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Persecution: A Dangerous Opportunity for the Church in China?

The Chinese word for crisis (危机), made of two characters, one meaning danger, the other opportunity, points to the fact that danger and opportunity often come hand-in-hand.

The church in mainland China—house churches and their Three-self counterparts, Protestant and Catholic alike—have been facing growing danger under governmental persecution of the past few years. The persecution is so persistent and intense that we can say the Chinese church is in a crisis such has not been seen since the end of the Great Cultural Revolution (1966-1976).

When the persecution in China and the hardships of the Chinese church are covered in secular media, and even in most Christian media abroad, it is the “danger” that gets highlighted. Indeed, the persecution and its consequent crisis seem to be the only story of Christian life in China. However, the wisdom conveyed by the Chinese characters for crisis reminds us that there may be more than just “danger” for the church; an “opportunity” for the church may also come out of the current crisis.

There are signs that this is already beginning to happen. After more than three decades of church growth, the recent nationwide campaign of cracking-down and tightening came as a total surprise to most churches in China. While many Chinese churches are actively or passively resisting the governmental pressure, many of them are beginning to recover from the initial shock and dismay to realize that this harsher pressure and control could be a new normal for the foreseeable future, and to ponder how the church can survive, and even flourish, in this new, harsher environment. In so doing, they are starting to reflect on what churches did in the past and to explore new ways of thinking, new approaches, and new strategies.

Let us take a look at some examples.

Wenzhou Churches

The current crack-down on the church in China arguably began in the city of Wenzhou, Zhejiang province. With its reputation of being China’s “Jerusalem” or “Antioch,” Wenzhou is a Christian stronghold, having the highest percentage of Christians in the general population. The church in Wenzhou is also known for its unique church traditions and culture shaped by the heritage of Western missionaries and the miraculous survival of Christian life even during the darkest moments of the Cultural Revolution.

From 2014 to 2016 the church in Wenzhou was shaken to its core by an unexpected governmental campaign to demolish crosses and tear down some newly constructed church buildings in the name of enforcing construction codes. The campaign and the response of Christians drew huge media attention internationally, being largely framed as a violation of human rights as well as Christian suffering and resistance.

However, the tension and conflicts also triggered heated and widespread discussion and debate among Christians and church leaders, locally and nationwide. For some church leaders and observers, the strength as well as the weakness of Wenzhou church culture were finally exposed. Consequently many questions have been asked, church tradition and culture critically assessed and challenged, and new ideas proposed. Some of the typical questions raised include:

  • What is the essence of church, and how essential is hardware or facilities for church?
  • Why do so many Wenzhou churches spend millions to build state-of-the-art church buildings, but are unwilling to pay church workers decent salaries and invest in training future generations of church leaders?
  • Why do so many churches in Wenzhou care so much about guanxi (connections), and love to cut under-the-table deals with local government officials in order to build their huge church complexes even in violation of governmental regulations?
  • Why is the church decision-making process often dominated by a few powerful, entrenched families and influential lay leaders who happen to be wealthy business men?
  • What do Christian responses to the government campaigns tell us about the character of Wenzhou churches and their members?
  • What does the lack of care and sympathy toward some victims of the persecution tell us about the quality of disciple-making in the churches?
  • How should churches treat each other when they choose different approaches to governmental persecution? Should those churches that choose to compromise be considered traitors?

What makes these questions significant is not the responses to and analysis of this particular historical confrontation with the authorities but that they touch on fundamental issues of ecclesiology. In grappling with these kinds of questions, some church leaders in Wenzhou began to realize this, and have begun to go beyond the issues of strategy and tactics, and to engage in root issues of orientation. To explore what church should look like in the Wenzhou context, they are drawing inspiration from many sources ranging, from Anabaptism to Calvinism.

Of course, this well-planned governmental crack-down on the church did not stop in Wenzhou, but quickly impacted other provinces like Henan and other cities like Beijing. If the government campaign in Wenzhou drew national attention, the widening persecution prompted even more church leaders from all over the country to ask questions and engage in critical re-thinking.

Urban House Churches

In the 1980s, the revival of the Chinese church led to the emergence of a massive house-church movement. As churches arose rapidly in urban areas in the late 1990s, most of those new, urban, and largely middle class, churches were eager to learn from churches in the West and Korea. A common argument put forward was that churches in the West are way ahead of their Chinese counterparts in church development, so Chinese churches need to repeat those stages of church development; the traditional house model was increasingly no longer able to meet the needs of churches in 21st century China. No wonder transplanting the denominational traditions and identities from the West into China was a trendy thing to do. Megachurches in America and Korea became the dream, or model, of many urban churches in China. Consequently, a “bigger-is-better” mentality became rampant. To put it another way, copying (intentionally or unintentionally) Western or Korean church models was taken for granted.

