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The Wenzhou Church Reborn from the Ashes

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This year’s attacks on church buildings in Wenzhou have been the subject of much analysis, the majority focusing on the relationship between church and government in Wenzhou. The following blog post, written by a Christian in China, and published in the mainland Christian Times, takes a closer look at the impact on the Wenzhou church itself.

While not dismissing the seriousness of the attacks, the writer nonetheless suggests that the unfortunate events of this year may actually prove to be a significant turning point in the development of the Wenzhou church. Key to his argument is a return to the true nature and purpose of the church – one of the enduring lessons of the church in China during the past 65 years but a lesson that had perhaps been forgotten during the prosperous decades of reform. Today, as Wenzhou churches are under attack, church leaders again need to examine their priorities. Outward success measures such as the size of church buildings and congregations are giving way to a renewed focus on personal spiritual growth. In place of an almost exclusive focus on the well being of Wenzhou church members comes a healthy concern for the society and a fresh understanding of the interconnectedness of all believers in China.

The sense of urgency that has characterized the church scene in Zhejiang Province in recent months is hastening this awakening. Rebirth is emerging out of the ashes of despair. The painful but necessary pruning that is now taking place will, in God’s timing, bring forth greater fruit in years to come.

The Wenzhou Church Reborn from the Ashes

‪The church in Wenzhou has always attracted much attention and has seemingly become the weather vane of the church in China. Today, however, the attention received is no longer because of its ubiquitous eye-catching crosses, but because of the fiercest trial it has faced since the Cultural Revolution. To date we have no way of knowing exactly how many churches and crosses have been demolished during the "Three Rectifications and One Demolition" campaign. “Church” signs on the buildings have been changed to “Elderly Activity Center.” Formerly neon-lit crosses have been, one by one, wrapped in burlap and the churches demolished. The demolition of crosses has become an ache in the soul of many Christians and has left many observers dumbfounded. But after experiencing this raging inferno, we see that in this baptism of fire a new kind of Wenzhou church is being reborn in the ashes. Two years ago I wrote an essay titled “The Decline of the Wenzhou Church.” Now, as a result of this terrible campaign, the Wenzhou church is on the verge of experiencing a fiery rebirth.

‪1. From competition over physical structures to spiritual construction.

‪In recent years, the economic conditions for the Wenzhou church have been quite favorable. Competition to build churches had almost become the order of the day. As soon as a new church was built, it was torn down and rebuilt again! Before the new building was even filled with people, they begin to build an even bigger and more luxurious one. There are many domestic intellectuals who have raised critical objections to this point, arguing that it’s normal for every church leader to want his church to be the most visible and most beautiful. Quantifiable things have become their own performance evaluation standards, but they have had little overall success. "Large churches, few believers" has become the common characteristic of many Wenzhou village churches. At the same time, however, the style of the church building has become increasingly more important. Many believers mistakenly think that tithing to support building a church building (建堂) is the same as building a congregation (建教会). Since they believe this pleases God, they happily tithe to build a church building. Congregations often use church building projects as a means of uniting believers. This recent church demolition campaign, however, surprised people at first, then caused many congregations to sober up. They have learned that a church building is not the same as a congregation of believers and that a congregation without a building is still a church. So now, instead of competing to see who can build the best building, the focus has shifted to the spiritual construction of believers. Training programs have increased, the number of people studying theology (but not necessarily in full-time ministry) has increased, and spiritual formation is once again being valued. I believe that the experiences of the Wenzhou church during the “Three Rectifications, One Demolition” campaign will bring about maturity.

‪2. From Three-Self / house church division to substantive unity.

‪Prior to the church demolitions, Three-Self churches and house churches in Wenzhou had little or no contact with one another. This was also true of native Wenzhou and non-native Wenzhou communities. The result was that they were actually in competition with one another. However, the "Three Rectifications, One Demolition" campaign suddenly made all these groups (registered and unregistered churches; local Wenzhou churches and non-native churches) realize the common danger they were facing. They were reminded that we are all members of one body and if one part suffers we all suffer. We must help each other in harsh circumstances in order to survive. This deep insight has caused the Wenzhou church go from “no contact with each other” towards “mutual understanding and acceptance,” from “personal politics” towards “substantial unity.” This unity also includes cooperation between native Wenzhou and non-native Wenzhou churches.

