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Returning Home—The Chinese Church in Transition

We had just gotten into a taxi at rush hour, and we knew we were in for a long stop-and-go ride across town. Noticing the crucifix hanging from the rear-view mirror, I mentioned to our taxi driver Ms Zhang that I too believed in Jesus. A big smile broke out across her face, as she said, “I don’t know what I would do without Jesus!” My wife and I initially thought this was the opening of a conversation, but we quickly realized that our role for the next half hour was to sit back and hear this woman’s testimony.

After just twelve years of marriage, Ms Zhang’s young husband was diagnosed with a terminal illness. When he passed away, no one from their village families was willing to help with any of the funeral rites or burial for such a young man. A kind neighbor woman offered to help Ms Zhang, preparing the body, sitting vigil with her through the night, and even accompanying her back to her hometown in the countryside to bury his urn. Overwhelmed by this kindness, she was told by the neighbor that this was what Catholics did—they cared for people like Jesus cared for them. The neighbor woman offered to introduce Ms Zhang to her local priest, who offered to help Ms Zhang and her young son as they struggled with life without her husband. Overwhelmed by the compassion of these strangers, Ms Zhang decided to attend a service at the local Catholic church—and she immediately found peace. As she struggled through her grief, her son’s schooling, marriage, and then most recently his divorce, Ms Zhang learned to lean on Jesus and the Catholic community for all that she needs. “Trust Jesus for everything! He will give you peace, even when things are bad!”

Ms Zhang’s testimony is not unusual. Many Chinese believers enter the church at times of personal crisis. Financial troubles, broken relationships, health emergencies—real world trials often reveal to Chinese people the fractured nature of their safety nets, as friends, family, and the state fail to provide them with what they need. These moments of brokenness can be used by God to open people’s hearts to their own weakness and God’s strength (2 Corinthians 12:9). Whether through miraculous interventions or through the obedient agency of God’s people, blessing enters people’s lives leading them to put their faith in Jesus.

It is hard not to see this pattern of mutual care and support as a contemporary manifestation of the model of church life recorded in the book of Acts (Acts 2:42–47). For most new believers, adoption into the family of God (Romans 8) is experienced as a homecoming, as they discover that the kind of family they have been culturally conditioned to desire does exist—within the Christian church. In this sense, Ms Zhang’s testimony is about her finding her place in her new family—the church.

The church in China is going through a tremendous time of transition. Several years of pressure at various levels of government have made all aspects of religious practice in China more difficult. Increased surveillance and direct prohibitions against Party members and youth attending religious events has altered registered church practice, while direct confrontation has brought an end to even moderately-sized gatherings of unregistered believers across China. COVID restrictions have further tightened all these limitations, with more and more religious life pushed online—and now even those virtual venues are being closed and constrained.

While the transition to online worship brought about by COVID closures brought an initial upswing in participation and attendance, time has eroded many of those gains as the return to “normal” life and the lack of personal engagement has caused many to slip away. The ease of “attending” an online service has also encouraged many believers to replace local church life with listening to the online teaching of famous speakers and pastors from China’s megachurches. All of these developments pose challenges to the Chinese church’s historic emphasis on its identity as the family of God.

Ms Zhang’s testimony resonates with many, many Chinese Christians. It is hard to imagine Chinese conversions that do not contain at least some of the real-world personal support that so clearly drew her towards the church. Family is a concept so close to the Chinese heart—even if the biblical understanding of the family of God calls for a more inclusive and diverse notion of family than is found in Chinese tradition. Will a Chinese church that loses this personal touch still be relevant for future generations of Chinese people? Or can Chinese Christians find a way of doing church that balances the constraints of the current regulatory environment with the model of Christian community displayed in the book of Acts? Will the revival of the cell church model in China develop a way to mirror the inclusiveness and diversity of the early church within their much smaller gatherings? Or will “Chinese megachurches” that exist primarily online be able to create the kind of expansive Christian community that can both appeal to Chinese desires for belonging and still function within the constraints of the state?

It is still too early to say what the future will bring. But for the sake of all the Ms Zhangs out there, I pray that Chinese Christians no matter where or how they worship in the coming years will continue to welcome their fellow citizens into the family of God with the same acts of love and service that have changed the hearts of Chinese people for centuries.

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Swells in the Middle Kingdom

"Swells in the Middle Kingdom" began his life in China as a student back in 1990 and still, to this day, is fascinated by the challenges and blessings of living and working in China.View Full Bio

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