In recent years, bad news about the church in China has been plentiful: the authorities’ forceful removal of church crosses, the shutting-down of large urban house churches’ sanctuaries, the unprecedented tightening of control over registered and unregistered churches alike, expulsion of a large number of foreign cross-cultural workers, plateauing of church growth, and so forth. There is no doubt that all these incidents point to a very concerning trend and make one wonder whether the Chinese church is going through a profound transition and entering a new era. By tracing the past forty-plus years of church development in China, and reading current signs, I would affirm this statement.
In my view, from the end of the Cultural Revolution in 1976 to the present, the development of the Chinese church (primarily the house church) has gone through roughly three phases.
Phase 1: Resurrection and Revival (late 1970s to late 1990s)
In the wake of the Cultural Revolution, the Chinese Communist Party took steps to re-install the policy of religious tolerance. The Chinese church not only came back to life, but also experienced widespread revival and growth. While the registered churches under the Three-Self Patriotic Movement (TSPM) were busy re-opening their sanctuaries, the unregistered house churches mushroomed especially in the countryside and among the lower classes.
As the country opened up to the outside world, cross-cultural workers from America, South Korea, and other countries began to arrive and impact local churches. However, the revivals that took place were largely spontaneous under local leadership, and resurgent and growing churches were indigenous and non-denominational. In fact, some indigenous, and often hierarchical organizational patterns emerged, such as Tuan Dui (团队, large church networks with nationwide outreach), from Henan and Anhui provinces and sizeable networks of house churches in Beijing. As house church theological education was still in embryonic form, most of those in church leadership had very little formal theological education. There was almost no erudite, denominational theology but rather fundamentalist theology inherited from older generations of Chinese church leaders. The ethos of the church during these decades was spontaneous, single-mindedly evangelistic, biblical, and largely indigenous.
Phase 2: “Golden Age” of Church Growth (late 1990s to mid-2010s)
These years can arguably be considered the best time or “golden age” of the house church movement in China. Externally the church enjoyed a relatively favorable social environment: open-mindedness of the general public and greater tolerance of the authorities.
Internally the center of gravity of the church’s growth increasingly shifted from the countryside to the cities. The social make-up of the Christian community changed, as increasing numbers of upper-middle class people or elites joined the church. In comparison to the previous phase, the church became more resourceful and sophisticated. More foreign cross-cultural workers were working with the church in China and played critical roles in church development during these years.
In unprecedented church planting endeavors across the country, the church demonstrated increasing eagerness to learn church-planting know-how and to import theological traditions and denominational polities from the West without critical evaluation. As a result, the megachurch model and certain strains of Calvinistic traditions from America and Korea gained significant traction. The landscape of the Chinese church diversified significantly, featuring a wide spectrum of traditions ranging from the prosperity gospel to hardline Calvinism and an expanding inventory of programs and institutions.
The tone or ethos of the church during these years was overwhelmingly upbeat and even triumphalist. The church sounded very optimistic about its own future, and very confident in its ability to influence the society and culture to the point of turning China into a so-called “Christian nation.” If you look at such famous urban house churches as Shouwang and Zion in Beijing, Wanbang in Shanghai, and Early Rain Covenant Church in Chengdu, this kind of ethos is not hard to detect.
As early as the years of Phase 1, some of the rural church network had already caught the vision of world mission. However, it was during Phase 2 that this vision almost became a consensus of the house church movement. Significant Chinese initiatives were made to join the global church in world evangelization.
Phase 3: New Reality and New Possibilities (mid-2010s to present)
To the surprise of most China observers, the social environment of the church in China began to deteriorate in a rather drastic fashion around the mid-2010s. The mood of the general public increasingly turned nationalistic, and the authorities launched waves of crackdowns on the church and other religious communities. The church often found itself caught in the crossfire of heightened Sino-American conflicts. To make things even worse, the pandemic has turned out to be very disruptive of church life.
Internally the church faces no less serious challenges: raging theological divisions, the corrosive influence of materialism and consumerism, and so on. There are signs that the exponential church growth of earlier decades is over, and it is getting harder to evangelize in society. Due to mounting governmental pressure, Covid-19, and other reasons, a large number of foreign workers have left the field. However, the Chinese church is still determined to be part of the global mission movement.
Not surprisingly the mood of church has turned much more sober and even gloomy. Many church leaders and believers have begun to realize that the church’s vulnerability is being exposed, and Christianity is being marginalized across society. As a result, a sort of soul-searching within the church is already underway, and questions are being asked: “What did we do wrong? “ “Were we overly optimistic ?” “How should we witness in a new social reality?” “Are the American denominationalism and Korean megachurch models really viable in the Chinese context?” “Is this the time for a radical change in the way we do church and mission?” “Is it time to bring back the spirit of suffering and martyrdom of the 1980s and even earlier decades?”
In fact, there are apparently ongoing attempts to help the church survive and move forward, and to think of church and its ministry in more indigenous terms. As large congregations are being particularly targeted and hurt, many churches have no choice but to return to a decentralized house church model literally. The old-fashioned house church appears to be making a come-back, and cell group ministry is becoming popular. The value and relevance of the indigenous network of house churches (Tuan Dui) are being re-appreciated. If physical worshiping becomes more difficult, is it possible to gather believers for online worship on a large scale, and to form a sort of online “megachurch?” This bold approach is certainly being explored by some.
All these new ideas and experiments are still emerging and evolving. But one thing seems clear: any imported church models and church planting programs have to be thoroughly contextualized in Chinese society in order to have any chance in the future. The current struggle and reflection of the church in China could well lead to the rise of a genuinely Chinese ecclesiology.
At this moment, the Chinese church is definitely at a low point. But I am confident that something positive will come out of all these raging negative dynamics—a more mature, prophetic, and contextualized church in China. When I contemplate the Chinese church of the future, what historian Alan Kreider describes as “the patient ferment” in his influential study of the early church always come to my mind. (See The Patient Ferment of the Early Church by Alan Kreider, Baker Academic, 2016) Could the church in China be a faithful minority living out its faith in Christ in a hostile world? Could it thus function as the “patient ferment” in that great country and around the globe? Let us wait and see.
Image credit: Mike Falkenstine, One Catalyst.
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