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A Tour of Three-Self Churches

Kunming—Trinity International Church

From the series A Tour of Three-Self Churches


In the summer of 2011 I spent about two months traversing China from Kunming in the south to Hegang near the Russian border in the north. The purpose was to visit registered churches in a total of 22 cities and to interview pastors in those churches. I kept a journal in which I recorded information from my interviews and descriptions of what I saw and experienced of China along the way. What follows are excerpts from those journals.

June 9

I left my Beijing home early in the morning (6 AM) for a 7:40 flight to Kunming and arrived in Kunming about noon. I went and found the hotel. It was much nicer than the normal 3-star hotel. It was called “Enjoying International Hotel.” In the evening I went to Trinity International Church (registered). It is apparently a plus to have “International” in your name in Kunming, even though, in this case, neither the hotel nor the church could claim any plausible reason for using that word. Although the church had an English Bible study, not a common thing for a registered church to have. It was taught this evening by Clayton, a retired gentleman from California. He said he has been coming to China for part of each year for the past eight years. He shares the teaching of this class with two or three other foreigners in rotation. 

June 10

The pastors were not at Trinity church today, so I called Prof. Xing who teaches at Yunnan University and who co-wrote an English teaching book using Bible stories with Susan Felch from Calvin College (my alma mater). Prof. Xing uses this book in her English classes at the university.

Prof. Xing was baptized and taught the basics of Christianity in the registered church, actually at Trinity church. But after spending a year at Calvin, when she came back to Yunnan, she switched to a house church. She said she was influenced by a number of Chinese Christians in the States, who explained to her some of the differences between the two kinds of churches. This piqued my interest, so I invited her out for coffee. She said the differences that they mentioned were mostly the following:

  • The registered churches do not have any systematic theological preaching or teaching.
  • The registered church is subject to significant influence, if not control, from the government.
  • Many of the pastors in the registered churches are in it just for the salary.
  • In some places the registered church makes life difficult for house churches.

Except for the first reason, which is indeed a weakness of the registered church, these reasons are diametrically opposed to what I have experienced. I explained to her that in my experience it is true that the government has applied certain pressure and has certain rules for the churches, but it in no way hinders the churches from carrying out the fundamental activities common to any church. And given what the salaries are, the allegation that the pastors are in it for the money would be just laughable if it were not so cruel. The last reason, about making life difficult, surprised me. That may have been true of some pastors in the 1950s and 1960s, but I had not seen or heard any evidence of it since then.

I was surprised to hear that her church is a “Reformed Baptist” church. It has been helped out significantly, ever since its beginning about 15 years ago, by an expat from Kalamazoo, Michigan!

June 11

Trinity International Church is the largest registered church in Yunnan province. Its building is a very large, traditional style church building. Even among the tall apartment and office buildings in the area, it is hard to miss. In addition to housing the church, it is also home to the Yunnan provincial Three-Self offices. When I arrived on Saturday morning, there was a worship service going on. In total, there are four services per week, including this one and three on Sundays. All services are usually full and each seats from 1500 to 2000 worshipers.

In talking about the growth of the church with Pastor Wang, she said that at each baptism service (three per year) there are 200-300 people baptized. I asked her how the church made room for all these new people. She mentioned a number of things: because of work schedules, some people are not able to make it to a worship service regularly; some who are baptized there end up in other churches, either in Kunming or elsewhere; some attend other services (like the youth service) and may not attend a Sunday worship. They also added the Saturday service about a year ago to accommodate more people. The church only has two ordained pastors, but a number of evangelists and others who preach. Also, a lot of the pastoral care is done by volunteers. The church was started by the China Inland Mission in 1908.

June 12 Pentecost Sunday.

I went to Trinity Church today, to the 10 AM service. The worship order was typical for a Chinese church. The sermon, as its title was translated into English, was “A Balanced View of Christians” (perhaps could use some translation help). It had to do with living a balanced Christian life in four areas: the spiritual and the physical, hearing and doing, faith and works, and church and home. The sermon was well delivered with good stories and illustrations. As usual, it was a bit too long (about 45 minutes) for my tastes.

A couple of things that caught my eye at the church were the number of disabled and blind people, no doubt due to the ministries the church has for these populations, and the fact that there were a number of foreigners who looked like they were regular attenders.

Since it was another stormy, rainy day, I spent the rest of the day resting, reading, and writing.  At 9 that evening I boarded an overnight train for my next stop—Anshun.

Further excerpts from Wayne Ten Harmsel's journal of his tour of Three-self churches will follow in the coming weeks. You will be able to read them all in the series "A Tour of Three-Self Churches."

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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