The media continually repeats the narrative that Chinese house churches face difficult circumstances, and this is true. However, in an era of great changes in China—the end of the Cultural Revolution, Reform and Opening Up, Socialism with Chinese Characteristics, rise of the market economy, and common prosperity—Chinese house churches have achieved significant development that cannot be overshadowed by temporary or occasional suffering. Historically, God has used the faithful and sacrificial service of his missionaries, pastors, and preachers, and even the oppression of the governing authorities, to watch over his church, to make his church stand firm, to have the church spread the true gospel, and to give believers true faith.
The Current Situation of Chinese House Churches
Today, Chinese house churches vary greatly—ranging from white-collared, well-educated churches in large urban centers; to the well-organized, mission-focused networks in Wenzhou; to small gatherings of rural migrant workers in cities. The development and diversity of China’s house churches raises many questions about the contextualization of the gospel. Healthy contextualization means, on the one hand, recognizing the supremacy of the Bible and not compromising the essence and character of the gospel and, on the other hand, adjusting the methods of sharing the gospel and the models of ministry to reach a given culture. Below, we analyze some key features of the cultural context of Chinese house churches.
The Regulations on the Administration of Religious Affairs and Five-Year Planning Outline for Advancing the Sinification of Christianity (2018-2022) make up the main body of the regulatory laws.1 The main effect of the former on urban house churches is that they are required to register or face a variety of consequences. Since house churches typically choose not to register their venue, they are not legally recognized. The latter is the plan of the China Christian Council (CCC) and National Committee of Three-Self Patriotic Movement of Protestant Churches in China (TSPM) for the contextualization of the Chinese church. Their primary goal is clear:
Sinification is the sustaining direction for religions in China; meaning that religious doctrines are to be guided by the core socialist values, are to promote excellent Chinese traditions, and cultivate ideas such as unity, progress, peace, and tolerance; extracting content from the doctrines that are conducive to social harmony, contemporary progress, health, and civility, while preserving fundamental beliefs, core religious doctrine, and ritual systems. . . . During the process of promoting the Sinification of Christianity, the following guidelines must be followed: uphold the leadership of the Communist Party of China, follow the guidance of the core socialist values, and affirm the system, path, theory, and culture of development in our nation.2
Many churches hope to rely on the constitutional freedom of religion as a defense against such laws and regulations, but practically speaking this does not work. To some extent, the constitution in China is not settled law—judicial and executive agencies do not base their judicial and enforcement choices on the constitution. Of course, when house churches face persecution, using the constitution as protection is a way of increasing pressure on the authorities. How to protect the church and protect believers in a situation where their existence is justified and reasonable but lacks legality is a serious problem faced by house churches. From this perspective, the authorities are actually fairly lenient towards house churches since they have not truly enforced the laws and regulations mentioned. This needs to be taken into account.
The second environmental factor faced by Chinese house churches is the immense economic pressures of life. In the face of such pressures, the order of one’s priorities changes. In Chinese Christian families, often both husband and wife hold fulltime jobs, and conflict sometimes arises over the roles of family members because of a difference in income.
Life’s pressures can steal joy from people. While people attend worship services, they refrain from participating in additional church activities such as prayer meetings, Bible studies, and visitation. At the same time, problems such as high rent and property values, change of workplace, a lack of a societal safety net, and hukou difficulties requiring children entering high school to return to their place of origin cause great mobility among lay Christians.
How to sufficiently convey the truth in a limited time is a pastoral challenge. How to nourish and care for believers, strengthening their faith and building a bridge between the temporary and the eternal is an urgent question. A pursuit of worldly goals will cause a rift in a Christian’s life: during the week he is busy with work and family, and on Sunday he is busy worshipping and repairing his relationship with God. Such a cycle causes spiritual life to wither.
It is extremely important to equip believers with the truth so that instead of struggling on their own, caught up by themselves in the pressures of life, they can more deeply surrender to and rely on God (cf. Matthew 6:26, 34). It is necessary for the church to teach believers according to the Bible how to properly view wealth. Christians must be taught, for example, to live within their means, to not take out high-risk loans, to stay far away from illegal fundraising and multi-level marketing. We must be vigilant against the prosperity gospel’s misleading teachings on this topic.
