On China’s 70th anniversary, is the world’s largest church preparing to go underground again?

September 30, 2019 by Christopher Summers in Persecution updates

Today, October 1, 2019, marks the 70th anniversary of the People’s Republic of China. It’s a significant milestone for a country that has come a long way since the darkest days of post-World War II reconstruction and Cultural Revolution. China is now a global superpower, home to incredible ingenuity, incredible cultural exports and an economy that impacts the world.

 

It’s also home to nearly 100 million Christians.

For years, observers around the world have been stunned by the rapid rise of the underground Christian church in China. There are an estimated 97 million Christians in China, a staggering number when you consider that the growth has been under communism for 70 years.

It’s also been almost a year since China made international headlines for a series of crackdowns on non-registered Christian churches. For a time in the last 15 to 20 years, it seemed that maybe the days of intense persecution in China might be over—Christians were allowed to worship openly, and even unregistered churches operated openly and were able to worship freely. But in recent years, that time seems to have past.

We recently spoke to some Open Doors field team members who work in China. They told us about the changes in the Chinese church, how they’ve seen persecution rise and fall and how the resiliency of Chinese believers has strengthened their own faith.

Julie* is a long-term Open Doors worker and Project Manager who has witnessed the Chinese government try to snuff out the church for three decades.

Anna* is a relatively new addition to the China team. While she had previous experience in serving the churches in China years ago, her arrival on the team coincided with the new Religious Regulations drawn up in 2017 and implemented by Chinese leadership early in 2018. She focuses on serving believers who converted to Christianity from Muslim and Buddhist backgrounds. 

Josh* is a young, seasoned Open Doors worker who has focused on believers from Muslim backgrounds for many years, even learning some of the basics of a dialect spoken by Muslims in western China. We asked Josh for his perspective on church growth and work among ethnic minorities.

This house church was destroyed after it refused to be registered with Chinese authorities.

Q: What are your earliest memories of the Chinese church?

Julie: I remember 30 years ago when believers still met secretly in homes, in village courtyards, in fields and in caves. During and after the Cultural Revolution, Christianity was portrayed as Western superstition and Christians were decried as counter-revolutionaries—people who opposed the Communist party. Few believers owned their own Bible, so [they] had to copy the scriptures by hand. The people were very poor, but they loved God passionately and risked their lives daily for the privilege of meeting together to worship and encounter God. The Holy Spirit fell on them again and again. Healings, visions, prophecy and exuberant joy were common. It was like the Acts of the Apostles all over again.

Q: Do you remember cases of persecution back in those times?

Julie: Oh yes. I remember two pastors who were jailed for 20 years because they refused to stop telling people about the Good News. I remember their stories of long, cold winters in freezing jail cells, hard labor in prison camps, starvation, and how they used to quote scriptures every day to stay alive. I also know believers who regularly had to flee from meetings when the police arrived to arrest them. The house churches were truly an underground network of secret believers. Pastors were regularly jailed, beaten and stripped of any rights or social privileges.

Q: From your understanding of how the church has grown over 70 years, what would you say are some of the outstanding characteristics that define the modern Chinese church?

Josh: For me, the most amazing development in recent years is how believers have embraced the digital age. The situation here is so different to the West. Because of the so-called “Great Firewall of China,” (which prevents Chinese people from accessing many overseas websites like Facebook), young Chinese believers don’t have access to certain overseas resources such as libraries of Christian books, an array of worship albums, or instant podcasts of sermons from churches around the world. Printed Bibles were removed from e-commerce platforms in March 2018, although online Bibles and Bible apps are still available [Editor’s note: at the time of the interview].

Increasingly, people’s movements are monitored by surveillance cameras, so believers can’t just visit other churches whenever they want to. Instead, Christians have taken to the internet to share sermons, testimonies, Bible verses and worship songs. The content is in Chinese, home-grown, and uses domestic web platforms, and the impact has been far-reaching.

While not as personal as the local church, believers know where to go to find encouragement, Bible teaching and testimonies of God at work across China. These life-on-life digital exchanges have sustained the latest generation of hungry believers.

In past decades, 70 percent of the population lived in rural villages where the gospel was spread person to person, door to door, as evangelists walked from village to village or took local buses or trains. Now, 70 percent of the population lives in the cities. Young people are much better educated and computer-savvy, so the gospel is being shared digitally as well as through personal relationships … and the number of believers continues to rise.

Another thing, sadly, is the number of distractions and temptations that hinder church growth. In the old days, God’s people were pretty much single-minded in their passion for God and evangelism, even during the darkest days of the Cultural Revolution. Today, church growth and personal maturity are under constant attack from materialism, long work hours and family expectations to climb the corporate ladder or simply get a better job with better pay. China’s new market economy has won the affection of many hearts, at the expense of wholehearted dedication to Jesus.

Q: What have you learned from the recent tactics used by the Chinese leaders?

