Peoples of China

The Urban Church in China

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 PhD 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, while in some ways unique, gives insight into a powerful movement that is beginning to emerge in the cities of China: the development of a new kind of house church among urban professionals. These churches are springing up among professionals, businessmen, government workers, and other kinds of influential people in China.

The Other End of the Social Spectrum

That same week 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 bivocational 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 heart-breaking 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 begun to minister to the needs of young adults who had come to Christ through Bible studies that started as English classes around tables in MacDonald’s restaurants—MacMinistry, 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.

God Is up to Something in the Cities of China!

Church growth in China, until recently, has been largely a rural phenomenon. The large house church networks we have heard so much about are primarily made up of rural Christians. Attempts at urban evangelism by these networks have been largely unsuccessful, due to the cultural divide between urban and rural Chinese.

But God is using other means to draw people to Christ and build His church in the cities of China. Christian educators, businesspeople, and professionals from outside China (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 some do, and their influence is considerable.

A growing number of Christians believe 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.

Areas for Concern and Prayer

There are some worrisome trends that must be addressed if the new urban church planting and church growth movement is to reach its full potential. A large percentage of the students won to Christ on campuses in both China and overseas do not go on to become active church members when they graduate and move from the campus into the marketplace. There appear to be a number of reasons for this, among them the fact that their Christian experience is often centered in a campus ministry rather than in a church. Some do attempt to connect with existing churches, either TSPM or unregistered, but in most cases they go away disappointed, as preaching at these churches often does not touch on large areas of life that are of great concern to these young people.

The young leaders of the new churches that are spontaneously forming among urban professionals often struggle to know how to lead these young flocks. A great need exists 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.

At the other end of the social spectrum, among urban migrants from the countryside, we also see many professing Christians failing to connect with existing churches. This appears to be largely a problem rooted in cultural differences. “You can take the boy out of the country, but you can’t take the country out of the boy,” goes an old saying. Rural house churches could meet a great need by working with Christian migrants to the cities to plant churches among migrants from their area. However, rural Christian leaders often see fellow Christians who migrate to the cities as unfaithful and, as a result, are blinded to the ministry opportunities afforded by the huge migration of rural peoples to the cities.

The lack of any systematic approach to reaching whole cities in China for Christ is also a serious problem. Evil is systemic in cities, and a systematic, strategic approach to discipling the cities of China is urgently needed. The question “What will it take to reach the cities of China?” must be seriously grappled with by Christians who want to be obedient to the Great Commission of our Lord. We must pray for the cities, pleading with God to open the skies over them, changing the spiritual dynamics at work in them. We must find ways to widely plant the seed of the gospel throughout the cities. We must nurture the development of church planting movements in the cities. We must work with God’s people in China’s cities to be salt and light, meeting social needs and challenging injustice.

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 and request the free ChinaSource publication Partnering to Reach the Cities of China?

Image credit: Church in Guangzhou by llee_wu via Flickr.
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Jim Nickel

Jim Nickel was vice president of ChinaSource from 2000 to 2004 and was involved in promoting work among the unreached Chinese peoples for many yearsView Full Bio