‪3. From chaotic religious investment to purity of ministry service.

‪Because in the past the Wenzhou church provided a platform for fame and profit, many church leaders, to put it bluntly, were "speculators" of this fame and profit. Greedy for fame and fortune, ignorant and incompetent, given to sensationalism, they did things that they themselves were not good at in order to improve their reputation and increase their popularity. The church demolition events that were triggered by the tightening policies on religion will mean that these church "speculators" will have no choice but to weigh the cost of such speculation. If this campaign continues, the church will eliminate a number of religious "speculators," a group of vulgar leaders and preachers. Of course, the true believers will be more resolute, helping to make clear the distinction between true believers and religious speculators. In fact, this group of speculators is now waiting to see which way the wind will blow, keeping silent during the campaign. On various occasions they expressed dissimilar voices, waiting for a time of opportunistic change. But if the church becomes more ardent as this type of event plays out and as this continues to ferment, church leaders will be forced to articulate their positions. (The last two botched sessions of the National People's Congress and Chinese People's Political Consultative Congress [两会] really do not match the political stance of a production team leader from the 1960s.)1 This will result in the cleaning out of a number of religious fame and fortune speculators and the church will therefore be more pure. This will provide an opportunity for the Wenzhou church to be sanctified, bringing once again a big revival.

‪4. From trending towards prosperity theology to returning to the salvation theology of the cross.

‪Over the years, along with the success of the charismatic movement, the so-called “prosperity gospel” has exploded in mainland churches. Awareness of the prosperity gospel recently began to emerge in some Wenzhou churches. So in one sense, the start of the so-called "Three Rectifications, One Demolition" campaign came just in time and in the right place to convincingly give the recently intruding prosperity gospel a whack on the head. As a result, the Wenzhou church has begun to reverse this prosperity gospel trend and is beginning to return to the salvation theology of the cross. It is moving from the "optimism hermeneutic" of showy displays of happiness and prosperity back towards the hermeneutic of revelation. In this sense, the "Three Rectifications, One Demolition" event has undoubtedly led to a regenerative movement to maintain the purity of the church in Wenzhou. In communication with students in Wenzhou, we have noticed a decrease in fantastical visions for "heaven on earth," and somewhat of an increase in profound distress; a decrease in designs for material construction, and somewhat of an increase in sharing about spiritual experiences; less of a sense of superiority, and more a sense of crisis. Most obvious is the moving away from notions to build tall and impressive church buildings and back to the theology of suffering, the historical mission of Christians, social responsibility, and spiritual reflection over salvation theology. I think that this is an important step towards maturity on the part of not only the Wenzhou church, but of the Chinese church.

‪5. From gradual secularization of indifference towards an enthusiastic sense of crisis.

‪Before the Sanjiang Church Incident, the church in Wenzhou had a universal optimistic mood of blind superiority. Such sentiments gradually caused the Wenzhou church to be inclined toward secularism, (in fact, valuing the magnificence of the outside of the church over the humility and formation of the lives of those inside the church is precisely one form of secularism). Secularization caused the Wenzhou church to lose the zeal of the generation of believers after the Cultural Revolution. As a result, the new generation in the Wenzhou church became indifferent, even apathetic. However, after the Sanjiang Church Incident, we noticed some changes. In the past, when we read about Jesus Christ warning the church of the hardship and persecution it would face in the last days, we had thought this was in the distant past or the future. But now, we are very clearly aware that perhaps we are that generation. We will eventually face the apocalyptic warnings Jesus spoke of during Passion Week. But this sense of crisis has made the church become more sober and full of enthusiasm. Our church has begun thinking about our social responsibility, our call to missions, the purpose of our existence, as well as the form of development our church really needs. This is a peripheral incident that prompted the Wenzhou church to reassess and awaken.

