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The Challenge of Being the Church in China

These days being the church in China is a rapidly growing challenge. New religious regulations, reworked government structures, the focus on the Sinicization of Christianity, all these and more work together to make the lives of church leaders and members more and more difficult. So how does the church function in an increasingly hostile environment? Is it, in fact, increasingly hostile for registered churches? What follows is a decidedly un-scientific case study of the ways in which three different registered churches answer those questions. How do they go about “being the church” in their unique environments?

Why registered churches? First of all, I chose these three churches because I have some degree of personal experience with each of them. Second, I think it is true that while the three different approaches taken by these churches are not exhaustive, they are broadly representative of a majority of Chinese registered churches. Finally, while registered churches are largely ignored in considerations of the church in China, they too have their own challenges.

One more thing: if we are looking at how different churches go about “being the church,” we should have some idea of what it means to be the church. In other words, what do churches do that identifies them as a church? I think we can safely include the following: worship (including sacraments), Bible studies, prayer groups, Sunday School, discipleship, outreach, and social action. The three churches we are looking at are regularly doing all these things, but doing some of them requires a good deal of creativity.

Church 1: Gangwashi Church

Gangwashi Church, located just west of the Forbidden City, has a long history. Founded in the 1860s, it recently celebrated 150 years. It was founded by missionaries of the London Missionary Society, and was the first Protestant church in Beijing. Gangwashi was also the first church in Beijing to re-open after the Cultural Revolution. It has hosted such luminaries as Condoleeza Rice, George W. Bush, Luis Palau, and Robert Schuler.

Because of its high profile, Gangwashi is perhaps more closely watched by the government than any other registered church. So what does that mean for everyday ministry? It means walking a narrow road and living with certain restrictions. In keeping with the law, Gangwashi's ministry takes place exclusively on church property. While that doesn't really negatively affect most of the sorts of ministry listed above, it does make outreach rather difficult. But Gangwashi does still do outreach. Every month or so there is one weekday on which the church offers free medical advice, legal help, basic financial planning, and even haircuts on church property. Since they cannot go out to the neighborhood, they bring the neighborhood in.

Another sort of restriction is the necessity of writing reports and getting approval for any type of ministry that is out of the ordinary. For example, when I was involved in leading a VBS program there, the church had to get approval. But actually this was more of a hassle than a restriction; I found that in all the different ministry programs in which I was involved, permission was virtually never denied. It helps some, of course, to have a senior pastor who has a high position in the local lianghui.[1] But by staying within the law, and maybe sometimes pushing the limits a bit, Gangwashi is able to do meaningful ministry in a difficult environment. No one at Gangwashi felt that the new regulations and recent tightening had had any effect on their ministry.

Church 2: Linxiang Church

Linxiang Church is the only church in the small town of Linxiang, in Hunan Province. Unlike Gangwashi Church, it does not have a long history. In fact, it is quite new, having been founded in the mid-1990s. The story of its founding and growth is both unique and yet not unusual.

Around 1990, a young man named Zhang Weiliang left his small hometown and went to the big city to seek his fortune, joining millions of other young Chinese doing the same thing. But his future would be different than that of most others. Through a series of events, Zhang found himself in a gang, in a high enough position that he had many people under him. During the course of one of the operations he was in charge of, several people were killed. Although he was not directly involved, Zhang had to flee. Not knowing where else to go, he made for his hometown. On the bus, he sat next to an old man. This man was a Christian. During the long bus ride, he explained Christianity to Zhang. On that bus, Zhang Weiliang gave his life to God.

Zhang later told me that after he got back to his home town, Linxiang, he figured that since he was now a Christian, it was obvious that he needed to start a church. So that is what he did. In 1997 he held his first worship service. In attendance were Zhang, his wife, and his brother-in-law (who did not want to be there). In the 20 or so years since, that church has grown from 3 to over 1000. In addition, Zhang has planted about two dozen churches in the surrounding countryside.

Zhang registered his church and it became part of the TSPM. But he does not pay much attention to the government apparatus. He continues to lead his church, and plant new ones, as he sees God directing. Zhang is able to do this because of his close relationships with the local Communist party leaders. It's a small town. Zhang has known all these people since childhood. They trade favors, which makes life easier for both parties.

While Gangwashi accommodates to the oversight and rules of the government, bending those rules when it can, Linxiang church is largely able to ignore the rules because of the pastor's carefully cultivated friendships. You might call it survival by “guanxi”—old friends helping each other out.

Church 3: Church X

Church X, we'll call it, illustrates an approach somewhat similar to Linxiang, but with a different history and different needs. The senior pastor of this church, Pastor Wang, we'll call him/her, was called by the Beijing lianghui to plant a church in a far out suburb of Beijing. Although still technically a part of Beijing, this area was remote. In spite of that, there were a lot of meeting points (juhuidian) scattered through the hills. This pastor's task was to gather them all into one large church.

The general population of this area was not too well educated. The Communist Party cadres were no exception. The arrival of this church, which was under their jurisdiction, presented them with a new problem. They were supposed to distinguish between true Christianity and all the cults in the area, in order to promote social harmony. The problem was that they did not know the first thing about Christianity or the cults. So they approached the pastor and asked if they could receive some teaching concerning true Christianity. That request was immediately granted. Sometime later, all the local officials and party cadres of that area gathered at the church. There they listened to a gospel presentation by the pastor. A few months later, more than 40 of them returned for the Christmas program. Now, whenever any of the officials have a suspicion about someone, they go to this pastor and ask if this person attends this church. If they do, then the officials feel they no longer have to worry.

The pastor said there was only one area of church life being effected by the new regulations. That area is Sunday School. In the face of government pressure, the church is being creative. They are re-purposing the Sunday School as a cultural daycare. For example: they will sing, but the songs will be Christian, they will tell stories, but the stories will be Christian, and so on.

China's registered churches, like so much else in China, are always surprising. You can dismiss them, as so many do, as stooges of the government. But that is grossly unfair and inaccurate. The few stories I have cited here are of course just the tip of the iceberg. When one looks closely at the registered churches, what one finds are churches that are serious about living out their faith, and are creative about finding ways to be the church in the face of daunting challenges. 


  1. ^ The lianghui, often translated "two committees" is composed of the Christian Council and the Three Self Patriotic Movement. The TSPM handles communication between the churches and the government, while the Christian Council is more concerned with interior church activity.
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Wayne Ten Harmsel

Wayne Ten Harmsel is a retired pastor in the Christian Reformed Church who lived for a dozen or so years in Beijing, working with Chinese churches and pastors.View Full Bio

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