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The Transformation and Renewal of the Structure of Chinese House Churches

China’s rapid economic and social changes compel the churches in China to transform, and the year 1990 was a watershed year of change. There are many factors that contribute to the structural changes of the Chinese house churches, and among them, urbanization that causes demographic changes tops the list. In addition, changes within the cultural dimension such as the one-child policy and the increasing availability of higher education to a larger population of young people are also causing fundamental changes to the leadership structure of the church. Theological education and leadership development are no less important. These broaden the horizon of the church and compel it to make organizational and structural changes.

The Early Picture of the Chinese Church (1970 to 1990)

Chinese society in the two decades between 1970 and 1990 was predominantly peasant. Though the impact of urbanization could be seen in villages and towns, a rural mindset dominated the general populace. The church was no exception. The leadership style of the house church was predominantly patriarchal and autocratic. These leaders, who mostly suffered persecution and imprisonment for their faith, were held in high esteem by their congregations for their spiritual insight and godly lives.

With power and important strategic decisions concentrated in the hands of a few senior spiritual leaders, the church’s organizational structure was inevitably top down and hierarchical. Younger leaders were deprived of influential roles. The persecution and suffering experienced by the leaders molded strong core values that cherished the way of the cross, suffering for the Lord, building house churches and the pursuit of personal holiness. Such values enabled the church to persevere through suffering. It grew despite persecution.

The training model of the church during this period focused on revival preaching. There was no systematic training of younger leaders, and the quality of students was uneven. Due to living under constraint for decades, the church was unable to plan for long-term development. Influenced by dualism, the church viewed the concept of “administration” suspiciously. Inevitably, church governance was a challenge. Furthermore, due to a long period of inward growth, the church failed to engage society and be an influence. Neither did churches relate well to one another.

The Recent Pictures of the Chinese Church (1990 – present)

The opening up (liberalization) of the national economy and rapid urbanization turned many rural areas into cities, and the impact upon the church was great. The church moved beyond its rural base and developed rapidly as an emerging urban church in large cities. Unlike rural churches, the urban churches face the issue of space constraint. As a result, the church’s structure grew flatter and more diverse.

With the emergence of younger leaders, who were more educated and professionally trained, the leadership model of the church became significantly different from those in rural areas. A more systematic, integrated, formal and globalized model was developed for the training of leaders and laity. These trainings, in many circumstances, were no less indigenous and contextualized.

Living amidst fast changing China’s society, young Christians and church leaders often wrestled with a variety of issues: How to live out the core values of the way of the cross in an increasingly open society? How to integrate truth and life? How to let faith come alive day by day? How to encourage the church to engage society? These questions challenged the church to transform core values of the past into something concrete and compelled the church to move from concepts to practice in everyday life.

Transformation and Renewal of the Church in China Today

What can we deduce from the different pictures of the church in the two different eras? I offer eight observations of the types of transformations facing the church today.

From a unified form to multiple forms. In the early agrarian society, there were only farmers and the working class, but as society changed, various social strata emerged. The church also grew from being a uniformed community to a more diverse community. Facing the pastors today are different congregations with changing family and work contexts that put a demand on pastors to broaden the diversity of their messages and to minister as part of a team instead of being a lone preacher.

From a rural society to an urban society. The rural community differs greatly from urban society. Life is simpler, uniform and monotonous in rural areas. The fast-paced city life subject to the constraints of working hours affects one’s family life, social life and church life. Waves of rapid urbanization that sweep through villages cause many peasants to look for jobs in cities. This has an impact on husband-wife relationships, parent-child relationships, children’s education, mental health, cultural adaptation and other issues. How does the church care for the needs of the vulnerable? How can the church be a bridge to reconcile a society polarized by economic imbalance? How does the church assist rural communities to enter urban culture?

From a centralized to a flat organization. As the church gradually moves from centralized governance to a flatter organization, and as older leaders pass the baton to younger leaders, the latter begin to assume pastoral leadership and decision-making responsibility. In a way, this is a great breakthrough and a blessing; however, potential crisis are no less real. A flatter organization can avoid excessive concentration of power and has the benefit of nurturing budding leaders in decision-making. However, the same structure demands more leaders. Many younger leaders are first generation Christians and leaders. How can they be nurtured into mature pastoral leaders in a short period? How does the church meet the challenge to find good role models and mentors to walk alongside them? How can organization and structure be kept flat while maintaining relationships with other local churches?