6. More than ever the church values theology and church education.

‪The Sanjiang Church Incident forced the Wenzhou church to shift its development objectives from church construction to life training and the building of a church culture. Before and after this event, more and more church figures realized they needed a foundation of theology. They needed to clarify the church's tradition, and promote the establishment of church education and the tradition of family faith. Even if it is just an act, this can be seen by the number of Wenzhou preachers, even preachers of the older generation, who are beginning to focus instead on the impact of the Internet. After the Sanjiang Church Incident, the awareness of this was pushed to a new climax by the "Three Rectifications, One Demolition" campaign. For the foreseeable future, when the course and energy of church development are forced to turn from constructing church buildings, inevitably it will push the church to devote its efforts to the development of theology and church education - those spiritual foundations of construction. I believe that, with Wenzhou at the epicenter, this particular "Three Rectifications, One Demolition" event will have the result of upgrading the quality of theological education in large areas of the domestic church. In the near future, the domestic church will produce theological scholars in all different areas of higher education. Many ordinary church pastors in our ranks will have a Doctor of Theology. The resulting large number of domestic and overseas scholars produced from this will also be uniquely qualified for the ministry of theological education in Mainland China.

‪7. From personal politics to gradually producing contemporary pioneer-style spiritual leaders.

‪Except for several highly respected contemporary church leaders, the domestic church so far has not since produced any church leaders of a similar mold. Although there is no shortage of people doing all they can to become this generation's church leader, none have been successful. This does not mean that the church does not need these church leaders, nor does it mean the era of church heroes has passed; however, without the right opportunity, a generation of "heroes" cannot be created! The "Three Rectifications, One Demolition" campaign has provided a "right opportunity" for creating the "church hero." Personal charm, charisma, leadership in times of crisis, church approval, theologically trained, a nimble political mind as well as the ability to promote character are characteristics required for contemporary church leaders. These characteristics all seem to be present. The essential catalyst is the right opportunity for a crisis in the current situation, and the "Three Rectifications, One Demolition" campaign is precisely that. If the "Three Rectifications, One Demolition" campaign continues to evolve, it will help Wenzhou, and it will help the nationwide church go so far as to produce a contemporary pioneer-style spiritual leader, and thereby establish a special team. A contemporary leader of this type may appear in the house church, or within the institutional church. Maybe he'll have to pay a certain political price, but the higher this price, the higher his prestige, increasing the opportunities for the church to create more great spiritual leaders. Even with superior political acumen he would not need to pay a political price, but would only need to find a balance in the tension between a person and his abilities, perhaps producing similar contemporary church leaders.

8. From the big talking "theological craftsmen" towards young preachers with a contemporary spirit and theological foundation.

‪Before the events of the Sanjiang Church Incident, many of our young generation of preachers had never even completely read John Calvin's Institutes; however, this has not stopped them uninhibitedly rattling on about Calvinism. They may have obtained a little theological training, but they still lack basic theological maturity and cultivation. Since they are fond of criticizing others over nit-picky theological details, I have come to call them "theological craftsmen." Questions raised by these theological craftsmen are difficult theological propositions to wrestle with and to think through in their spiritual, contextual, and historical backgrounds. Those desiring to be regarded as theologians especially enjoy arrogantly droning on about theology. What the theological craftsmen produce actually has little to do with what is being produced within the church. But the crisis of the "Three Rectifications, One Demolition" campaign gives the church no choice to play armchair theology. We need to think about our own mission, values ​​and a way out from the current plight we find ourselves in, and also, rooted in theological contemplation, discover logical explanations and the church's developmental path for our current circumstances. Theologians are not trained in laboratories, but are forged in current reality. Therefore, it is possible to transform these theological craftsmen into true preachers who are molded by the spirit of the era and with a theological foundation. The campaign gives us an opportunity for this kind of transformation.

9. From native Wenzhou pride towards honoring the catholicity and apostolic succession of the church.

‪For a time the Wenzhou church was extremely xenophobic. It was very difficult for outsiders to be accepted in Wenzhou church circles. In the past, second and third generation native Wenzhou preachers often had a superiority complex. If you paid attention to the way they talked you would often hear, "My Wenzhou is like this or like that" carelessly come up in conversation with co-laborers in Wenzhou. They habitually reference their own experiences and particular Wenzhou church culture to measure the differences with the situations of other churches. But the "Three Rectifications, One Demolition" campaign has forced the Wenzhou church to start considering their own position from theological tradition and questions about the nature of the church and they have begun to accept non-Wenzhou churches. This thought process and communication with non-Wenzhou churches will force the Wenzhou church to consider historic theology as well as the catholic and ecumenical nature of the church in light of their own plight and mission. This will help elevate their values and the church culture. The Sanjiang Church Incident is an opportunity for a Second Great Awakening in the Wenzhou church following the Cultural Revolution.