It is perhaps fair to say that this unexpected wave of persecution serves as a wake-up call, and has made at least some churches think about their current path . Even before the current persecution broke out, a few top house church leaders had already felt the coming chill of a harsh winter, and called the church to get out of the bubble of optimism and triumphalism, and prepare for an imminent crack-down from the government by dividing large congregations into smaller ones. Before the persecution started, this kind of voice was part of a lonely minority, but in recent years, it has echoed more and more. Perhaps it was not accidental that large, well known, and high profile “megachurches”—such as Zion Church in Beijing—were attacked first and most severely. Those large congregations were forced to split into smaller groups worshiping literally in households again.

 In a lengthy conversation, a senior leader of a large church network told me that the intensifying persecution has opened his eyes to the fact that the Chinese context is very different; what works in foreign contexts may not work in China. The overwhelmingly hostile environment in China casts doubt on the viability of American denominational models and Korean mega-church models. He said it is time to stop copying blindly what others did in other contexts, and explore a truly genuine, sustainable, Chinese church model. This leader grew up in a large network of rural churches, and has served the network all his life. In his view, the network (团队,tuan dui) is neither a large, single mega-congregation nor a denomination, but rather a web or family of many smaller house churches. This is a genuinely indigenous Chinese phenomenon.

Growing out of the grass-roots context of Chinese society, his network has gone through many harsh times. They are very experienced at dealing with pressure, and their resilience is attested to by time. The ongoing persecution makes him once again see the value of the network (tuan dui) model in the Chinese context. In fact, he would argue this model is biblically based and bears resemblance to the early church.

Under the current campaign of governmental crack-down, large congregations splitting into smaller groups—voluntarily or involuntarily. This poses a huge challenge to the previously popular tendency to pursue the size of the congregation and numerical growth of the church. There are signs pointing to a growing appreciation of the early church’s emphasis on discipleship rather than numbers and size. In fact, the sudden popularity of cell groups reflects this trend in many ways.

Admittedly the cell group model is not a totally new thing for churches in urban areas. Many churches have been learning the theory and practice of cell groups from their counterparts in other countries, and applying and adapting it to Chinese contexts for decades. But the rapidly changing social environment has dramatically drawn attention to it. It’s being seen as the only viable way for survival and even as a new church model to pursue. Some church leaders are calling for the development of indigenous cell group theory and practice in their unique social context.

In my opinion, what is equally, if not more, meaningful and significant is many Chinese churches’ re-appreciation or recovery of the Chinese house church’s trade-mark spirit of suffering and bearing the cross for Christ. When the churches experienced their heyday of growth and expansion under the relatively tolerant environment of recent years, a triumphal spirit and complacent attitude were not difficult to find among the churches in China. Now with persecution arising, a call has begun for Chinese churches to get ready for tremendous suffering, and to witness for Christ with humility, servanthood, and sacrifice. Especially as Chinese churches are joining global missions, they need to bring this spirit with them.

To the surprise of many, persecution is motivating churches to initiate new ministries and new initiatives. As the space for evangelism in Chinese society is shrinking, some urban churches are pouring more energy and resources into community services. With the churches being pressed very hard at home, they see this as the perfect opportunity to send their people out into other parts of the world to proclaim the gospel and plant churches. This reminds us of what happened to the churches in Jerusalem in the wake of local persecution.

Amazingly Christian unity seems to be emerging from current persecution as an unlikely winner, too. Church leaders and believers who used to fight one another bitterly along dogmatic and denominational lines have found themselves next to each other in solidarity. The church leaders of house churches and the Three-Self Movement, from both Protestant and Catholic traditions, have found a lot in common in their shared need to deal with persecution.

Religious persecution always deserves condemnation from the church. We should show our solidarity with the Chinese church in their resistance and protest against unjust pressure and crack-downs. However, we should not ignore the fact that while persecution may result in breaking up churches, imprisoning church leaders, and making churches less visible from the public eye again, it is not killing the churches in China. On the contrary, plenty of evidence shows that under persecution Chinese churches are perhaps becoming more dynamic and creative in many ways. More and more Chinese church leaders and believers are asking fresh and fundamental questions, and engaging in deep soul-searching, opening their eyes to their own blind points, acknowledging what they did wrong or was at least questionable, challenging unconditional trust in anything imported from overseas, becoming more aware of their unique social context, and exploring new possibilities and paths.

In my opinion, one of the most significant current quests of the Chinese church is to explore a genuinely indigenous ecclesiology viable in the Chinese context. Without endorsing any of the above-mentioned new ideas put forward by particular Chinese church leaders as universally valid, I would argue it is this new trend of asking questions and exploring new indigenous paths that is most significant, encouraging, and worthy of our full attention. My sincere hope is that this trend will continue to expand and produce something fresh and good.

Can the current persecution be an opportunity as well as a danger to the church in China? I think we should be confident at this point to say “yes.” This happened in biblical times, and is happening to the church in China of the 21st century, too.

Image credit: Zhushikou Church by vincentraal via Flickr.
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CHEN Jing (pseudonym) is a theological educator teaching in North America and has been extensively involved in theological education for the church in China since the beginning of the 21st century.View Full Bio

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