Lessons from the Church in China
Q1: Can you give a brief history of the church in China?
We know that in AD 635 a Nestorian monk named Aluoben arrived in China. His impactful story is told on a nine-foot high stele unearthed in 1623. The first Roman Catholic missionaries arrived in 1206, followed centuries later by the influential Matteo Ricci and the Jesuits.
The earliest Protestant missionary was Robert Morrison in 1807. Mastering the language, he produced a Chinese translation of the Bible. Englishman Hudson Taylor came in 1866. His China Inland Mission began with 22 missionaries and grew to 825 by 1905. The 20th century saw the rise of indigenous Chinese church movements such as “The True Jesus Church” and Watchman Nee’s “Local Church.”
Shortly after Mao Zedong’s communist revolution in 1949, Chinese Protestant leaders formed the “Three Self Patriotic Movement” (self-governing, self-supporting, self-propagating). The TSPM pledged to reject foreign influence and fully support the regime. In return, they received government sanction.
Many believers wisely opposed the arrangement and refused to join the TSPM. A decade later, Mao launched the bloody “Cultural Revolution”(1966-1976), which resulted in religion being outlawed, church buildings destroyed or repurposed, and Christians persecuted and ultimately driven underground.
Upon Mao’s death, Deng Xiaoping led the opening up to the West and many restrictions upon the church were lifted. Even so, many Christians chose to remain in the dynamic unregistered groups rather than align with the TSPM churches. The unregistered house churches have been experiencing tremendous numerical growth since 1980.
Q2: What are some of the unique challenges the church in China is facing in the 21st century?
Three come to mind:
- Leadership questions
- Avoiding the materialism trap
- Persevering under intensifying persecution.
Will education supplant consecration? A deep, simple faith in God is found in many house church leaders all over China. I believe this faith—tested by the fire—was the engine that powered the tremendous wave of growth seen in the 1980s & 90s.
Leaders suffered. They sacrificed. They walked by faith and were empowered by the Spirit. Most did not have deep theological training. That didn’t stop the Spirit’s move.
As emerging leaders seek deeper biblical training, I pray they don’t forget the kingdom-advancing faith of their fathers.
With the economic rise of China came the predictable materialistic focus. Billboards shout, “Get rich! Be happy!” These days the average citizen hopes to buy a car someday, perhaps even a house. The temptation to pursue them at all cost is strong. In addition, prioritizing Christ and kingdom over the material can lead to conflict with unbelieving family members.
In 2019, the Chinese Communist Party began to roll out a new set of detailed social rules for citizens, including those pertaining to religious practice. Technically, house churches have been operating illegally in China for 70 years, but this level of nationwide enforcement hasn’t been seen in some time.
House churches all over the country are being visited by the police and ordered to cease and desist. Meeting places are being destroyed. Members are threatened.
To prove they mean business, the government recently arrested some nationally known house church ministers. One of them, Wang Yi, is facing nine years in prison for “inciting subversion of state power.” To avoid harassment, congregations often divide into smaller groups and change location.
Q3: What is God doing in China despite these challenges?
God is on the march in the Middle Kingdom (another term for China). The gospel of King Jesus continues to spread like wildfire to every region of the country, resulting in tens of millions of Chinese becoming disciples of Christ.
Will this trend continue? Only God knows. We can be confident that if today’s Chinese believers will receive the baton of faithfulness passed to them by their predecessors, growth will continue, in God’s timing and by the Spirit’s power.
A renewed government crackdown on missionary activity and the arrival of Covid-19 have resulted in many foreign religious influencers returning to their home countries. Sounds dire until I recall that the previous wave of astounding kingdom growth happened after foreign missionaries were expelled. God is still at work.
Q4: The Chinese church is especially good at… The Chinese church tends to struggle with…
Chinese Christians do quite well with “Come and see” evangelism (see John 1). Because proselytizing is illegal in China, quietly sharing Jesus within their circles of influence is the norm.
They are good at getting people in the front door but struggle to equip them for deeper ministry and disciple making. Turning disciples into disciple makers is the biggest challenge.
Q5: What are some lessons from the Chinese church that the American church needs to learn?
Unfortunately, many Chinese churches look to the American church for their model. I encourage them not to look to the Western church but to appreciate their own house church model as something very much like the apostolic church in Acts.
What we in the Western church can learn from the Chinese church is that explosive kingdom growth doesn’t depend on expensive building projects, extensive programming, or professional speakers. It’s a work of the Holy Spirit transforming the hearts of regular people who are willing to follow Jesus and encourage others to do the same.
Q6: Any specific tools for making disciples that you have found especially helpful in the Chinese church?
Discovery Bible Studies work very well because they don’t require a skilled teacher to be effective. New converts can quickly learn to use DBS in making disciples. The Trust and Follow Jesus workbook from Renew.org has solid lessons and is an excellent pathway for following Jesus’ method of disciple making.
Q7: When you pray for the Chinese church, what kinds of requests come to mind?
I ask God to raise up radically faithful men and women who are more excited about making disciples and planting churches than pursuing wealth and comfort. I pray God will give them a joyful and resilient faith in the face of increasing pressure from the powers that be.