10. Self-centeredness towards accepting non-Wenzhou communities.

‪Somewhat similar to the point above, along with the outflow of the native populace and the inflow of non-Wenzhou communities into the Wenzhou church, contact and acceptance between churches is on the rise. In the past, the Wenzhou church focused much more on its own church growth. It was very easy to use it’s own customs as a basis for what was proper. Now, however, the church is looking at what lessons can be learned from the outside. They are more accepting of non-Wenzhou groups and are promoting modernized and internationalized church reform.

11. From employing church doctrine to the importance of building church culture.

‪Wenzhou culture has a practical and pragmatic, or, you could say, utilitarian cultural tradition. This is very different from the inland farming culture or nomadic cultures of northwest China. Wenzhou culture is more similar to a maritime culture. This culture is characterized by valuing practicality, performance, risk-taking, economics and trade, and pragmatics over philosophical guidelines. Maritime culture is more conducive to the spread of Christianity. From the earliest days of Chinese history, Wenzhou was engaged in maritime trade, something that has been manifested in both migration and smuggling across distant lands. Perhaps influenced by the local maritime culture of Wenzhou, the Wenzhou church places a high value on visible, quantifiable church assets. This is a characteristic of Wenzhou church culture. However, due to the current campaign, the era of focusing on building church structures has come to an end; going forward, churches in Wenzhou will no longer be able to compete with one another for the best “hardware.” The Wenzhou church has no choice but to begin focusing on building a church culture that is characterized by a Christian lifestyle, education, training, and other methods that will increase the maturity and cohesion of the church. This new culture will help the Wenzhou church have a substantial impact on Wenzhou society. This may also become a pioneering model for the domestic church.

‪12. From an optimistic sense of peacefulness towards a sense of crisis.

‪The past attitude of superiority on the part of the Wenzhou church was very similar to pre-WWI liberalism in the West, which held that the world would inevitably continue to turn towards a peaceful path of progress. The Wenzhou church was extremely optimistic about the future, believing that religious policies would open up more, the number of believers would continue to grow, and the more churches built the bigger they would be. It believed that revival in the church would continue to increase, the status of believers would continue to grow, and Christians would increasingly become synonymous with being fashionable. They believed that a Christian kingdom would come, and that Jesus would return within the foreseeable future. They believed that life would get better and better, everything would be peaceful, the earth would become a wonderful heaven. Indeed, we have built our hopes upon the earth, not expecting Jesus to come quickly. However, after the Sanjiang Church Incident, the church has begun to feel a sense of crisis. From theology and eschatology, the church has begun to reflect on the current circumstances. I believe that this sense of crisis will promote awakening and reassessment within the church. The "Three Rectifications, One Demolition" campaign will bring awareness to the Wenzhou church. In terms of the development of the church, this campaign may very well prove to be a turning point for the Wenzhou church, allowing it to focus on mature growth and strength, and thus avoiding the denigration that happened with the Roman Church. In this sense, the "Three Rectifications, One Demolition" campaign will promote the healthy development of Wenzhou church.

‪At this point, I am reminded of Jesus' words when he said, "every branch that does not bear fruit he prunes so that it will be even more fruitful!” Prune from our body the branches that do not bear fruit and let the real fruit grow more abundantly. This process is painful, but it will have a good result. Behind this heartbreaking series of events, it is clear that Jesus Christ is still truly in charge. If we trust in the prophecy of Jesus, we will easily endure hardship. I believe it is all grace. Indeed, as the Psalmist says, "The Lord sits enthroned over the flood; the Lord sits enthroned as King forever." Seen in this way, it is just as Joseph acknowledged: “But God meant it for good!”

‪I believe that this crisis will inevitably provide the Wenzhou church an opportunity to be reborn from the ashes!

*Editor’s note: In the 1960s the Chinese countryside was organized into production brigades (formerly called villages). It was the most grassroots form of governance and decision-making. In this sentence the author seems to be expressing his dissatisfaction with the work of China’s highest level legislative bodies by making an unfavorable comparison to the 1960s work brigades.

Article: 张远来:浴火重生的温州教会 in the Christian Times. Translated and posted with permission.

Photo Credit: CC image "Chashan Church" by Ken Larmon, via Flickr.

ChinaSource Team

Written by members of the ChinaSource staff.  View Full Bio


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