If the religious law passed in 2018 sounded an alarm, the termination of Zion church in Beijing began the movement of closing unregistered megachurches in China. However, the megachurch issue has been problematic since the beginning of the house church movement in 1980 even though there seemed to be some success in the past decades. There are questions to be asked about the megachurch model:
- What should churches do when the size of congregations increases?
- Where is the line between religious freedom of Christians and the legitimate rule of the Chinese government?
- Is the unregistered megachurch a legitimate church model in China?
Challenges of the Unregistered Megachurch in China
Paul argued in Romans 13 that Christians shall be subject to the authorities for all the authorities are instituted by God. However, there are three exceptions for Christians to follow higher authority rather than earthly authority. The first is when an earthly authority requires Christians to worship false gods (Daniel 3); the second is when Christians are not allowed to pray (Daniel 6); and the third is when Christians are not allowed to preach the gospel of Jesus (Acts 5). Christians have used these exceptional reasons to justify the rejection of registering house churches in China even when some of them grow into megachurches.
Then we are dealing with the issue of the unregistered megachurch: the megachurch model and government registration. The question of registration has been thoroughly discussed although there have been different opinions. However, the issue of the megachurch model has been controversial in four areas: historical, legal, ethical, and consequential.
The Historical Background of the Megachurch
Atkinson & Comiskey (2014) suggest that even though house churches were the main force of fast growth of the early church, the number of believers in each church was usually between 10-20 people due to the size of the houses where they met. Any growth above that size would cause trouble. The strategy of the developing church was not growing larger but multiplying which means that when a church reached 20 people, it would be divided into two parts. This strategy continued for 300 years. Therefore, it seems that the rapid growth of the early church did not involve megachurches.
The megachurch, which usually is considered to be a church with regular Sunday attendance of over 2000, first appeared in the world in the 1800s, in the US in the 1970s, and prospered in the late 20th and early 21st century. Ellingson (2009) puts megachurches into four categories, denominational churches strongly emphasizing their theological and worship heritages; “seeker” churches focusing on reaching the unreached; Pentecostal churches impacted by a charismatic leader, and “new wave” or “re-envisioned” churches seeking to return to the original style of ancient churches. All these megachurches were built through certain movements. Megachurches in China appeared and developed in the era of the gospel “honeymoon period,” generally from 1980 to 2010. The urban megachurches are of the “seeker” type and rural megachurches are more Pentecostal in style. However, the wave of rapid church growth in China is calming down and the new legal situation is calling churches to consider the new situation.
The Legal Aspect
According to Chinese religious law, religious groups are required to register with the government authorities. In a report by the US Congressional-Executive Commission on China (CECC), it is interesting to note that even though unregistered churches are disturbed by local government officials occasionally, there are certain levels of tolerance on the part of some officials toward unregistered churches if they believe the churches contribute to social development. It provides a good reason for why some megachurches in urban areas could exist for decades without registration. However, we also see cases like Shouwang church in Beijing which was closed legally many years ago.
It is obvious that after the Religion White Paper of China issued in 2018, government officials are held legally accountable to contain unregistered religious activities, thus megachurches can no longer be tolerated officially. If the church is fighting for religious freedom against this law, the strong push back would be the following question: Will any government in the world allow unregistered megachurches? The answer from the US government is a definite “No.” The IRS will not allow it.
The Ethical Reason
A question that the unregistered church has to answer is whether it can justify disobeying the civil law for the sake of maintaining the structure of the megachurch. The argument is, if some unregistered churches have continued to develop as house churches in China (as opposed to megachurches) in the 1980s and 1990s with significant growth and limited disruption from the government, why must we continue to use the megachurch model? If we cannot justify the megachurch model biblically, it becomes an ethical issue conveying a different message to both believers and nonbelievers—the message that the Christian church is seeking religious privilege above the civil law for other than sound biblical reasons.
The Consequential Reason
The Chinese idiom, “a fire in the city gates is also a calamity for the fish in the moat (城门失火殃及池鱼)” clearly describes how the conflict between megachurches and the government impacts small house churches. The Chinese government has a history of starting movements. Any megachurch’s conflict may trigger a movement against the house churches around them or even nationwide. Those movements cause tension between churches (large and small) and the government.
A Perspective on the House Church in China
Love, a foundation of trust, can be built in smaller groups more readily than in a megachurch gathering. Once I met with our church in a group of two hundred at a retreat. I found it was a very different dynamic from meeting them in small groups even though I knew each one of them equally well. It was much harder to truly relate to each person there. I felt the sorrow of not being able to talk with one person fully before I had to greet another one. In Chinese culture this is a significant courtesy issue.
When our church grew to 40 people, we had two choices: either keep growing in the same group or divide into two groups to keep the size so as to “not disturb neighbors.” Disturbing neighbors is one of the most frequent reasons for house churches to be stopped by the local authority.
The biggest need for the growth of house churches is equipping enough leaders to lead church groups. I have experienced two full years of struggling with my co-leaders to come to an agreement on breaking the church into smaller groups; some of the leaders strongly disagreed with this idea. They wanted to keep the close relationships within the existing church. It is not an easy decision. Indeed, from a church leader’s perspective, there are pros and cons particularly in light of leadership development.
Leadership training and trusting
Pros: Leadership training is always good for the development of the church and spiritual growth of Christians. The good news is that we have more and more people who are seminary trained and there are tremendous resources we can use to provide training for new Christian leaders.
Cons: Trusting new leaders who do not have enough knowledge and experience is difficult for many current leaders. The enemy of trust is doubt about the situation and the doubt in church leaders is reasonable in most of the cases. It requires strong faith in the guidance and protection of the Holy Spirit, constant mentoring, and grace for the mistakes and disagreements.
Empowering and delegating
Pros: Empowering is a positive step of entrusting new leaders with more responsibilities. It impacts their leadership ability directly.
Cons: Delegating authority is a part of the empowering process. The danger or threat of delegating is the sense of losing control of the church. For some leaders, they have to deal with the issue of losing power.
Worship together and not all together
Pros: Fellowship is worshiping together. Cell groups create suitable space for people to worship together with ones they know well.
Cons: Fellowship only in small groups instead of with the whole church on Sundays is a loss although not a necessity for Christians according to the Bible. I remember how emotional I became when I was sitting in a Sunday service of a large church in China. I realized how much I missed meeting in a large gathering.
Above all, church development is not about how we feel, or how difficult it is. It is about fulfilling the Great Commission. In this light, megachurches are good—but not always necessary to carrying out the Great Commission. The New Testament has provided a systemic approach for the growth of the church under political persecution. That is to share the gospel in all circumstances, meet in house churches, never stop under persecution, make disciples which involves training Christian leaders, submit to the local authorities for the sake of the peace of Christians, and ultimately, to glorify God.
Atkinson, H. T., & Comiskey, J. (2014). “Lessons from the Early House Church for Today’s Cell Groups.” Christian Education Journal: Research on Educational Ministry, 11(1), 75–87. https://doi.org/10.1177/073989131401100107
Ellingson, S. (2009). “The Rise of the Megachurches and Changes in Religious Culture: Review Article.” Sociology Compass, 3(1), 16–30.
Simson, Wolfgang (2003). Houses That Change the World: The Return of the House Churches
OM Publishing, Authentic Media. Staff of the Global Legal Research Center. (2018) China: Religion and Chinese Law. Report for Department of Justice LL File No. 2018-016324. https://www.justice.gov/eoir/page/file/1068681/download
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