Julie: Control of the church has long been high on the political agenda, even though believers are not really interested in politics other than to pray for the country’s leaders. Since 2017, the government has been closing some large churches, monitoring and putting pressure on pastors to limit church growth, and an increasing number of believers meet in small groups. This new season of control and fear-mongering has highlighted an overwhelming crisis that, I believe, is also an opportunity from which the Chinese church can springboard to a new season of revival.

The first lesson we have learned is that modern churches need to know how to respond biblically to persecution, as the younger generation hasn’t experienced such pressure before.

The second is the need for effective, vulnerable, anointed small-group discipleship.

Over the past 15 years, as churches have increased in size, much of the emphasis has moved away from small group worship, prayer, the reading of God’s Word and personal ministry, to an over-emphasis on stimulating sermons and theological training. In some cases, because the church is now much wealthier than before, they are channeling their resources into bigger and bigger church buildings instead of using the funds for evangelism and growing a network of house churches.

Now that increasing number of believers meet in small groups, the training of small group leaders who can disciple others has become crucial. It’s like God is re-calibrating the foundations of the church to prepare for a new season of growth.

Q: What was your impression of the Chinese church before you joined the ministry?

Anna: After many years hearing stories of persecution, forced labor, strange heresies and lack of Bibles, I assumed the church would be weak, uninformed and disjointed. I hoped by joining Open Doors, I could somehow help the Chinese church understand the Bible better and play a role in church growth. It has been an incredible privilege to meet believers, encourage them and learn from them.

Q: Has your view of Chinese Christians changed?

Anna: To be honest, I was shocked right from the beginning to see how Chinese believers didn’t just know their Bibles—they often memorize large portions of Scripture. They experience God every day by taking God’s Word literally and living as if it is were totally true and trustworthy. While there is an undisputed need for basic discipleship for Christians from minority people groups, the way Chinese believers from these groups come to God with childlike faith, believing in a good Father who answers prayer, has always inspired me. I love listening to them talk about miracles and faith and to watch their faces light up when talking about God.

Another thing I love is how they constantly insert the phrases “Ganxie Zhu” (“thank the Lord”) and “Zanmei Zhu” (“praise the Lord”) into their conversations. They have learned to be grateful in all circumstances. They seem to live from that place of contentment.

Instead of being weak, I found the believers to be bold and full of faith.

While they may be lacking teaching about the nuances of various Bible passages or the origins of some Hebrew or Greek words, they could hardly be regarded as uninformed, choosing to believe God’s Word at face value and applying it to their lives, resulting in God doing all manner of wonderful things in their midst.

Far from being disjointed, the church is more unified than our churches at home, which are often divided along denominational or geographical lines.

I feel so privileged to know these house church pastors personally!

Q: How do Chinese pastors see the present oppression of the church by the Communist Party?

Julie: There was, of course, an initial push-back against the new religious regulations­—restrictions on how, where and when believers can meet, and the warnings of severe consequences for civil servants, doctors, teachers and Communist party members who attend church. But over time, pastors have become more and more optimistic because the sifting of believers now means they are left with a core group of believers who are hungry for God, Christians who have counted the cost and are willing to pay any price to follow Jesus. In the past, their time was often spent dealing with relatively “trivial” problems. Now they can spend their time on effective discipleship training, evangelism and church growth.

Q: What about your work with ethnic minorities? How has that changed?

Josh: The last 15-20 years has seen a sharp rise in the persecution of some Buddhist and Muslim ethnic minorities, the ultimate goal being to quash separatist movements before they gain traction. Sadly, while most people have no such political aspirations, they find themselves the objects of a discriminatory crackdown which equates the expression of religion to separatism. Many Buddhist-background and Muslim-background Christians have been caught up in this cultural cleansing and have suffered greatly.

Standing with believers and their families in this present crisis has been one of the most difficult things I have ever had to do. My heart goes out to them. They are innocent victims who have no voice. And in the midst of their trial, they struggle with isolation, fear, anger and a sense of hopelessness. Ultimately, only God can give them enough love to forgive the government. Only God can set them free again.

What can I do? How can I help them? Words never seem to be enough. All I can do is visit them, love them, and pray with them. Simply being present with them seems to lighten their load and give them hope that they are connected to the wider body of Christ. I guess it is also the outworking of Matthew 18:20, “For where two or three gather together in My name, there am I with them.”

Q: Do you have a favorite Bible verse that helps you pray for the Chinese church?

Anna: Yes! Jeremiah 20:11, which says, “The Lord is with me like a mighty warrior; so my persecutors will stumble and not prevail.”

Thanks to your support and prayers, the Open Doors China team supports persecuted Christians in China through providing basic biblical and discipleship training to the most persecuted Christian groups, distributing contextualized Christian literature to believers from Muslim and Buddhist backgrounds, and providing support to Chinese Christians in persecution preparation, discipleship and stewardship.

*names changed for security reasons

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