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A Reader Responds to “China’s Registered Churches”

My first visit to a TSPM church was in Shanghai in 1981. It was a very different time for the church. We attended a service and that was followed by a meeting with the senior pastor. Frankly speaking, I was not impressed with the service, the sermon, or our discussions with the pastor after the service. What did impress me, however, was an older woman attending the service who was somewhat anxious about speaking with a foreigner. I asked her why she attended the service. She responded that it was the one place in those days where she could publicly take a stand and identify herself as a believer.

More recently I attended a TSPM church in a university district of a city around the time of schools closing for the summer. The theme for the whole Sunday service that day was “Send Me, Lord.”  The application at the conclusion was that whether you were going home for the summer, going abroad to study, or taking a job in a company, you needed to take the gospel message with you. Then, as the service closed an invitation was offered to come forward to be prayed for as they took the gospel wherever they went. Over 200 people filled the front of the auditorium in response to that invitation.  

Today, believers in China “are the light of the world. A city on a hill that cannot be hidden.” (Matt 5:14.) I recall a Christianity Today article on China back in 2005 that called Christians in China “a new force in global Christianity.” It really is quite remarkable the contrast from 1981 to today.

Over the years I have seen the relationship between the registered (TSPM) and unregistered (“house church”) also evolve. I have witnessed house churches meeting in the TSPM church building when the TSPM congregation was not holding services.

While working with a local church in a southern province of China on church leader training and outreach projects, I asked whether the different groups in that effort were from the registered or unregistered church. They responded to my question that they were not sure saying, “we are the church.” In that community believers did not distinguish between registered or unregistered.

On the other hand, not that long ago I hosted a group of Christian leaders from the US in northern China. I scheduled back-to-back meetings for the group with the pastor of one of the more well-known house churches in the city, followed by a meeting with the pastor of one of the most well-known TSPM churches. In this instance the tone was different. Everyone in the US delegation noticed how this house church pastor was critical of the Three-Self church, but the TSPM pastor was quite gracious toward the house church.

In fact, one of the things I have heard that same Three-Self pastor say is “we need both churches,” registered and unregistered. He has gone on to explain that when the government turns its attention to controlling the registered church, it is time for the house church to flourish. Conversely, when the government turns its attention to controlling the house church, it is time for the registered church to flourish.

I appreciated so much the subtitle of the autumn issue of ChinaSource Quarterly, “One Body, One Spirit, One Hope.” In short, it may be simplistic to say that, but it is true.  

On another occasion I introduced a group of Westerners to a broad spectrum of churches and local ministries in China. One of the observations during the debrief before the group left was, “the government was a part of every discussion we had.” Indeed, that is the case. To say that any entity in China is somehow autonomous from the government is a bit of a straw man. Both the registered and unregistered church must manage government control, they simply manage it in different ways.

One of the mistakes that I have felt the Western church has often made is to divide the “One Body,” and to suggest the need to choose sides between the registered and unregistered church. While it is a balancing act and sometimes complicated to serve both, it is an effort we need to make. We do a disservice to the church and more importantly to our Father when we ignore one set of believers over another. 

The reality is, there are good and not so good house churches, and there are good and not so good TSPM churches. The important question is the substance of the teaching and ministry of the church rather than how each church navigates the realities of the Chinese government.

Kudos to ChinaSource and all those that contributed to the autumn 2020 issue of ChinaSource Quarterly, and especially to Carsten Vala for deepening our understanding in his brief introduction to the history and reasons for some of the views about the Three-Self church.

James Lewis

James Lewis (pseudonym) has nearly four decades of experience serving both registered and unregistered churches in China.View Full Bio

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