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A House Church Pastor Responds to “China’s Registered Church”

With deep appreciation I have read through the articles in the autumn 2020 issue of the ChinaSource Quarterly. I am glad there are people telling the other side of the story of the TSPM church in China; it’s not only fair to do so but also beneficial for the kingdom of God.

The most frequently asked question by Western short-term cross-cultural teams and other Christian visitors over the past twenty-some years has been, “what is the church situation in China?” As a house church pastor, I have found my answers have changed gradually. But one answer I have not changed is: it depends on what type of story you want to hear. China is so big that the Christian life as well as the local implementation of religious policy can be very different across the country. It is as Lorriane Li wrote, “Just like everything else in China, it is hard to generalize and give a universal picture of what Sunday Schools look like.”  Does this situation apply to my perception of the TSPM church? The following stories may provide an answer.

It was totally unexpected when I was introduced by a trusted foreign friend to a TSPM pastor in 2002 because of his need for counseling about the breakdown of his family. I trembled as I dragged my feet to meet him in a public park. After the meeting I threw away my cellphone’s sim-card so that he would not be able to find me again. The reason was clear: a TSPM pastor could easily report me to the government and get me in trouble to the extent that I might be imprisoned for being a house church pastor. As I spent almost two hours listening and observing the impact of his stressful family experiences, I kept thinking how I could escape from him.

My response at that time was based on the perspective of Western cross-cultural workers and traditional Chinese Christians. I became a Christian in the 1990s. All my knowledge about the TSPM church was based on the traditional house churches and the Western point of view. As Christian Life Quarterly Digest (2015) pointed out, many overseas Christians have been aware of the evil nature of the TSPM and their historical efforts to resist the truth and persecute believers.  

However my story goes on as my perspective toward TSPM churches began to change. In the following years, I have been in many dramatic situations that turned my perception upside down.

Indeed, I wondered how much do TSPM pastors know about their own church tradition, about house churches, and the perceptions that others have of their ministries.

One of the pastors who started his ministry in a rural area told me his story. He said, “I never heard of the differences between the Three-Self church and the house church during my first ten years of serving in my hometown. In rural areas, the church was there for believers to meet and learn about God. We were very simple; no one talked about politics. I was shocked, and so was the congregation, when we were told that we were a Three-Self church under the administration of the government. I never knew we had anything to do with the government.”

One time at a break during a conference, a group of TSPM pastors were talking about the separation between the registered church and house. A person in the group proposed praying for the unity of the church of Jesus. It was a moving moment as fourteen pastors knelt on the hard floor and started praying in tears, asking God to bring his children together as one family.

Carsten Vala mentioned in his essay that TSPM pastors provided training for house church believers or worked with house churches to send out cross-cultural workers. This appears to be happening more and more frequently as recent research on member care for Chinese cross-cultural workers has shown.

Also several pastors that I know have shared their stories of protecting house church meetings when they were confronted by the local police by telling them that those church meetings were part of the TSPM church). After that they started working together more and more.

One time I heard an elder of a Three-Self church say openly in a public gathering of a dozen TSPM ministers that house church Christians are not saved. The others at the gathering were astonished at what he said and later broke out in hearty laughter.  

Are those negative stories about the TSPM church mentioned earlier wrong? Not really, not in a certain sense. When we talk about the stress they are under, a few things stand out as of highest concern for the pastors. 

First is the phenomenon of second generation pastors (牧二代). Some successful pastors have gained a lot of power especially in the rural areas. They view the church as their own property, and they pass the power on to their children who do not have a vision to serve the church or God’s people but, as they openly state, only to serve for their own benefit.

Second, the busyness of pastors drives them to burnout and they do not have enough energy to fulfill their calling from God. They become more like working machines or event organizers. One pastor confessed, “we are not pastoring people, but church organizations (不在牧人,而在牧会).”

Many TSPM pastors recognize their need for training. The new generation of Christians in the church is not satisfied with basic preaching. Their educational level has been increasing in recent years since the rate of college entrance has been over 80% for more than a decade; in 2019, the rate was 90%. These church members have started to raise questions that require a more educated minister. This is a potential crisis especially for urban churches. Many house church leaders have access to training in academically rigorous seminaries and theological schools in Western countries. But because of stereotypes that many in the West have about the TSPM church there have been roadblocks preventing this group of ministers from accessing valuable Christian education globally.

I hope this issue of the ChinaSource Quarterly will help correct the stereotypes and perhaps lead to removing some of the roadblocks to serving together as one body both in China and globally.

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Image credit: A friend of ChinaSource.

Steve Lim

Steve Lim (pseudonym), MDiv, is a house church pastor who has served for 26 years in mainland China.View Full Bio

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