How does the Chinese church go about “being the church” in the face of significant government opposition in their country? What I want to do is present a very brief, decidedly un-scientific case study of the ways in which four different Chinese churches answer this question. I chose these four churches because I have some degree of personal experience with each of them. As we look at these churches, we will need to ask how they are doing these things in the face of government hostility.
CHURCH 1: GANGWASHI Gangwashi Church, located just west of the Forbidden City, has a long history. Founded in the 1860’s, it recently celebrated 150 years. It was founded by missionaries of the London Missionary Society, and was the first protestant church in Beijing. Gangwashi was also the first church in Beijing to re-open after the Cultural Revolution. It has hosted such luminaries as Condoleeza Rice, George W. Bush, Luis Palau, and Robert Schuler. Because of all this, Gangwashi is perhaps more closely watched by the government than any other registered church. Gangwashi’s approach to dealing with government regulations is to live within the law and the system while being the church as best it can. This means that Gangwashi is a part of the Three-Self Patriotic Movement (TSPM) and as such is under the authority of the Religious Affairs Bureau.
So, what compromises are made? What exactly is Gangwashi able to do and not able to do? Gangwashi does worship, Bible studies, prayer meetings, and Sunday School, with the exception of outreach, which is illegal. Yet they do outreach within the parameters set by the law: legal advice, basic medical care, and haircuts are offered on church grounds to neighborhood people. Sometimes they also push the envelope by having foreigners (like me) preach and teach. They also hold VBS programs staffed partially by foreigners. So what is the trade-off? What restrictions does Gangwashi have to put up with? Pastors have to attend all TSPM meetings, some of which are political propaganda sessions; approval and placement of pastors is controlled by the government; and sometimes finances are controlled by the government. Gangwashi’s relationship with the government could be called, “accommodation.”
CHURCH 2: LINXIANG Linxiang Church is the only church in the small town of Linxiang, in Hunan Province. Unlike Gangwashi Church, it does not have a long history. In fact, it is quite new, having been founded in the mid-1990’s. The story of its founding and growth is both unique and yet not unusual. A young man named Zhang Weiliang left his small hometown and went to the big city to seek his fortune, joining millions of other young Chinese doing the same thing. But his future would be different than that of most others. Through a series of events, Zhang found himself in a gang, in a high enough position that he had many people under him. During the course of one of the operations he was in charge of, several people were killed. Zhang had to flee. Not knowing where else to go, he made for his hometown. On the bus, he sat next to an old man. This man was a Christian. During the long bus ride, he explained Christianity to Zhang. On that bus, Zhang Weiliang gave his life to God.
Zhang later told me that after he got back to his home town, Linxiang, he figured that since he was now a Christian it was obvious that he needed to start a church. So that is what he did. In 1997, he held his first worship service. In attendance were Zhang, his wife, and his brother-in-law (who did not want to be there). In the 20 or so years since, that church has grown from three to over one thousand members. In addition, Zhang has planted about two dozen churches in the surrounding countryside. Zhang registered his church and it became part of the TSPM, but he does not pay much attention to the government apparatus. He continues to lead his church, and plant new ones, as he sees God directing. Zhang is able to do this because of his close relationships with the local Communist party leaders. It’s a small town. Zhang has known all these people since childhood. He hosts dinners for them. He invites them to all special church programs. While Gangwashi accommodates to the oversight and rules of the government, bending those rules when it can, Linxiang church is largely able to ignore the rules because of the pastor’s carefully cultivated friendships. You might call it survival by guanxi—relationships.
CHURCH 3: DALIAN A third example of how the church is able to survive and be the church in a hostile environment is found in the northern coastal city of Dalian. Gangwashi and Linxiang churches each found ways of surviving and even thriving as registered churches within the governmental control mechanisms. The situation in Dalian is more complex and confusing. Chen Xiangyang is a 30-something year-old pastor in Dalian. Like Pastor Zhang, he has boundless energy and endless ideas. He is, in a sense, a registered church pastor. But he is so in a unique way. He preaches once a week in the oldest registered church in Dalian, but has no other duties at this church. This puts him in a tenuous position vis-a-vis the government, but it also gives him a good deal more free time than most Chinese pastors. He has used this free time to plant churches (five of them so far) and to arrange training sessions for church pastors, leaders, and volunteers. He is passionate about training a new generation of pastors and leaders for the Chinese church.
Xiangyang has put that passion into action by organizing and hosting training sessions 3-4 times per year. These sessions are a week long each. Teachers and students come from all over Eastern and Northern China, with over 100 attendees per session. The training is arranged so that students can cover the basics for church leadership in a period of 3 years. But this training is not exactly legal. Because of that, Xiangyang holds the training in a training center on the campus of a large registered church about an hour outside of the city. This church has a solid reputation and good relationship with the government, thus providing a relatively safe environment. I would call Pastor Xiangyang’s approach to relations with the government “creative avoidance.” He leverages his relationship with two registered churches in order to fulfill his calling of equipping pastors and church leaders for ministry.
CHURCH 4: XI’AN (ZION) Xi’an Church, located in the heart of Beijing, is at the forefront of a new church movement in China, often called the emerging urban church. These churches generally attract young and well-educated people, most of whom have college degrees or even graduate degrees. Part of the professional class, they are more well-off financially than the general population. What really sets Zion apart is the approach it takes in relation to the government. It used to be that any church that was not registered with the government was by default called a house church and kept a very low profile. But Ezra Jin, a former registered church pastor, started a new church called Zion. He did not register the church with the government, nor did he try to keep it out of sight. This is how he explained his church’s approach in an interview with Frontline: “We felt that God gives us far greater opportunities outside of what the existing structure offers us. We want to emphasize openness, in terms of prayers and space, as well as the speakers we have. We are also open to the government and to society. We want to let our work be known.”
That is exactly what Jin and the Zion Church have done. They have remained very visible and grown to well over 1,000 in attendance. In addition to open and visible worship services, they also have a seminary and a bookstore. How do they do this? Asked about his relationship with the government, Jin answered: “After we opened the new church, they requested me to write reports to explain what I’m doing. I complied and explained who we are, what we want to do, and I gave them a schedule of our activities. We’ve been in operation for about a year now, and have not been interrupted. We tried our best to abide by the law and to satisfy the needs of our brothers and sisters. So far, we have not been disrupted. Thank God for that.” This new approach to being the church is a breath of fresh air in a stifling environment. But it does not come without danger. Shouwang Church, a predecessor of Zion in the emerging urban church movement, was shut down by the government about 5 years ago. Its pastor is still under house arrest and the church has been scattered. Zion Church has been pushing the boundaries even more than Shouwang did. We need to pray that it does not suffer the same fate.
Jesus once said that the gates of Hell would not overcome His church. That was proven during the time of the Cultural Revolution in China. Now it is beginning to look like Jesus’s words will be tested again, in more subtle but perhaps equally powerful ways, as the churches find it necessary to adapt again to ever-changing varieties of hostility. Please continue to pray for God’s hand of protection on the Chinese church. ∞
Wayne TenHarmsel is a missionary in Beijing, China. He was the 2016-2017 Missionary-in-Residence for Calvin Theological Seminary.