Churches in China: Growing Healthier Under Threat
For many churches in China the idea of being healthy is a luxury. Yet in recent years there is a growing trend of pursuing not only the survival, but the health of churches.
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As a pastor in China, I’m frequently asked how many churches exist in my country or city or district. It’s hard to answer the question because churches are mostly “hidden.” For example, I’ve lived in my two-building complex for almost five years, but I didn’t realize there was a church in the building next to mine until quite recently. I only found out because I happened to meet their guest speaker whom I knew when I was leaving for my church one Sunday. House churches try their best to hide themselves so they don’t run into trouble with the authorities.
That said, though the total number of churches is unknown, we can categorize the churches in China in three ways. Please note that not all churches fit exactly into this model, but it’s nonetheless helpful in order to understand the Chinese church’s ecosystem.
TRADITIONAL HOUSE CHURCHES CONTINUE TO GROW
The first layer is the traditional “house church” model. These churches are small (10–30 people); they have no formal membership, no full-time minister, and when they meet many of them don’t preach or do much more than sing a few songs and hold a Bible study. They meet in homes, fellowship with each other, and either do a Bible study or watch a sermon video because of the lack of pastoral resources.
The reasoning behind this model depends. Some intentionally order their churches this way because they think it’s safe; others do so because it’s the only model they’ve experienced, or because they lack resources to do more.
GROWING IN LEADERSHIP & RELATIONSHIP
The second layer of churches are more formal than the first. Churches that fit into this category can be found in many cities and suburban areas. They’re generally larger―in fact, some of them are quite large! They either have full-time ministers in every congregation or a pastoral team that serves several congregations.
These “second layer” churches connect to each other by maintaining informal relationships, making a kind of mini-denomination. Parachurch ministries often hold considerable influence over these churches, which means unity is a major theme and, unfortunately, doctrinal differences are often buried in the pursuit of unity.
CHURCHES GROWING IN DOCTRINAL RIGOR
Third-layer churches are mainly those who have been influenced by Reformed theology, especially as it pertains to ecclesiology. They may not label themselves according to any denomination, but they’re learning to develop their own pastoral structure, train up their own leaders, and establish meaningful membership. The number of congregations in this layer is significantly smaller than the first and second layers, but it’s growing.
This three-layer model is dynamic. Some churches move from the first layer to the second or third. Others in the third layer fall back to the second layer, while many churches in the first layer don’t call themselves “church” at all in order to keep a low profile and draw less attention.
But all of these churches, without exception, believe the Bible and firmly hold to a separation of church and state. Therefore, they refuse to join the TSPM (“Three-Self Patriotic Movement”), the government supported Protestant “church” driven by the government’s agenda, not Scripture. Many of us worry that because of this conviction, the new Religious Affairs Regulation may push second- and third-layer churches back into first layer. We will see.
IDEA OF MEMBERSHIP IS GROWING SLOWLY
For many churches in China, church health is a luxury. Just as people in a famine are willing to eat anything that looks edible, regardless of whether the food has sufficient nutrition, Chinese churches crave whatever spiritual nourishment they can get.
Churches in the first layer especially labor under a spiritual and theological famine. They don’t have expository preaching because they don’t know well-trained ministers who can preach to them. They don’t have church membership because a formal directory would endanger its members. They don’t have biblical leadership because nobody told them how churches should be led. In fact, many of these churches are “unplanned” by those thrust into leadership. I’ve heard more than one church leader tell me that they don’t even want to be a leader. Despite these difficulties, these churches do preach the gospel, even as they cry out for God to send them more—and better—leaders.
The good news is that in recent years there’s a growing trend of pursuing church health. Especially among churches in the second and third layer, there’s a growing hunger for teaching and preaching every section of the Scripture.
More than that, many Chinese pastors and church leaders are eager to establish church membership and leadership according to Scripture. Take my city, for example: church membership was unimaginable five years ago because many church leaders assumed it was a “worldly” thing. But now, many are asking how to implement it faithfully.
Please pray for us.