The Chinese church is exploding … but will it survive?

March 18, 2021 by Christopher Summers in Asia

“Ruth Zhao” was a performer in the Chinese military’s Cultural and Performance Division. She was famous for her performances, winning awards year after year.

‘Deny your faith or lose your job’

But recently, everything changed. Ruth’s boss told her she had to stop going to church meetings—and that she couldn’t be both a military performer and a Christian, since military personnel in China are not allowed to be Christians.

Ruth was faced with a life-changing decision: Deny her faith and keep her job, or declare her unchanging love for the Lord and risk everything.

Ruth knew she could not deny Jesus. So, she quit her job.

Her resignation infuriated her boss. He punished her by stripping her of all awards and accolades, and drastically reduced her retirement benefits. Ruth lost her job, her reputation and her financial security.

She had paid the price of standing strong in her faith in Jesus in China.

Throughout the world’s most populous country, believers like Ruth are following Jesus despite the consequences. They are sharing the gospel with others, risking their careers, livelihood and even their lives. And as a result, the church is growing exponentially. Researchers project that by 2030, there will be more Protestant Christians living in China than in any other country in the world.

Raided for meeting together

For the last several years, Open Doors has reported on the China Communist Party’s ongoing crackdowns on the Chinese church. Today, we hear almost daily of a church, pastor or believers being threatened by the state. Restrictions, pressure, warnings, and sometimes surprise raids on churches—these are all part of Christian life for the growing Chinese church in 2021.

One of the ways Chinese Christians are experiencing this rise in persecution is at their places of work. Christians who openly follow Jesus and share their faith can be singled out for harsh treatment, as Ruth experienced.

Communist Party officials in Shanxi, Henan, Jiangxi, Shandong and other provinces have threatened to withdraw social welfare benefits, including pensions, if Christians refuse to replace Christian imagery, such as crosses, with pictures of President Xi Jinping. One Christian on welfare apparently reported that officials told him that since he believed in God, he should ask Him for food instead of living off the Communist Party.

Churches have also felt intensifying pressure since new regulations governing religion were implemented with greater force in 2018. The government is actively targeting unregistered house churches to “invite” them for registration—otherwise, they are illegal and may be raided.

“Raids happen quickly,” says Caleb*, an Open Doors worker. “Some churches have been shut down. One was located in a five-story building in a small city. The church took up two floors of the building and had enough seating for 200 brothers and sisters. This venue was raided, shut down and sealed off. The authorities came inside and smashed all the equipment. New renovations were also destroyed. The church was closed and bolted from the outside. The believers were devastated.”

Churches that resort to online services are vulnerable to monitoring; even officially registered churches were ordered to stop online services. “The government monitors people across the country,” said the director of a government-approved church in the eastern province of Shandong. In his same city, when a woman took her child into a registered church, she was captured on CCTV—officials immediately reprimanded the church since minors are forbidden from attending church. Many churches have experienced the confiscation of property and Christian materials including Bibles, as well as raids, fines and arrests of church leaders.

Below, Jonathan Liu, a former pastor in the official Chinese Protestant church, shares about the reality of persecution against Christians in China.

The church at work?

As far as the authorities are concerned, the fewer churches there are, the better. Fewer churches mean less work for them. From the outset, the government’s goal has always been to cripple the church to the point where it becomes weak and hidden from the public eye.

They are in fact living out a well-known Chinese idiom “Jiǎo tù sān kū” (狡兔三窟) or “A crafty hare has three burrows.” Loosely, this simply means means “To succeed, you must have alternative options, especially to escape danger.”

Like a hare with three burrows, the Chinese church is learning once again to downsize, meet “underground,” be versatile, and prepare “escape plans” in the event of a raid.

“Many house churches are like water in a river,” Caleb says. “Whenever an obstacle is encountered, they will not fight it with their own flesh. Instead, they would stream past the obstacles and change course, but would still continue to flow towards the big ocean, which is the Great Commission. The ultimate destination never changes. It is just the way we do church is periodically adjusted or modified, to sustain the continuous growth of the Kingdom against all odds.

He continues: “I would say, most of the churches persevered in these difficult situations without any pushback against the authorities. When big meetings are not allowed, they just meet in small groups. Counter actions to fight back directly are rare. The older leaders and believers who went through decades of persecution were frustrated in the beginning, but they bounced back quickly and stand firm in their faith.

“The younger ones who became Christians in the last 10 years or so tend to be more shocked. It will probably take longer for them to get used to the harsh environment and accept this as the new normal in the years to come.”

The world’s largest Christian nation by 2030

The church in China isn’t going anywhere. Dr. Fenggang Yang, a sociologist of religion at Purdue University and expert on religion in China, estimates that China could have nearly 250 million Christians in less than a decade—making it the world’s most Christian country by 2030.

Even in the midst of persecution, Yang doesn’t see that changing: “Despite the government’s efforts to suppress, I don’t think it will stop the growth of Christianity in China,” he says. “All the evidence I have collected shows it’s undeniable; it’s already happening.”

So the persecution in China is really about how quickly the church can grow—and how much pain it will lead to for believers. Chinese churches have responded by asking Open Doors to journey with them—they want to understand the biblical foundations of persecution, and they want training and resources.

“This is awakening! Thank you so much for this great learning opportunity,” one sister shared, after attending training from Open Doors. Her husband had been imprisoned for distributing Bibles in the past, and she had experienced persecution on many occasions. “I used to experience a lot of persecution. While my life has become stable, my spirit has become less alert. It’s time for us to prepare, as persecution is escalating in different areas in China. I will pass on my learning to other brothers and sisters.”

Top photo: Chinese believers baptized: Getty Images

‘Pray that they would never give up’

Your prayers and support are helping Open Doors provide practical training to equip believers in China as they prepare for rising persecution. Peony*, the director of Open Doors work in China, says, “I am grateful that people everywhere are willing to pray for the Chinese church. It is vital that we stand with Chinese believers during this difficult season, to encourage them and strengthen their faith.”

She asks Christians to pray:

  • Pray that Christians everywhere would pray for the faith of Chinese Christians, that they would be strong and bold.
  • Pray that they would never give up, no matter how tough the persecution.
  • Pray that Chinese believers live lives worthy of their calling, and that they set a wonderful example for the young ones to follow.
  • Pray for the Chinese church, that they learn to stand up to persecution, Peony says, “not responding to their persecutors in anger but in Christ’s love, thereby turning their hearts back to the Father.”
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