As this issue goes to "press," a storm is brewing in Beijing.
Shouwang Church, an unregistered congregation of some 1,000 people with a history dating back to the 1990s, has decided to meet outdoors after repeatedly being denied access to a meeting space which they purchased last year. When the landlord of their most recent temporary meeting place (They've moved some 20 times.) was pressured into discontinuing their lease, the leaders of Shouwang declared that they had no choice but to take their worship to the streets until such time as the authorities allow them to occupy the premises that rightfully belong to them.
Critics within the Chinese church as well as outside would challenge Shouwang's decision by pointing out that literally thousands of other unregistered fellowships meet unhindered each week in homes or other locations. The traditional small group structure of these fellowships has historically allowed the Chinese church to grow in spite regulations forbidding unregistered meetings. Why, then, does Shouwang insist on meeting as one large group?
At the center of this debate is the more foundational issue of how the local church should be constituted. Certainly different interpretations of Scripture, along with various streams of church tradition, have conspired over the centuries to produce a divergence of answers to this question. In the West, terms such as "missional" or "emerging" are apt to trigger vision and inspiration in some quarters while in others they become fodder for criticism and theological debate.
In China meanwhile, indigenous traditions and vestiges of the church's denominational past mix with ecclesiological and managerial thinking from abroad to fuel current discussions of how best to structure the church, particularly in the urban setting where a degree of relative freedom and stability create the opportunity to think more long-term about such issues.
Grappling with this question is one of the key challenges facing the growing urban church in this decade. In this issue of ChinaSource we examine both biblical precedent as well as some of the unique realities of the Chinese church today in an effort to at least begin to pose the right questions. While those from outside who care about the Chinese church may offer perspective, historical as well as theological, there are no cookie-cutter solutions to the very real organizational dilemmas facing the church today. Patiently, prayerfully, humbly and hopefully, the leaders of China's urban church will need to work through what it means to be a people called out by God in the city, and what are the implications for the way in which their fellowships should be organized and governed.
Brent Fulton is the founder of ChinaSource. Prior to assuming his current position, he served from 1995 to 2000 as the managing director of the Institute for Chinese Studies at Wheaton College. From 1987 to 1995 he served as founding US director of China Ministries International, and from 1985 to... View Full Bio