The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and the tightening of religious regulations have resulted in significant changes in the form and function of the church in China. This article from Christian Times speaks of three trends of the Chinese church—“More small groups, more household-oriented, more online.” Due to length, we will be posting this article in two parts. Watch for part two next week.
Perspective| “More Small Groups, More Household-Oriented, More Online”—Three Tendencies in the Chinese Church Prompted by the Post-Pandemic Age
Against a background of resurgent COVID outbreaks and the normalization of pandemic prevention measures, as well as the tightening of the regulatory threshold in the religious sphere, many significant changes have taken place in the form and function of the church in China.
“More small groups, more household-oriented and more online”—observations and summaries like this have been made by a number of pastors from churches in different parts of the country in recent months when discussing the current situation and trends in the Chinese church since the pandemic began in 2020. Some of these pastors are pastoring churches of varying sizes, some are doing outreach work among various groups, and some are engaged in the promotion of theological education alongside their pastoral duties.
In fact, small group meetings and emphasis on family and online gatherings have existed for many years, but the situational changes brought about by the 2020 pandemic have prompted these three factors to become more important and crucial. We might say that these three trends have become more prominent in the post-epidemic era, and that changes in the external environment have reinforced these developments.
These trends are not confined to small, scattered meeting points, but are also increasingly evident in large churches all over the country that have over a thousand members and have had difficulty in meeting in person consistently over the last two years or so due to pandemic control measures.
Here, the phrase “more small groups” [literally “small group-ization”] means to move in the direction of meeting as small groups. “More household-oriented” [literally “family-ization”] means increasingly characterized by meeting and fellowshipping in a particular believer’s home. “More online” refers to the phenomenon of more and more worship services, meetings, and training being conducted via the internet.
On the one hand it is impossible for the whole congregation to meet in person, and on the other hand pastoral care needs to be strengthened, so “more small groups, more household-oriented, more online” is the response. Its practical outworkings include: large churches are beginning to value operating small groups; there is a greater emphasis on returning to the house church and valuing the family, while at the same time more and more Christian families are valuing family worship; online meetings, training and courses are also growing significantly compared to the pre-pandemic period.
It is unclear how long the current conditions will last and therefore how long these trends will continue. We can anticipate that if in-person congregational meetings become stable and regular once more, then these trends may diminish significantly among churches with stable assets and meeting venues.
However, these church trends brought about by the changing circumstances in recent years, have led more churches to discover the pastoral improvements brought about through small groups, and place more value on the model of the early church and the inescapable contemporary challenge of how to make good use of the internet. Even if in-person congregational meetings recover, the influence of these trends on our thinking may well not diminish, but rather get stronger.
A renewed view of pastoral care: discovering that small groups bring about marked improvement in the pastoral care of churchgoers
The aftermath of the 2020 pandemic has not been easy for churches anywhere. Thanks to the pandemic itself and the related control measures, church doors have been closed more than they have been open.
One church in a north-eastern city with more than 1,000 members counted the number of days the church was open: for the past 828 days, the church had switched continually between “double suspension” and “resumption of in-person meetings” and had only been open for 157 days.
This is not an isolated example. Three-Self churches in over ten provinces faced these problems to a greater or lesser extent. In May 2022, churches in some provinces, such as Jiangsu and Zhejiang, began to resume in-person services, but pandemic prevention controls in Hangzhou and Zhejiang, for example, require possession of a nucleic acid certificate within 48 hours [of attending] and generally only allow gatherings of 50 people, and at the very most a limit of 300 people. This means that for the many churches in the city with several thousand members, at most only 300 people can attend a regular in-person Sunday worship service.
This means that the common challenge for many churches in the city is how to pastor a congregation of thousands when it is difficult to open the church doors or gather in person.
As a result, over the past few years, many churches have begun to show a great deal of interest in how to put small-group church into practice. Various small group meetings and meetings in homes have begun to take shape, dividing the church into groups of around 10 people for small-scale gatherings and for pastoral care. In the process, many grassroots pastors have found that doing small-group church has allowed for a more individualized pastoral approach than the previous feeding of the whole congregation all together. Some brothers have had a rewarding time observing a few small group meetings in homes. They found that such meetings were relatively small in size, with as few as three people, and as many as six or seven, gathering in believers’ homes, sharing in fellowship, talking about faith or the next steps in church work and other insights, and cooking together after the discussion. All of this greatly improved interpersonal relationships, and everyone had fun in the process.
There have also been many challenges. For example, some churches had too many small groups and the church could not manage them well. There have been cases where group leaders have drawn away members. Also there have been cases where cults have infiltrated the church and cult members have become group leaders in order to trick believers into heresy. In view of this, many churches are placing more and more emphasis on training group leaders and co-workers.
Because of these changing circumstances, more and more churches are placing more emphasis on the training of core church workers and the building up of believers, rather than on the size of the church building or the number of people.
Pastor A, a young pastor in his 30s serving in eastern China, said in March 2021 that the pandemic had not affected his church very much, “because half a year before the pandemic started, we had already begun to implement a kind of small group pastoral care.” They did not immediately withdraw from renting the meeting place previously used by the church, so that believers still felt “at home” and had a sense of belonging. After all, they had been meeting in the hall for many years. “At the same time, we pastored online. When pandemic prevention work was less intense, we combined online and offline meetings. The small groups take turns coming to the main church hall for Sunday services.”
Small group pastoral care is about focusing more on the lives of believers, so that believers can build a relationship not with the church or with the pastor, but with God, so that they can stand in the presence of God no matter what circumstances they are facing.
Article to be continued next week.
Image credit: Thomas H. Hahn Docu-Images.
Are you enjoying a cup of good coffee or fragrant tea while reading the latest ChinaSource post? Consider donating the cost of that “cuppa” to support our content so we can continue to serve you with the latest on Christianity in China.