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Defying Western Expectations

From the series Our China Stories

With its confrontational stance toward the government, a home-grown Christian school, an outspoken public voice on social issues such as abortion, and a thriving seminary, Chengdu’s Early Rain Reformed Church appeared to many as the epitome of the Reformed movement in China. Featured in Ian Johnson’s The Souls of China and in countless Western journalistic accounts of China’s “underground” church, Early Rain became a kind of poster child for Chinese Christianity—a picture of what was possible in the relative openness of urban China in the mid 2000s to mid 2010s. Yet, like so many of the images of China’s church that have gained currency in the West, the idealized picture of the Reformed faith in China epitomized by Early Rain reflected in large part the expectations of foreign Christians, who looked to China’s church to validate their own convictions about what the church should stand for, whether doctrinally, politically, or otherwise.

As Bruce Baugus points out in the winter 2021 issue of China Source Quarterly, Early Rain is not representative of China’s reformed and reforming churches as a whole. It may have provided Western observers, including Christian groups outside China, with a convenient stereotype, but in doing so it obscured much of the diversity that is found even within those churches that fit broadly under the Reformed umbrella.

Baugus suggests that we in the West have much to learn from China’s church. As we’ve alluded to above, and as many of the articles in this particular Quarterly issue point out, one core lesson is that God works through the diversity of his church. In contrast to the one-dimensional image often presented by outside observers, we have in this issue of the Quarterly a multi-faceted picture of churches that may identify with one another confessionally, but which differ on questions of where and how to worship, the role of women in the church, and how to relate to government authorities. Far from representing a rigid, cookie-cutter approach to church life, the Reformed tradition as it is currently lived out in China is dynamic and adaptable, reflecting the resourcefulness that has enabled the church to thrive amidst all kinds of adversity.

Gudao, a house church pastor in China, describes this flexibility:

After the pandemic, many house churches in China started to reflect on their theology, ecclesiology, missiology, the gospel, and the cultural mandate. Reformed house churches, in turn, have felt the need to establish an indigenous theological framework that is both scripturally sound and localized to help Chinese house churches more broadly to establish churches that follow God’s will, are filled with the power of the Spirit, and suitable for their unique Chinese circumstances. Such a framework could be beneficial not only to Chinese house churches in general but also to the global church as well.

Rather than pointing to the church in China and saying, as many in the West are prone to do, “Look, they’re doing it just like us,” we would do better to look deeper and have the humility for some ecclesiastical head scratching: “Hmmm, that’s different; I wonder why. Perhaps they’re onto something. What can we learn here?”

Christians in the culturally divided West can also learn much from the example of believers in China as they navigate their own cultural minefields. Pastor Gao Zhen and his wife, Dong Mei, offer several practical measures, including pursuing positive interactions with government officials, focusing sermons on biblical truth and not extending them to make political or sensitive connections, avoiding the worldly disputes that cause weakness and stumbling, and achieving unity within the church through ritual.

Finally, the perseverance of China’s Reformed believers in a time of increased tightening is a reminder that the church’s success does not depend on political favor, nor does political persecution spell its demise (contrary to the perceptions of those who saw Early Rain’s closure in 2018 as the end of the contemporary Reformed experiment in China). While the fate of Early Rain and other large, unregistered congregations may have signaled the end, at least for now, of the megachurch movement in China, the rethinking and restructuring underway will ultimately serve to strengthen the church. As Baugus writes:

China’s house churches have a long history of defying Western expectations, and every indication is that this history—which is about far more than numerical growth—has not yet run its course. China’s reforming churches are not drowning in the new tide but rising on it. They are embracing the opportunities they see in the new challenges they face and finding creative ways to meet the needs of the church and reach out to the world around them. They are also diving deeper into the theological sources available to them, thinking and debating anew the pressing questions they face even as they are laying a foundation for the future. In it all, they are thanking God for how he is using these developments to gather in and build up his people.

This article is adapted from Brent Fulton’s ChinaSource Perspective piece in the latest ChinaSource Quarterly, “Taking the Long View.” To read the original and the rest of the Quarterly, click here.

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Brent Fulton

Brent Fulton

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

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