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Three Changes in Urban Churches

I came to faith in the late 1990s through a student fellowship group on a university campus. Since that time I have been living in a large city and witnessing the urbanization process of house churches in China. By “urbanization of the church” I refer not to a physical church building in a city, but how a church actually takes root in a city and turns into a “a place of harvesting” to influence its community.

Currently, there are two major categories (people or churches) of urban churches that are experiencing such a transformation. The first category is traditional house churches that maintain a pious, conservative tradition and believe that the Bible is inerrant. Some, however, are somewhat closed-off and believe that the purpose of the church is to maintain its conservative faith to the very end. The other category is fellowships founded by missional, parachurch organizations that are primarily student-orientedand full of energy for preaching the gospel. They have an active community life, but they have a weak understanding of what makes the church. Fellowship and evangelism are the two primary reasons for the existence of this type of church.

Both of these kinds of churches/fellowships were greatly used by God to revive the gospel during a particular historical period in China. However, in the past decade I have observed and experienced three changes in urban churches that are healthy and biblical.

1. From ministry-oriented to theology-oriented

The first change is a theological transformation. Fifteen years ago, when we asked why we evangelized, the answers we often heard were, “Because there is a great need,” “Because the Great Commission tells us: Go!” “We must seize the opportunity to save souls.” These are all good answers and very effective. Even today, I still miss those days of great enthusiasm when we knocked on doors in the students’ dorms and preached the gospel to those we did not know. At the end of each day, we reported to the leader that day’s “gains,” but we never asked what on earth our great mission was. What are the incentives for evangelizing? Is it just to go? Is it to get a reward from God if we bring people to him? Is it to have someone read the Four Spiritual Laws and challenge them to say the sinner’s prayer?

To a certain extent, many people started to find out that there is pride in effectively bringing people to the Lord. We discovered this the first time we heard a Bible scholar tell us that the actual command in the Great Commission (Mathew 28:18-20) is to “make disciples” instead of “going” and even “baptizing.” We read the Westminster Shorter Catechism and found it to say that the primary purpose of life is to “glorify God and enjoy him forever” instead of “bringing one more to the Lord.” The emergence, alleviation, and transformation of such a tension were due to a growing theological seriousness on the part of individuals, fellowships, and churches.

We started to reflect on the biblical basis of our own ministry work. We desired to return to a more biblical understanding of our ministry, our motivation, and our methods.

The most obvious change is this: the spread of the gospel is no longer the ultimate goal; rather, glorifying God is. Second, ministry is no longer about the pursuit of increasing numbers of converts; rather, it is paying more attention to the gospel taking root in a person’s life. Finally, many churches are gradually replacing parachurch organizations as the frontline in evangelism.

2. From parachurch-led to church-led

For a long time, an unwritten division of labor existed between student evangelism organizations and churches’ evangelistic ministries. Evangelism organizations were responsible for bringing people to the Lord and churches were responsible for shepherding them. Certainly this was a step up from when organizations and churches did not work together at all. The gospel has been preached widely, and students have become involved in the ministry work of organizations. At the same time, churches can put more energy into training church workers and doing intensive pastorl work. However, there are obvious problems that accompany this arrangement. Churches gradually became a “recieving” type of church instead of churches that evangelize. In addition, organizations that stress love for each other, daily care, and individual resolve make it difficult for the fruit of their labors to become part of a church for a long time. Many people who came to the Lord through parachurch organizations and who attended college student fellowships or student churches found their identity in a student fellowship instead of in a church. 

By the sovereignty of God, something happened that was not purposely planned by any individual, church, or denomination. Parachurch workers have been influenced in recent years by Reformed theology. For example, the ministry 9Marks[1] has given workers a deeper understanding of the church. After churches and organizations cooperated more closely, parachurch workers started to become involved in the ministry of the local church. In the past five years, parachurch workers have gradually left their organizations and become church ministers. With this shift, organizations have been constantly shrinking and phasing out work as people leave or find other ministry areas.

In many big cities student ministries that were once led by evangelistic, parachurch organizations have gradually shifted to being church-led or denomination-led. Two positive changes have resulted from this: First, students from early on establish a stronger concept of the church. The problem of “how to transfer from a student fellowship to a local church,” which troubled churches and organizations for a long time, now, no longer exists. Second, church-led evangelism allows for more people to be involved and does away with the unhealthy cooperation model of “funded by the church and done by an organization.”

3.  From individual evangelism to Sunday preaching

Individual evangelism with the goal of leading someone to pray the sinner’s prayer is a very common evangelism model in both parachurch organizations and the church. Some churches strictly follow this kind of process: individual evangelism, become part of a small group after praying the sinner’s prayer, attend a baptism class, attend Sunday worship after being baptized. Most churches are not that strict. However, over a relatively long period of time, urban house churches developed a mindset that evangelism outside the church is something conducted by individuals, while Sunday preaching has defaulted to focusing on professing Christians. This ministry model easily lends itself to new believers making an artificial separation between “righteousness” and “sanctification,” and viewing “conversion” as an individual action instead of a group action.

At the same time, there are two invisible thresholds for attending Sunday worship in some cities: The first is that you must be a Christian. The second is that you must be a Christian with a certain level of Bible knowledge who can understand “spiritual jargon.” If someone who had never heard of the Christian faith entered a church on Sunday, that person probably would not understand thirty percent of what is going on.

If we say that early “conversions” are largely due to Christians’ “persuasion,” then in the short-term most “conversions” are the result of non-Christians participating in the faith-lives of Christians. The primary experience of this is participating in Christian worship on Sunday. There is an important theological consideration here: Acts 2:47 describes a time when the Christian community’s worship life was open to the public. “And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.” Also, in the past five to ten years the preaching of Chinese house churches has been influenced by Reformed theology. Many churches are gradually giving up their formerly moralistic preaching styles and fundamentalist interpretation methods in favor of biblical theology and Christ-centered preaching. It is not surprising that the minds of non-believers are captured when Christ is exalted by the Word of God. Finally, because of the influence of Tim Keller and the neo-Calvinists of The Gospel Coalition, there is a new wave of pastors who are attempting to enter into culture, to understand culture, and transform it through the gospel. There is no “spiritual jargon” in their preaching. They interpret God’s Word and make the gospel clear to people by using language normal people understand. This in itself is the reappearance of the incarnation.

These three changes are growing stronger, and are enough to make people look forward to the next fifty years of the urban house church in China.

Translation by ChinaSource


  1. ^ 9Marks exists to equip church leaders with a biblical vision and practical resources for displaying God’s glory to the nations through healthy churches. They hold international conferences for church leaders and provide materials in several languages including Chinese. See the 9Marks website at
 Image credit: 一二三荘 by tsukacyi via Flickr (cropped).
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James He

James He is currently a seminarian studying in Gordon Cornwell Seminary.View Full Bio