From ideas to day-by-day practice. China’s economic reform brings great changes to the church. Over the past decade, the church has faced less persecution and fewer constraints. Though the church is not completely above ground, there is room for it to stretch. The older generation of Christians cherishes the way of the cross. In their context, it means suffering for the Lord, imprisonment, holding fast to the truth and being separated for personal piety. However, in today’s context, Christians view the way of the cross differently. To them, it means living out one’s faith in day-to-day life; being salt and light in society. Shouldn’t we be grateful for such change? Absolutely! But how do we ensure the integration of life and day-to-day living, ideas and practice, good spiritual heritage and church development? How do we keep our “being” in our “doing”?

Moving the focus from inward to outward. Long periods of constraint and the influences of dualism have caused the Chinese house churches to become inward looking and poor in social involvement and care. However, in recent years, the emerging urban churches have taken a leap in social care. Since the 2008 May 12 Sichuan earthquake, the church has become actively involved in disaster relief and redevelopment work. There are increasing numbers of Christian professionals who bear good witness to the Lord in the workplace. There are also more and more churches that encourage believers to care for the marginalized. From being hidden, the church seeks to move above ground. How do we help every disciple of Christ to witness for the Lord in the workplace? How can we help brothers and sisters in the church become involved long term and extensively in community work and social care? How do we nurture the concept of holistic care and holistic ministry among our brethren? The answers will determine the impact of the church on society.

From passive obedience to proactive dialogue. The church’s attitude toward the government and officials has always been passive. Even though the church is legal constitutionally and is standing on moral ground, its attitude toward the official policy on religious affairs is passive. The emergence of urban churches with large numbers of intellectuals and professionals has led the church to pursue the matter differently. Although the government is still doubtful and even repressive, the church is choosing to engage the government in proactive dialogue to resolve differences. Today, most of the local governments are convinced that the church keeps the orthodox faith, demonstrates beautiful life and contributes to a harmonious society. Personally, I think that the church must continue to maintain open dialogue to resolve misunderstandings. Even if the government’s perception of the church may not change immediately, the church still needs to stand firm in the truth and live out the faith in practical ways.

From revival meeting to systematic training. In the past, the church’s training model focused on spiritual revival. This model kept believers motivated spiritually but it failed to help them take root in the truth. With the growth of training centers, systematic teaching has been adopted in theological and leadership training, pulpit training and Christian education. Systematic training provides an integrated teaching model and deepens believers’ understanding of God’s words. The challenge is to ensure that spiritual knowledge does not remain just head knowledge or subjective feelings but is alive in day-to-day living, integrating rationality and emotions through the work of the Holy Spirit.

From knowledge delivery to life transformation. Systematic training, though effective, may be skewed toward emphasizing only the delivery of knowledge: training and teaching then become an end in themselves; faith remains head knowledge and does not affect one’s heart. Thank God that today there are increasing numbers of Christians and churches that see the importance of in-depth reflection and emphasize life transformation. The pulpit messages and teaching content offer more life application. How do we integrate knowledge delivery and life transformation? How can we ensure the transformation of a believer’s life? How can we ensure that their maturity is based on the true knowledge of Jesus Christ?

The church in China is experiencing the impact of China’s rapid social changes. They challenge the church’s structure, demography and pastoral care. At the same time, however, we see God’s hand in the midst of these challenges. Internal transformation brings renewal to the model of church governance, mission, teaching, thought, growth and practical life. This is the time that the church experiences the renewing work of the Holy Spirit. Transformation and renewal are costly, but they will bring vitality to the church. I believe God will use the church in China powerfully to proclaim the gospel, to bring reconciliation to society, to glorify God and to bless men.

Image credit: 昆明 Kunming by JiKang Lee, on Flickr

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Wei Sheng

Wei Sheng is a cultural anthropologist by profession; his research interests are in the political, social, cultural and religious development of East Asia.View Full Bio