In this article from ChurchChina, Bian Yun-bo shares about all the interesting places Chinese Christians have secretly gathered during difficult times. From caves, to cellars, and even boats, Bian emphasizes how important the gathered church is, especially when times are tough.
Meeting Places of House Churches in Difficult Times
In the ten years between 1966 and 1976, it was difficult for people under heavy surveillance as well as house churches of certain areas to gather. And so, some unique meeting places emerged in those times.
Towards the end of the 1960s, in the first two or three years of the Cultural Revolution, some brothers and sisters in Wenzhou took to praying in caves. This prayer meeting was started by an elderly sister who had studied at the Beijing Home of Grace. She had long been quietly serving the Lord in Wenzhou. In the beginning of the Cultural Revolution, this elderly sister also experienced attacks and suffering. But because she was very loving, and her relationship with people around her was usually good, her neighbors did not especially target her, and slowly things relaxed. This elderly sister told a couple of brothers and sisters in their 20s that now was the time to start praying again, and to pray diligently. So, these young people started praying in the caves.
One of the sisters who attended this prayer meeting, Qu Xiu-chong (who was only 18 or 19 at the time), told me in the 1990s that back then, when they were praying in the caves, they had to go separately in twos or threes. They could not go in groups of four or five. And not many people were notified of the gathering to begin with. But after a while, others who loved the Lord began to learn about their prayer meeting.
One young brother confronted them, “Why do you go to pray without asking me to come along?”
Brothers and sisters could only explain to him, “Because the cave is really small, and it’s not suitable for too many people. So, we didn’t tell you about it.”
That young brother was very sad, saying, “It’s not because you were worried about too many people in a small place, but because you don’t trust me!” And as he said this he became increasingly upset.
After that, this young brother also started joining in prayer. Then, more and more people joined in. As the circumstances improved slightly, they no longer gathered in a cave, but in the homes of believers. Sometimes they even gathered for prayer in one of the larger houses.
This was Wenzhou, Zhejiang in the late 1960s. Some young people started a prayer meeting in the caves with the help, guidance, and encouragement of an elderly sister. Now, there are churches all over Wenzhou, and many churches have been planted within China and even abroad by people from Wenzhou. Some say that Wenzhou is the Jerusalem of China. I say that Wenzhou is the Antioch of China. And the revival in the Wenzhou area started with prayer.
In some places in Henan, the brothers and sisters of the time gathered in cellars. One sister told me in person that digging cellars took a lot of time, energy, and emotional strain.
One family decided to dig a cellar in their own home as a gathering place. The family started by moving a kitchen cupboard from its corner, and digging down from there (the homes they lived in were built directly on the dirt).
They had to think of a way to dispose of the dirt that was dug up. They could not leave it at their own front door, nor pile it somewhere in the kitchen. Only by spreading it flat in the fields could they avoid detection. They could only dig at night, and had to transport the dirt before daybreak. And so, shovelful after shovelful of dirt was dug up, and basket after basket of dirt was secretly moved out.After a very long time, the cellar was finally completed.
Every time they gathered at night, they would lower a ladder down into the cellar, then the person remaining above would move the kitchen cupboard back into the corner to cover it up. If anyone came from the outside, the person keeping watch would knock on the cupboard or use some other code, and the sound of singing and prayer would immediately cease.
During the Sino-Japanese War, the Eighth Route Army had dug tunnels for the war. After victory, the tunnels were not filled up and closed down, but nobody used them. They simply sat empty.
During that particular time, some brothers and sisters would hold gatherings lasting for two or three days down in the tunnels. They lived in the tunnels, ate in the tunnels, and gathered there from morning till night.
In the early 1980s, a Christian from abroad learned about this. He thought it was interesting news, and spread it abroad, so that it was even published in a certain journal overseas. This brother did not think that the article would spread back to China. Luckily, the people gathering were alert and evacuated the tunnels just in time. So that when the Public Security staff found the tunnels, all they saw were some bowls and chopsticks, proving that people had been here.
Some other people gathered on boats. For example, they would find a big boat on a fairly large lake, a boat on which a dozen or so people could live. They would hold gatherings lasting for a couple days on the boats.
Islands, Mountains, Forests, Grasslands
At that time the Zhoushan Archipelago was desert islands, completely uninhabited. So, brothers and sisters would take a boat out to a desert island. Sometimes a few, sometimes a dozen people would fast and pray there for a whole day. They could even sing freely and pray loudly. Today, there are some fairly large churches built on some of the islands in the Zhoushan Archipelago. There were such trials in the past, but today so many people can gather together! We really should praise and give thanks to God our Father.
In the South, some brothers and sisters went up desolate mountains to pray and sing hymns. Sometimes they would bring food, and gather on the mountains for an entire day. If there were caves up in the mountain, they might spend the night in caves, and so gather for two or three days on the mountains.
In the Northeast, some brothers and sisters would occasionally gather for a day in the depths of the forests. Because the forest regions were more out of the way, it did not matter if they gathered from morning till night, or even into the middle of the night.
