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Phases of Chinese House Church Development

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The mainland think-tank Pacific Institute for Social Sciences recently translated an article by Professor Liu Peng, titled Three Issues Concerning Chinese House Churches. This article provides and excellent overview of the history and current situation for house churches in China.

In one section of the article, he identifies several phases of house church development in China:

1. From 1949 to 1958, the government policy was to crack down on and reform Christianity. From 1958 to 1978, it tried to exterminate Christianity. During the Cultural Revolution from 1966 to 1976, the government even tried to exterminate the Three-Self Church. From 1978 to 1988, house churches emerged amidst ongoing crackdowns. They have developed rapidly as a counter-reaction to the state crackdown.

2. From 1988 to 1998, with social transition and urbanization, the focus of various social forces has shifted from villages to cities. The governments religious policy changed from conducting overall crackdowns to focused governance. From 1998 to 2004, the rapid development of Christianity slowed. Falun Gong was banned in 1998, and, after a few campaigns to sort out house churches, the government stopped launching large-scaled crackdowns on house churches. Except for individual incidents in some regions, the relationship between the state and house churches entered a phase of standoff without serious clashes. During this time period, the focus of the house churches shifted to the cities. Many intellectuals, people returning to China from abroad, white-collars workers in cities and professionals joined the burgeoning house churches in the cities. This phenomenon continues to today and as a result the characteristics of house church members have fundamentally changed.

3. From 2004, after numerous attempts at cracking down on and cleaning up the house churches, the government had a better understanding of the house churches. As long as foreign forces have not joined house churches, and house churches do not act aggressively, the government neither interferes with nor recognizes them. The stance adopted by the house churches has been that they will continue their activities as long as the government does not crack down on them. If the government interferes with house churches, they will move to another place and organize small-scaled activities, but they will not cease their operations. In 2004, the State Council promulgated the Regulation on Religious Affairs. Since then, the government and house churches have paid attention to the registration of house churches. However, as both parties have opposite stances and objectives, and the Regulation on Religious Affairs is hard to implement, house churches quickly gave up their hope of registration.

4. At present, the development of house churches has been quite stable throughout China. They maintain a standoffish relationship with the government. However, more and more house churches in cities now meet in office buildings and have become more open. These house churches no longer try to remain hidden. They have started paying attention to internal governance, regular management, financial supervision, and institutional integration. They also value theological training, preaching, and church documents.

5. In 2008, the most important change that house churches underwent was their entrance into the public sphere and participation in public interests. Among the one million volunteers for the Wenchuan earthquake, reportedly half a million were Christians, 80% of who came from house churches. It is hard to know whether the numbers are accurate. However, I believe that even if the number of Christian volunteers is only 50,000, this number has symbolic significance. Moreover, in my research on NGOs in China, I found that many are not religious organizations, but many NGO members are Christians. Christianity plays a great role in the public service provided by social organizations.

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