With the media’s incessant focus on official persecution of the unregistered church in China, it is often easy to forget the vibrant dimensions of Christian life playing out in China’s registered churches.
The TSPM, along with the churches operating under its auspices, is often relegated to almost footnote status in mainstream treatments of China’s church, dismissed out of hand as “the government church.” Where it is mentioned, it is usually in the context of particular restrictions placed upon TSPM pastors by Chinese authorities. This is certainly the case today, as Xi Jinping’s “Sinification” campaign takes hold and pastors are under increased pressure to parrot the Party line, including during their Sunday sermons.
Such efforts to politicize the church are part of life within the registered church sphere, but they are by no means the whole story. This issue of the Quarterly takes a much-needed, in-depth look at the TSPM, its history, the pastors serving under its auspices, and the creative ways in which ministry is being carried out.
As Carsten Vala points out, a grasp of the TSPM’s history is vital for understanding how Christians in China view the TSPM, and for assessing the validity of those views. Born out of the very real struggles in the early 20th century to define China’s national identity, the TSPM represented one theological answer to the cultural and social questions of the day. It was not simply a convenient political device for placing China’s Christians under the control of the Communist Party (although it did serve this purpose), but was seen by its leaders as the only way forward for the church in the new era. With the outbreak of the Korean conflict, the stated desire to see a Chinese church independent of missionary control took on a decidedly political dimension. It became the TSPM’s function to hasten the departure of missionaries from China and to drive a wedge between Chinese Christians and the church abroad. In the ensuing years, TSPM leaders would participate in the persecution of thousands of Christians who refused to cooperate with the movement.
If we stop there, however, and view the TSPM only through the lens of history, we miss the vitality of the “official” church in today’s China. Several of the contributors to this issue of the Quarterly tell of the innovation taking place in ministry, whether through Sunday school training or the creative use of digital platforms. While it is often assumed that the scope of such endeavors is limited to the relatively small minority of Chinese Christians who attend TSPM churches, in reality, what happens in these churches often does spill over to become a blessing to the whole church in China. Digital media and training courses are a couple areas where this is happening, along with Christian publishing. This year Nanjing Union Theological Seminary responded to the lockdowns taking place in China due to COVID-19 by publishing a new devotional journal, Weekly Bread, along with online messages and tutorials synchronized with the written guide. Thousands of Christians across China shared their devotional experiences and comments online within the first few weeks following the launch of the new publication.
Outside observers often focus on the division between registered and unregistered churches in China. It may be argued, however, that the TSPM is doing more to blur these lines than it is to accentuate them. In the minds of China’s leaders, the TSPM’s political mandate may not have changed, but thousands of TSPM churches on the ground are fulfilling a spiritual mandate that knows no political boundaries.
Brent Fulton is the founder of ChinaSource. Dr. Fulton served as the first president of ChinaSource until 2019. Prior to his service with ChinaSource, 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 …View Full Bio