China's "official" churches (those operating under the auspices of the Three-Self Patriotic Movement) are fairly often associated with terms such as "restrictive," "government-sanctioned," or even "Communist-controlled." Granted, one does not have to look too far within China's religious bureaucracy and its associated policies and practices to find evidence that would justify such notions. Unfortunately, however, the perception of the official church which these labels create tends to mask much of what is actually happening on the ground in TSPM-affiliated churches.
An interview with the pastor of a large suburban TSPM church recently posted on Chinese Church Voices calls into question several oft-circulated assumptions regarding China's official church.
These assumptions include:
- The government vets TSPM pastors' messages. This pastor stresses that their preaching is guided by the Holy Spirit; the government has never said what to preach or what not to preach. Indeed, "they are not interested in the content of our teaching, only that we are doing things in order."
- TSPM churches use an altered version of the Bible. "I know that many people outside of China have heard that the Bible in China does not include the book of Revelation," this pastor says. "I would like to say that this is not the case. There has never been a time when sections were not included in Bibles that we use in China. I'm not sure where this idea came from."
- TSPM churches are limited in their outreach. While government policy ostensibly limits religious activities to specially designated religious locations, in reality most large TSPM churches have many affiliated meeting points around the community. In the case of this particular church, attendance on Sundays may number around 800. However, if the membership of the dozens of registered meeting points under the church's supervision is included the total number of Christians served by this one church rises to around 5,000.
The pastor goes on to explain, "The biggest challenge is the call to share the gospel with everyone in our district. We praise God for the 5000 believers in our church, but in a district of close to one million people, this is still a small number. There are still hundreds of thousands of people in our towns, villages, and work places who have never even heard of Christianity or Jesus. It is my passion that everyone, not just in my district or city but in all of China, will hear the gospel and proclaim Jesus as Lord. So as a pastor, I want to help my people build a strong foundation for their faith and train them in evangelism."
Just as it is impossible to generalize about all of China's unregistered churches, so, too, one cannot paint all the TSPM-affiliated churches with the same brush. Getting below the surface and hearing directly from a church pastor at the local level helps to put a face on China's "official church" and to dispel some misperceptions that are often taken for granted in outside observers' attempts to parse the complex reality of China's church.
You can read the interview in its entirety here.
Image Credit: Joann Pittman
Brent Fulton is the founder of ChinaSource. Prior to assuming his current position, 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 US director of China Ministries International, and from 1985 to... View Full Bio