-church multiplication since 2002. It is a tentmaking model, tailor-made for rural house church missionaries doing urban church planting, especially among migrants working in factory areas. In China’s Pearl River Delta alone, there are over ten million migrants working. In one factory in Shenzhen, there are over 200,000 migrant workers. How can the church in China develop an effective strategy to reach such massive numbers of migrant workers in the factories? While placing Christians in factories is part of the answer, in addition, a critical issue is the positioning, both physically and socially, of a church planter in the industrial neighborhood in order to evangelize and nurture a church there. How can this best be done?

In response to this challenge, I have developed the concept of shop-church planting. It was described in my article, “An Urban Mandate for the Rural House Church,” published in China Ministry Report (April-June, 2003) and briefly described in my article “Tentmaking and Indigenous Urban Mission in China” in the spring 2004 issue of this journal. What has happened since then? In this essay, I will describe what I have learned so far and how house church missionaries may be helped to walk the second mile in this project.

The problems with rural missionaries working in an urban context are manifold. First, they are despised by urban people because of their rural origin, being uneducated and unskilled. Second, religious proselytizers look suspicious to the materialistic urbanites. Are they religious sects or heretical groups like Falungong or Eastern Lightning? In addition, rural preachers tend to be too “preachy” for the urban audience and lack the sophistication of arguing rationally and apologetically. Third, it is hard for house church missionaries to survive by donations either from the rural sending churches or from the emergent churches which they try to plant near the factories. The sending churches, being rural based, have limited cash offerings to support expensive urban missions, and the emergent churches, being too small (usually under thirty people) with mainly seekers or new believers, are not ready to support an evangelist in a substantial way.

My logic to start shop-church plants was quite simple. If urban evangelists need money to survive and cannot sustain themselves through donations, one thing they can do is business, which has the explicit purpose of making money. If they are in need of a respectable social status, being a successful businessmen is admired by the urbanites. This idea of mine was inspired by the Holy Spirit as one day, being puzzled by the problems mentioned above, I did prayer walking with a house church missionary in a factory area. The Spirit opened my eyes to see the solution on both sides of the streetshops! If I could help the urban evangelists to acquire a shop, they could get a respectable professional status which adds credibility to their message, and they could then support themselves without receiving donations from either the sending church or the emerging church. How could I get them started? By providing a micro-loan. So, even though I had never done business in my life, I started to encourage urban evangelists to experiment with this idea.

How has it gone over the past five years? Numerically, there was one shop in 2002, eight shops in 2003, nine in 2004 and seven in 2005. The good news is that small shops are viable, and the bad news is that larger shops are not yet successful. Shops are “small” or “large” in a spatial or monetary sense. A shop is small if the loan is lower than RMB$30,000 (US$3,750) and the rear residential area can hold only a small group. It is a large shop if it has a rear residential area large enough to hold thirty people for a meeting, and because of that, the loan is much larger; it may range from RMB$80,000 to $160,000 (US$10,000 to $20,000). Small shops function only as a midway station in the church planting process; only large shops can hold a congregation and become the terminal station in the church planting process.

Most evangelists can pay back the loan for the small shops in a year or two. This is stage one shop planting, and it is proven to be viable and successful. However, when evangelists step into the second mile, they stumble and have not reached their destination yet. There were three couples who tried larger shops. All needed to be subsidized. Two were subsequently closed down because of a growing deficit. One is still struggling to do sustainable business but has not been able to repay the loan yet.

So, I discovered that there are two stages in shop-church planting: the small shop as an evangelistic station and the larger shop as a shop-church. The success of small shops is encouraging. The evangelists have paid back the loans and become shop-owners. What are the avenues they have attempted? They have tried a grocery store, a telephone shop, a book rental facility and a restaurant. There are two things in these shops which facilitate the spreading of the gospel: the telephone and the television. Workers need to make and receive calls at a shop near their factory. So, they will greet the shop owner if they need to receive a special call from home. The evangelists can show gospel movies on the TV which is turned on all day long to attract customers.

Although the evangelists cannot plant a church in the shop because it is too small, the shop has solved several critical problems for the church planters: social status as shop-owners, self-support through business and gospel contacts through the customers. They can still plant a church, though, not in the shops but in their homes or the homes of new believers. Indeed, the ideas of shop-church and tentmaking are both too radical for China’s evangelists to swallow all at once. They seem to be more comfortable trying business tentmaking first with house churches established around their shops before trying the shop-church idea.

The margin of profit for small shops in industrial areas is dwindling. There are just too many shops along the streets to make businesses highly competitive. Superstores, like Wal-Mart, that can deliver a heavy blow to small businesses, are also appearing in these neighborhoods. Shop owners need to be sensitive to such changes and be creative in finding new products or services to meet the needs of the customers. However, because of their rural upbringing, these urban evangelists are not competitive and creative enough to improve their businesses in light of the declining margin of profit. Some of them earn just enough from their shops for survival. The factory workers, with a steady salary, may be better off. However, for evangelists, working in a factory would not be a good choice because long hours in the factory would not allow them the freedom of doing ministry.

The larger shop-churches did not perform well in terms of business, but ministry wise they have been very successful. For example, in a restaurant, there are several VIP rooms for small groups to meet and an upper story where over thirty people can gather for a training seminar or Bible study. It is safer to run training seminars in the workplace than in a secluded home. In fact, seminars were held in this restaurant twice a month and attracted all the house church Christians in the neighborhood to gather. We all agree that the restaurant-church has great potential to multiply if only it is also viable as a business.

The reason that larger shop-churches are not yet successful (I do not consider them failures yet!) is rather obvious: rural individuals are not professionally qualified to run competitive urban businesses. They need to receive extended and substantial professional training before they can succeed in being bivocational shop-church planters. Before then, they should stay at the low risk level of stage one shop planting. Should I then give up the idea of the larger shop-church and be content with helping urban evangelists to multiply home meetings around small shops?

As I meditated on Matthew 5:41 where Jesus said, “If someone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles,” I felt compelled to see shop-church planting developed into a mission movement because the need is great and the potential for multiplication is tremendous. Now, I am asking how the shop-church planting movement can reach its destination in its second stage.

In this second stage experimentation, I am searching out successful small businesses in China run by committed urban Christians. This is a top-down approach (working with knowledgeable professional businessmen) in contrast to my previous bottom-up approach (working with unskilled labor). Once connected, we would work out a partnering relationship that would allow a ministry team to enter the business workplace and develop a mission within the business, and in turn, the Christian entrepreneur would use his professional expertise to help church planters do business planting. Rural people would need to go through extended training in the business before they would be qualified to do business planting.

An example of this is the musical teams that are in great demand to offer weekend concerts for migrant factory workers. Such concerts prepare hearts for the gospel. I have just located a Christian who operates a profit-making music center and is willing to partner in such an effort. A ministry team is invited to the center to gradually spread the gospel among the instructors who serve over five hundred children in the community. In turn, the center will gather, train and send musical teams out to factories to offer concerts. If the business is reproducible, we hope to multiply similar music centers in other cities in China.

Nurturing churches and discipleship training in the workplace effectively integrate faith with work and hold promise for rapid spiritual multiplication in urban settings. The biblical theology and mission strategy for this idea are described in my essay “Vocational Mission and Spiritual Multiplication in the Workplace” published in China 20/20 (March, 2006).

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Ronald Yu

Ronald Yu teaches theology and missions at the Chinese Mission Seminary in Hong Kong and facilitates workplace service platforms in China.View Full Bio