There is a general understanding that Christians in China from unregistered churches are unable to meet together, and that believers cannot evangelize unless inside an official church venue.
So begins a recent article, paradoxically titled “Night is Not Here,” which details the worsening situation for Christians in China.
The authorities are actively hunting for the remaining unregistered congregations that continue to operate, and those reaching out to share their faith risk fines, detainment, or other punishments. New laws have banned religion from all but authorized Christian websites and licensed clergy.1
For those following the tightened restrictions on China’s Christians, these observations may not be surprising. But as the article goes on to explain, this generally understood view is incomplete:
Yet China is a land of contradiction. Time and again the standard narrative is proven inadequate in explaining the more complex situation on the ground.2
In recent years a raft of regulations governing everything from church finances to religious content on the internet has led to conclusions like those quoted above. Yet, as this article from Chinese Church Support Ministries (CCSM) later points out, such legislation may technically render a host of Christian activities illegal, but these activities do not suddenly cease. While we may hear that “China” is clamping down on unregistered meetings or websites or online gatherings, the reality on the ground may tell a different story. Multiple factors account for this gap.
One obvious variable is the degree to which Christians’ activities are viewed as political. Regarding the rules on online religious content, CCSM reports:
At the moment, it appears that efforts are largely focused on individuals or organizations that have been critical of the government’s policies. Believers in China that spoke with CCSM indicated that they were not self-censoring in their private emails or small group Zoom communications and so far have been able to continue as usual.3
The government’s shifting priorities constitute a second variable. For example, while the government has been pressuring landlords not to rent space to Christian groups, believers in one city report that officials are balancing this restriction against the need to shore up the local economy in the face of the slowdown caused by extreme covid measures. In this particular case it seems officials would rather ensure landlords are able to collect rent than prevent house church believers from meeting.
Foreign involvement has always been a factor in whether Christians are singled out for harassment by authorities. Given the regime’s current emphasis on national security, believers with obvious foreign connections are much more likely to draw official attention.
The size and perceived influence of unregistered groups is another factor. After several high-profile congregations were shut down in the late 2010s, other groups began proactively moving to a decentralized church model, a transition that was hastened by pandemic restrictions beginning in 2020.
Finally, the church’s historical relationship with the authorities in a given locale, including the relationship between unregistered groups and the TSPM, can have a major impact on how regulations are implemented. It is not unusual to see crackdowns taking place in parts of Henan, Zhejiang, and Fujian provinces that have long been hotbeds of Christian activity, while other parts of the country may be relatively quiet. Within major cities, high-profile congregations and individuals may come under scrutiny while other groups manage to continue operating under the radar.
The relative effect of these variables can change depending on what else is happening inside and outside the country and how much weight China’s leaders assign to various perceived threats. Yet the work of the church moves forward. As the CCSM article concludes:
And if you thought that unregistered Christians were frozen with apprehension and have stopped working, you would be mistaken. In reality, many Christians are continuing in their service to God, doing more despite the risks, than many Christians in the free West.4
By putting the emphasis on what the government is doing instead of focusing on the lives of Chinese believers, the “standard narrative” unfortunately misses much of what is going on in the Chinese church today. For members of the global church trying to better understand their brothers and sisters in China, this fixation on policy can have two unfortunate results. We can become “frozen with apprehension,” concluding that China is “off-limits” instead of recognizing that adversity can also bring new opportunities to serve. Secondly, as alluded to above, this top-line assessment of the church situation obscures the good work that Chinese Christians continue to do. By focusing instead on their faithfulness and on the faithfulness of the Lord toward them during these uncertain days we will be better prepared to support them in prayer and to learn valuable lessons from their example.
- “Night is Not Here,” China Prayer Letter, Chinese Church Support Ministries, January 2023, p. 7. 63ab8047b94b8.pdf (ccsmglobal.org) Accessed February 22, 2023.
- “Night,” p. 7.
- “Night,” p. 8.
- “Night,” p. 8.
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.