Other brothers and sisters gathered on the great grasslands of Inner Mongolia. The grass could be taller than people, and if they sat down in the grass, or kneeled to pray, people outside would never know. So there have also been gatherings in the wild grasslands.
There are also some other places, which are not necessarily common. I have attended some of these gathering places:
(1) There was a brother in the south who built a house for gathering in the bamboo forest halfway up a mountain (right beside the main road). He also held training classes there. This brother said, “bamboo forests in the south were logged once every three years. So, in the name of protecting the bamboo forest from illegal logging, I built a house here which was really used for gatherings. Praise God, it was very safe and we never had any problems.”
(2) In Southern Anhui, there was a time when many people were attending house gatherings. For the Sunday service, they continued gathering in various homes. Later on, they would all gather at the village markets once a month. In rural villages, markets are once every five days. When the market is not in use, it is just an empty place. On Saturday afternoon, brothers and sisters would be told to gather at such and such a market on Sunday, and the Sunday service would be at such and such a time, starting on time and ending on time. On Sunday morning everyone would gather and immediately start singing hymns, immediately holding a church service. Once the service was done, they would all immediately disperse, and even the sound equipment would be quickly taken away. This month they would meet at this place, next month in another place. These gatherings continued for a very long time.
(3) When I was in Shanghai, I attended a gathering in a restaurant. It was around 2001, and a fellowship at Fudan University rented a restaurant. There were no customers between 2:00 and 4:00 in the afternoon. Or perhaps the restaurant was closed during those hours. On that day there were 70 or 80 people gathered, and we could even freely sing hymns in that restaurant. After the preaching, everybody was dismissed just like at the end of a worship service.
(4) Somebody even rented out an entire motel for three whole days. One hundred seventy or eighty people stayed at the motel and gathered for two or three days, and everything went smoothly. In 2001, I also attended such a gathering at a motel for several days, greatly blessed by God!
(5) Some brothers and sisters would intentionally buy supposedly haunted apartments for their gatherings which nobody else dared to buy.
(6) Towards the end of the last century, there were very few elevators in use in this country, so the tallest buildings were usually six floors, and each floor typically had four apartments. Some brothers and sisters would buy or rent all four apartments on the sixth floor, and tell people that they were teaching computer courses or some other courses. But in reality, it was a place for training preachers. Each gathering lasted a week. For over a decade it remained very safe. I was blessed to be able to lecture twice in such a place.
(7) Some brothers and sisters would borrow classrooms at a school, and gather under the pretense of an alumni meeting. At the entrance, there would be a blackboard which said that the alumni meeting is in such and such a classroom, and so all the brothers and sisters gathering would know where to meet. Of course, there would be a number of alumni in the group, so it would count as an alumni meeting. Even more brothers and sisters gathered in the auditorium or cafeteria of the school. I was once invited to preach for a day, and there were close to a hundred people in attendance. Before I finished the final session in the afternoon, one of the brothers in charge walked up to me slowly, and calmly told me in a small voice, “Our gathering has attracted attention. Please wrap up your preaching soon.” Thank God, I was able to wrap up my sermon in a couple sentences very calmly. The brother in charge told the congregation, “Praise God. Today’s gathering is now finished. Please quietly leave in twos and threes, keeping a distance from one another.”
At this point I wanted to mention that some people say religion here in this country is not open, or free enough, while religion abroad is very open and free. Yet I know of a place in the country, where some young Christian students remained at school during the summer break of 2011 to distribute gospel tracts and share the gospel with non-Christian students. In the course of only one summer, they brought over 100 people to the Lord. I heard that two years ago, even more people (over 200) came to know the Lord, and committed themselves to following the Lord in one summer.
In other countries the fields of harvest are vast, and there is much room for spreading the gospel. But how many brothers and sisters are willing to hand out gospel tracts on the streets? How many brothers and sisters are willing to use their school breaks to spread the gospel? In what school district abroad can someone lead over 100 people to the Lord?
Brothers and sisters, forgive me for saying this, yet who knows that we have received the title of sons of God for such a time as this? May we be increasingly emboldened by the love of God, and strive to spread the gospel among the people around us.
I pray that the above testimonies will encourage many brothers and sisters at home and abroad to not neglect worship on the Lord’s Day, and to not forget that we should regularly attend gatherings.
The Bible says that we should not neglect meeting together, as is the habit of some. We have much more freedom of gathering now, and may our brothers and sisters at home and abroad cherish such an opportunity.
Forgive me for repeating this again: The church is the saints. The church is not a chapel, nor a building. We as sons and daughters of God are the church. Therefore, if we have a beautiful chapel, but a cold and apathetic congregation, it is inferior to a simple chapel but a passionate congregation, loving one another, upholding Christ, and spreading the gospel. Even if our places of gathering are not spacious, or ideal, even if we gather in an empty field, we are the church, and we are blessed. May God bless our church, and bless each and every brother and sister.
Image credit: Matthew Stinson via Flickr.
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