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Chinese Urban Churches Engaging Culture


An urban church leader said to me several years ago, “We know how to operate and survive in the shadows; now we want to come out and be seen in the light, but we don’t know how.”

China’s urban churches are facing tremendous change. They are confronted not only with seismic economic changes, but the political environment has changed largely from one of direct persecution to indirect pressure, from lack of freedom to believe to lack of freedom to assemble or organize. Church leaders are faced with constantly changing places of worship, and a shifting congregation as people move in and out, following career opportunities. At the same time, the majority of leaders want to make a substantial difference by reaching people with the gospel and impacting their communities.

In his book, Center Church: Doing Balanced, Gospel-Centered Ministry in Your City, Tim Keller provides much insight and many practical examples for those involved in urban ministries­—including those who serve in China’s urban areas. Here I’d like to draw upon his four models of how churches and denominations have engaged their cultures with the gospel and apply his insights and the concept of “Blended Insights” to the landscape of the urban churches of China.  

In section five of Center Church, Keller describes the various ways churches and denominations have approached engaging their cultures with the gospel. All four models, Transformationalist, Counterculturalist, Relevance, and Two Kingdoms, are represented either in the current church forms found in Beijing and other major cities, in the aspirations of upcoming leaders, or among international partners who work closely with them in discipleship ministries and leadership development. What he suggests in his consolidating “Blended Insights” approach could be of great value in bringing about more fruitful practices for each of these groups.

Transformationalists in China are represented in the worlds of business, education, and law. There are growing networks of Christian CEOs who are attempting to bring biblical values to bear on the way they run their businesses, and how they treat customers and employees in ways that differ noticeably from the culture of bribery and favoritism that describes most of the business environment. Both foreign groups like Christian Businessmen’s Connection (CBMC) and localized versions of business associations are developing in most major cities of China. Christian Educators are also attempting to exercise influence in some of the highest institutions, like the National Academy of Science, and on staff of major universities.  

The Relevance model may be best represented by the official, government-sanctioned Three Self Patriotic Movement (TSPM).  Organizationally the group as a whole has accommodated itself to the oversight of the Communist Party. In theological terms, the movement attempted to address one major goal of communism in creating the New Man through the writings of Bishop Ting in the 80s and 90s. The official seminaries have an intentional mix of courses on theology and political indoctrination for future church leaders.  All of this is designed to help the churches in the TSPM system remain viable and also to stay in touch with the current realities of New China.

The Counterculturalist model is represented most clearly in those from the traditional rural church networks. They do not aspire to transform the larger society but focus on the purity of the church. Preaching, worship, and personal piety are the mainstays for Christians. The church stands as a model of idealized living in contrast to the fallenness of the prevailing culture. There is little outlook for positive change in the culture at large—Christians only need to reach as many people as possible with the gospel.

One manifestation of the Two Kingdoms model is the growing movement among Christian families to find alternative educational choices for their children.  Many Christians have already violated the past one-child policy (recently amended to two children per family), and their second child is without legitimate identity and therefore cannot go to public schools. To meet this need “Christian schools” of a semi-private nature operating in a grey area have arisen. There is also a growing movement among many believers to home school their children. The Two Kingdoms view may also be growing in acceptance among those churches that are being heavily influenced by reformed theologians from outside.

A widely recognized characteristic of the current Chinese church scene is that there is little unity. The major networks of rural house churches do not really work together, and in some instances are mutually suspicious, even questioning the salvation of others’ members. Keller is instructive when he says “While it is true that all of these models draw on older patterns that have been in the church for centuries, their contemporary versions tend to be defined in reaction and hostility to one another.” (Keller, p. 241)

Keller cautions against naively saying that a church or denomination can incorporate the best of each model into their approach to ministry. This is difficult because of individual passion and gifting, and the history and legacy of the denomination or agency that founded the original churches. What can be done is to grow in appreciation for their own historical development, and to recognize there may be more than a little good in the orientation and approach of others. His positive descriptors of each model are helpful in fostering this appreciation:

  • Transformative—Distinctive Worldview
  • Counterculturalist—Church as Counter Culture
  •  Two Kingdoms—Humble Excellence
  • Relevance—Common Good

A recent, and hopeful, development toward unity is in the area of missions mobilization by the churches of China. A process was started in the run up to the Third Lausanne Congress on World Evangelization in Capetown in 2010 to select representative leaders from every major segment of the house churches in China, including the urban churches. Though the leaders were almost universally denied permission to leave China and attend Capetown, the process was not fruitless.

A follow-up conference was held in September of 2015 in Hong Kong, at which those leaders helped launch “Missions 2030” with the stated goal of mobilizing 20,000 missionaries from China by the year 2030. There were a total of 900 attendees, with representatives from many of the streams of the house church movement. Follow-up annual conferences will be held to track progress and continue motivating new churches and participants.

Perhaps this will not result in a total unity of the various streams of the house church movement, but it may bring about many more practitioners in cross-cultural evangelism, discipleship, and church planting. Certainly, a greater appreciation will develop for what God is doing in expanding his kingdom through the many parts of the church of China in the 21st century.

Reuben Carter

Reuben Carter has worked in Greater China (Taiwan, Hong Kong, and China) since 1980. He and his wife Suzanne have served as China Area Director for an international agency for the past ten years. They oversee teams of bi-vocational cross-cultural workers who work in business, education, and compassion ministries, with a... View Full Bio