Christian education is an urgent and practical need. The establishment of church schools has provided an important path for Christians to educate their children, but they also face many difficulties. In the crosshairs of various laws, schools founded by churches lack “legality” and they are repeatedly attacked on all sides.
Still, establishing Christian schools is very meaningful and very important to nourish covenant children and prepare future church leaders. This is especially so in a country without sufficient freedom of religion. Just as the current crackdown on after-school education does not prevent responsible parents from seeking tutoring for their children, the church must not give up on preparing future Christian workers to accomplish the Great Commission Christ has entrusted to us.
Students in church schools may not all become fulltime pastors or preachers. Their courses of study must equip them with a level equal to public education across all subject areas, yet, as explained by a pastor in the book Christian Education, the goals of Christian education are completely unique:
- To further God’s glory;
- To teach truth;
- To bless the child in all aspects; and
- To bless society.
COVID-19 has caused broad-reaching changes in China (and the world) with “isolation” as the key word. Traffic between different regions has been shut down, and anywhere one goes there are tracking apps, temperature checks, COVID tests, and mask mandates. Church services are constantly adjusting between being online and in person. Despite the disadvantages of online worship, the recordings they generate are precious riches; we can listen to them repeatedly and think on them deeply. To mitigate the lack of large gatherings during a time of isolation, we should establish flexible roles of service in various churches, recruit and train more church workers, and encourage theological study courses.
To love is to give. The more we give, the deeper our relationships grow. The spiritual lives of believers who do not serve are in stagnation. Once we give up serving, then we have cast aside many spiritual blessings, and given away our birthright.
Political correctness is the idea that we are to say what is accepted as correct or ought not to speak. Under this premise, anything that disagrees with central policies and the speeches of leaders is regarded as incorrect and dangerous. To protect oneself, one might choose to stay silent or give up expressing one’s views. Christianity often finds itself politically incorrect.
Political correctness brings at least two severe consequences. The first is that one stops thinking about a certain topic, either believing whatever is claimed or ignoring it altogether. The second is division. Family members, friends, and colleagues might fall out with one another because of differences in political views. This makes gatherings and meals a time of staying sensitive to subtleties.
Other challenges include beliefs and practices related to science, technology, entrepreneurism, atheism, and materialism. How should house churches respond to these challenges? There are at least three practices of contextualization among China’s house churches.
The most notable example of this practice is the Early Rain Covenant Church. Early Rain pastor, Wang Yi, outlined four commissions for the urban churches of this era in his article, “On the House Church Tradition and Making Urban Center Churches Public.”3 First, he addresses the priestly commission of being rooted in truth, building up the church, and theological education. Second is the prophetic commission of striving for religious freedom, aiding rural churches to bring an end to political persecution, and finishing the transformation of church governance. Third, he speaks to the apostolic commission of going out from urban centers and evangelizing surrounding towns. Fourth, he focuses on the kingly commission of undertaking to influence mainstream society and culture. In a 2017 article, Yang Yage strongly criticizes this latter practice as a diversion from the gospel by saying, “When the church is drunk on politics, they will be unable to testify to the gospel.”4
In his article, “Tendency towards Anti-intellectualism and Individualism in Chinese House Churches,”5 Shi Hengtan of the Chinese Academy of Social Science wrote that the actual context of Chinese house churches is that they cannot be public and must seek to avoid attention. They exist only on the margins of society and have few opportunities to participate in public life. Therefore, as organizations, they play no role in social works such as education, medicine, charity, elderly care, disability assistance, and welfare. They have no public image and no open societal standing.
While house churches usually adopt a low-key method of operation with good reason, this low-key approach brings its own set of problems. When churches do not open their doors, every new person who comes is brought by someone. No one walks in because they heard the sound of worship music. Furthermore, churches cannot properly serve in their traditional roles of assisting the disabled, aiding orphans and widows, and the like. Taken to the extreme, a closed church begins to treat church security as an idol. Members act carefully, surreptitiously, drawing the suspicion of bystanders. In addition, a closed environment breeds ignorance and anti-intellectualism; only openness can overcome these.
