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Church in China. Or Churches in China?

Last week I had an occasion to make a whirlwind road trip from the Twin Cities to Dallas (and back). It was a drive that took me through and across six states, pretty much all on one highway, Interstate 35, or what I like to call Middle America’s Main Street. One of the things I love about driving cross-country is the opportunity it affords to see the diversity of the country unfold, mile by mile. The land gradually changes. Architectural styles change. The accents and speech patterns gradually change. Being called “honey” or “sweetheart” by convenience store attendants is almost unheard of in Minnesota but is standard speech in Oklahoma.

Another change that I always find fascinating is the churches. Drive through any small or large town in Minnesota and there will be some variety of Lutheran church on nearly every corner. In the South that changes to some variety of Baptist church. In some parts of the country, I see denominational churches that I rarely see in Minnesota. Friends, Disciples of Christ, Nazarene, Four Square, are some that come to mind. So, when someone asks about the church in the United States, it’s probably best to stop and ask, which church?

In many ways, the same can be said of China. Here at ChinaSource we write a lot about the church in China; in many ways, that is what we do. But I have found myself increasingly asking myself “which church?” It is easy to have a simplistic view of churches in China, highlighting the two main categories: registered (Three-Self) and unregistered (house church). But that dichotomy belies the complexity of the expressions of Christianity in China. So, when talking about the “church in China,” what are we talking about?

Below is a partial list of overlapping descriptors that can be used when talking about churches in China. Please note that these categories are broad and that the list is not exhaustive.

Three-Self ChurchThese are churches that have legal standing in China due to the fact that they are registered with the Three-Self Patriotic Movement Committee. Three-self churches can be found in most cities and towns in China.
Urban House ChurchesThese tend to be made up of students and young professionals in the cities. They tend to be independent.
Rural House ChurchesThese are found in the countryside and are often (but not always) affiliated with large, nationwide networks.
Charismatic ChurchesMany churches, particularly those affiliated with rural networks are charismatic in both doctrine and practice, with an emphasis on signs and wonders.
Reformed ChurchesMany urban churches consider themselves to be theologically reformed, with an emphasis on intellectualism and church polity.
Minority ChurchesThere are numerous churches among the various minority groups in China, particularly in the Southwest.
Migrant ChurchesDuring the past few decades, as millions of migrant workers have moved from the rural areas into the cities, new congregations made up of these migrant workers have sprung up. Integration with existing churches has been difficult, as the cultural socio-economic gap between rural and urban Chinese is vast.
Returnee ChurchesMany Chinese have come to faith while living abroad. As they have returned, churches have sprung up that specifically seek to meet some of their unique needs.
International ChurchesMany cities in China have international churches (usually called fellowships) where expat Christians can gather for worship. Regulations do not permit local Chinese to attend.
Catholic ChurchesAs is the case with Protestant churches, there are those that are sanctioned by the government (so-called patriotic churches) and those that are not (referred to as underground churches).

I offer this list, not to provide a full and complete picture of the diversity of churches in China. Instead, it is a reminder (to myself as much as anyone) that there is not simply the church in China, but there are churches in China.

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Image credit: Joann Pittman.
Joann Pittman

Joann Pittman

Joann Pittman is Vice President of Partnership and China Engagement and editor of ZGBriefs. Prior to joining ChinaSource, Joann spent 28 years working in China, as an English teacher, language student, program director, and cross-cultural trainer for organizations and businesses engaged in China. She has also taught Chinese at the University …View Full Bio

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