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Touring Three-Self Churches

Some Final Thoughts

From the series A Tour of Three-Self Churches


For the past several weeks, ChinaSource has graciously posted a number of my journal entries written on a trip across China from south to north to visit registered churches. This trip was made in the summer of 2011—eight years ago. The question naturally arises, “Are these observations and ramblings from so long ago still relevant?” We all know how quickly things change in China! Obviously, I thought they were relevant and the folks at ChinaSource apparently agreed.

Being relevant does not necessarily mean there has been no change. So let's briefly look at what has changed and what is still pretty much the same. I am basing this analysis on the original 2011 journal entries and two later trips to China in 2017-18 to interview registered church pastors for a book I am working on. Many of the questions asked in both sets of interviews (2011 and 2017-18) were the same, but there were a few key questions that were different.

These key questions had to do with the new religious regulations and sinicization. These of course were still in the future in 2011. But if one broadens the focus and understands these as part of the topic of church/state relations, then one can compare the answers from the two timeframes.

When we do that, we find that there is not much difference after all. At both points in time, there were numbingly boring meetings with government personnel that changed or accomplished little. The general attitude towards the government was that at this time and in this culture, working with the government was an unavoidable nuisance. At both times, there was a minority who felt that the government was helpful in many ways.

In both 2011 and 2017-18, the number one problem faced by the church according to those I spoke with was the impact of cults. This was followed by two other problems: a shortage of pastors and insufficient training for pastors. In the second time period some new issues were mentioned. Perhaps the most serious was the shutting down or changing of Sunday School. In Beijing this was not seen as a major problem. Some of the churches went on as usual; others changed the name.

Another new issue was the requirement to place flags in the courtyard. All the churches had to deal with this, but again most did not see that to be a major problem. One pastor said that if there was a government official coming, they raised the flag. After he left it was lowered again.

I had heard about other issues in the media but did not run into them personally on those trips, nor did any of the pastors mention them. These included things like hanging pictures of Mao and Xi Jinping in the church.

There has been additional pressure and tightening put on the church in the months since my last trip. I am looking forward to my next visit later this year when I will be able to speak again with pastors and leaders in the registered churches.

But for me, the striking thing has been the homogeneity of the churches over time and place. The churches and their pastors simply went faithfully about their business, the business of sharing and teaching their faith, and leading the people in worship—doing what the church is called to do.

This concludes the series on Wayne Ten Harmsel's journal of his tour of Three-self churches. The full series is available at "A Tour of Three-Self Churches." 

Image credit: Joann Pittman via Flickr.

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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