A Third Way
Some house churches have managed to balance biblical truth and culture in their practice of contextualization. There are a few obvious characteristics of this third way:
- An emphasis on family and marriage;
- An emphasis on church planting;
- An emphasis on discipleship and leadership training;
- Preaching a gospel the congregation can understand, while not avoiding the topic of sin;
- Particular emphasis on the Christian education of covenant children.
The church does not exist in a vacuum. It consciously or unconsciously responds to various cultural factors by seeking advantages, avoiding disadvantages, or being proactive. Here are some examples relating to the cultural complexities mentioned above:
- Interacting with governing authorities: from hard resistance to avoidance to pursuing positive interactions.
- Focusing sermons on biblical truth and not extending them to make political or sensitive connections.
- Setting clear church expectations: not participating in business, forbidding loans between members, and avoiding the worldly disputes that cause weakness and stumbling.
- Setting rules for leading gatherings and other forms of service, achieving unity within the church through ritual.
- Getting to know believers’ current situations through Bible study groups and helping believers through timely visitations, fellowship, and sharing, to avoid sheep going astray.
- Making public financial and ministry updates through congregational meetings.
- Gradually establishing presbyterian government and democratic processes.
- Encouraging the continual growth of preachers through church planting so that there is continual renewal and improvement of sermons, pastoring, and governing.
- Maintaining normal communication with landlords, property management, local police, neighborhood committees, village committees, and maintaining good relationships with neighbors.
- Keeping the situation of believers confidential, being careful not to break confidentiality in sermon examples to avoid causing discomfort or dissatisfaction.
How the next generation will turn out is the most important question. The crisis of faith has intensified in the twenty-first century, and this is a global issue. Islam is growing in Europe; technological advances are causing the spread of worry over human value; materialism, diversification, and secularism are penetrating ever more deeply. The Christian faith will be less and less tolerated by the world and will even become a minority religion instead of a majority religion. In such circumstances, it is the people who have a steadfast faith, are well equipped, and were trained up since childhood who will courageously take on the responsibilities of the future.
Translated and adapted from 中国家庭教会对文化和处境化的思考 by ChinaSource and Bruce Baugus. The entire article in Chinese may be downloaded here.
- 推进我国基督教中国化五年工作规划纲要（2018-2022) The Protestant Churches in China, March 27, 2018,https://www.ccctspm.org/cppccinfo/10283 (accessed December 8, 2021). An unofficial English translation, “Five-Year Planning Outline for Advancing the Sinification of Christianity (2018–2022),” is available from China Law Translate推进我国基督教中国化五年工作规划纲要（2018-2022） (chinalawtranslate.com).
- This English translation is adapted from the one provided at https://www.chinalawtranslate.com/en/outline-of-the-five-year-plan-for-promoting-the-sinification-of-christianity（2018-2022).
- The article referred to is available in Chinese in two parts, 论家庭教会传统和城市教会的公开化（上）http://biweeklyarchive.hrichina.org/article/270.html and 论家庭教会传统和城市教会的公开化（下）http://biweeklyarchive.hrichina.org/article/290.html (both accessed December 8, 2021). The “four commissions” mentioned are listed in part two.
- Editor’s note: This article was originally published on WeChat in two parts. The first part can be found at https://mp.weixin.qq.com/s/ePC6PTNkQcM4xeW1bh3gxw and was published on May 18, 2018. The second part is no longer available on WeChat. And unofficial version can be found at 青草, https://grassgreenlee.com/2018/12/20/%E5%BD%93%E6%95%99%E4%BC%9A%E9%86%89%E5%BF%83%E6%94%BF%E6%B2%BB%EF%BC%8C%E7%BB%88%E5%B0%86%E6%97%A0%E5%8A%9B%E8%A7%81%E8%AF%81%E7%A6%8F%E9%9F%B3-%E5%8D%8E%E4%BA%BA%E6%95%99%E4%BC%9A/ (accessed on December 7, 2021).
- 中国家庭教会的反智倾向与个人化倾向, 石衡潭 on Pu Shi Institute for Social Science, September 15, 2009, http://www.pacilution.com/ShowArticle.asp?ArticleID=2040 (accessed on December 7, 2021.