The forced removal of crosses from literally hundreds of churches in the Wenzhou area during the past year has called attention not only to the local government’s heavy-handed approach toward the church, but also to the phenomenon of the church buildings themselves.
Wenzhou churches during the last couple decades have erected large, sometimes ostentatious, structures, ostensibly because they have the means to do so and, according to some Christian leaders, because these visible signs of prosperity will cause nonbelievers to see the church as a “successful” institution.
Responding to a Gospel Times article on the high-profile demolition of a large church in Wenzhou, one reader wrote, “The reason there are so many believers in Zhejiang is because of these big and beautiful church buildings. When outsiders see the good life of Christians, they are gradually drawn to the faith. If worship took place in secret, do you think there would be so many Christians in Wenzhou?”
With the highest Christian population of any Chinese city, Wenzhou has become famous for its many towering structures, some of which, resembling European-style cathedrals, are quite striking. Its economic vitality and strong Christian heritage, along with a supportive local government (including officials who are Christian), has given rise to the “boss Christian” phenomenon, with Christian businessmen serving concurrently as heads of successful enterprises and leaders of churches.
In the words of one observer, because of the favorable social and political conditions,
Competition to build churches had almost become the order of the day. As soon as a new church was built, it was torn down and rebuilt again! Before the new building was even filled with people, they began to build an even bigger and more luxurious one….Many believers mistakenly think that tithing to support building a church building is the same as building a congregation. Since they believe this pleases God, they happily tithe to build a church building. Congregations often use church building projects as a means of uniting believers.
The Wenzhou situation may be an extreme case, but it does illustrate the current challenge, which the church has yet to take up, of developing a theology of stewardship that brings constructive meaning to abstract economic wealth. Such a theology would challenge both long-held traditional norms regarding the role of money in families and society, as well as the current culture of ostentation. This theology is necessary not only to address the use of wealth by individual Christians and within the church, but also the church’s responsibility to the society at large. Rather than seeking to attract people into the church through larger and fancier buildings, the church needs to consider how to use its resources to bless those outside its doors.
 “Demolish! It’s Just a Building!” Chinese Church Voices http://www.chinasource.org/resource-library/chinese-church-voices/demolish-its-just-a-building, May 5, 2014.
 “The Wenzhou Church Restored from the Ashes,” Chinese Church Voices, http://www.chinasource.org/resource-library/chinese-church-voices/the-wenzhou-church-reborn-from-the-ashes, October 15, 2014.
Image Credit: The Telegraph
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
Are you enjoying a cup of good coffee or fragrant tea while reading the latest ChinaSource post? Consider donating the cost of that “cuppa” to support our content so we can continue to serve you with the latest on Christianity in China.