Conference Voices: The State of Chinese Urban Churches

Editor’s note: The China Partnership recently held its annual conference in Atlanta, Georgia. This year’s topic was “The Church in a Global-Local World” and we were greatly blessed and challenged by many excellent speakers. We are excited to make their ideas available to those unable to attend in person through our blog.

The Chinese government’s determined, persistent removal of church crosses emerged onto the international stage in early 2014 and remained a focal topic throughout the whole year. This would not have happened 20 years ago, because there were no tall churches with prominent crosses on top. It will not happen 20 years from now, for the state-church relationship will largely be settled by then. This series of events can only take place at this particular time of a transitioning China, which is full of symbols and meaning. It provides a rare opportunity to peek into the state of the country and of the church at this specific moment.

The events in Wenzhou started in the beginning of 2014; however, they were only brought to public attention because of the church community’s standoff with the provincial government over the gigantic Sanjiang church building. Initially, the government only intended to take off the cross on the tip of the building. But after a severe standoff and wide international publicity, the government eventually tore down the entire building on April 28, 2014.

Sanjiang was not the first church asked to take off its cross, and was not the last. As far as I know, the government was taking off the crosses of many other churches even at the end of 2014. Church buildings, however, are rarely torn down. Only after the Sanjiang church disobeyed the government's executive order and made a broad appeal to public opinion in an attempt to fight the government’s authority, did the government charge the church with illegal building and tore down the entire building.

The rumor on the street about the reason behind the removal of the crosses says that after coming into office, the Party head of Zhejiang province toured the region and was startled by the number of visible church buildings and the large, red crosses on top of the buildings. Since the Party head functions as the highest government officer in a province, like a mini-emperor, the order to remove them was immediately implemented.

I fully believe that the strong pushback from Sanjiang church, the broad media coverage, and the international voices involved made their way back to the central government. Apparently, this order found support and strong backing from the national leaders and was carried out. Interestingly enough, though, and somehow very puzzling, only the legally permitted and endorsed Three-Self churches have been impacted so far. Almost all of the house churches we know are immune.

The state of China from a macro-level perspective: its value system.

First, understand that these actions were against the Christian church, not the Buddhist temples. Additionally, the ruling Party head initiated them. The larger context of the situation in Wenzhou is the battle of ideologies and the shift of social-cultural core values. The significant advancement of Christianity in its visible form, as seen in church buildings, has surprised and drawn the attention of the Party.

I view this as a reminder that Chinese culture is still in the big transitional and transformational process that started due to encountering the West in 1839. The cultural elite’s efforts to save China from Western, Russian, and Japanese powers eventually led to the Communist Party's political and cultural agenda of totally uprooting traditionalism and Confucianism. They replaced it with communist ideology, imposing the socialist structure onto the entire society. As the result, the mutually informed and supported social-cultural system and ideology of Confucianism fell apart. It was crushed through sixty years of consistent systematic education and propaganda.

Culture is nurtured, not inherited, and Chinese culture has reached a point of no return. The traditional way of life, including beliefs about what a human being is and its intrinsic value, and the related moral system are gone. Individuals, as well as the whole society, are very confused and there are no commonly agreed upon sets of values.

In this context, the rise of the Christian population and the decline and retreat of communism in the political and moral arena is a visible phenomenon. These movements and trends have made the Party anxious to do something. Taking down the cross is an anxious but foolish attempt to suppress the advancement of Christianity. Another example is the recent attempts by the government to intentionally discourage the public from celebrating Western Christmas even as a secular holiday. This was badly mocked by online communities openly.

Again, this reminds us that we are at a stage of human history in which Chinese people's hearts and the core cultural values are so accessible to the gospel. Our number one effort must be evangelism.

The state of China from the micro-level perspective: the political system.

People's loyalty as the foundation of political power has not been settled since China removed its last emperor and ended thousands of years of the Confucian-backed political system. From 1912 to 1928, the first experiment with a Western political system did not work, and in the end it failed. This experiment led to warlords and years of civil war. The National Party and the Communist Party emerged after World War I with intentions to save China from the Western, Russian, and Japanese powers.

Eventually, the Communist Party won the people's hearts by introducing an ideal utopia and decisively and cruelly confiscating the landlords' holdings to give to the poor. This forced a new social order among the large population of peasants across large areas of the country. No doubt it generated strong loyalty to political power.

When the Communist Party came into power between 1949 and 1950, it had both military power and strong social support. Most of the people believed the Communist Party saved China and had great expectations and hope for building a new China under its leadership. But fast forwarding to now - where is the legitimacy for the Party staying in power? How and where can it win support?

From Deng to Jiang, the leaders reintroduced a Chinese version of national capitalism in order to restore the economy. They have been able to win support as long as they can lead the large population down the road of prosperity and wealth. To a large extent, they succeeded from 1979 to 2012 before Xi came into power.

However, many other social issues have emerged and become more and more severe in recent years. The most significant and threatening issue is corruption; not only corruption from the people in power trading financial gain, but corruption that prevails throughout the entire society, extending even into the Buddhist temples. There is little room on the road to wealth, and the corruption and growing gap between the few elites and the large population of poor and middle class is now rattling the power structure of the Party.

The Party is now intolerant to any existing or potential threat and challenge to its power. Churches have been suspected of being used by and cooperating with foreign states to harm the Party. The advance of the church in the visible public arena is no doubt making the regime more uneasy; however, the Party does not have a good way to handle the church and fears inviting great social unrest as a result of improper policy. Meanwhile, most political officers have no clear idea of a long-term, consistent policy, and know that any misstep will end their fragile political career.

All these factors have led to the limited and even hilarious government action to only tear down the Three-Self churches' crosses. It is a calculated move to show who is the boss, to show power. It is a signal announcing the Party is in control of ideology and it is an attempt to humiliate and frustrate the advancement of Christianity. However, it is a very limited action that only targets the physical cross itself. The Party does not want to invite wide social reaction from the larger house church population.

So most churches continue their ministry as before. The power struggle between the Party and various forces will continue. The crisis is not really who rules, but what constitutes the legitimate and lasting cultural foundation, as well as what mechanism of transition will warrant long-term stability. This is the great challenge modern China has yet to face and suffer; however, to some extent, the impulsive actions from the government are only noise to the churches. We shall not be distracted by this. Our efforts and focus shall stay on building Christ's churches into maturity.

The state of the Chinese urban church from the external perspective: missiological/Christian expansion.

Andrew Walls, the great historian on Christian mission, characterizes the expansion of Christianity in three aspects: the visible growth of the institutional church, Christian initiation of social institutions, and the cultural marked by Christian influence. From the perspective of these three signs, I would suggest that the state of the church is still largely in the first stage - the growth of the visible institutional churches. The symbolic removal of crosses from large church buildings shows that the government also perceives the expansion of Christianity in this area.

In the past three years, we are seeing more and more faith-initiated, gospel-centered ministries started by churches and individuals. Some examples include the "God loves taxi drivers" ministry in Shanghai; prison ministry in Kunming; and community outreach in Xuzhou. Yet, they are only in the beginning stages. Most of the churches are very inwardly focused. It can be partly accredited to political suppression, but really the major reason is limited understanding and appreciation. Individuals and churches swing between social activism and spiritual quietism. But very few churches are empowered by the gospel to reach out to lost souls through bold and loving service.

 The state of the Chinese urban church from the spiritual/internal perspective.

Over the past three years, I have been seeking ways to identify true, spiritual revival to measure our ministry. It ultimately determines how far we can go and the value of our work. From Bible study, I am convinced that the dynamics of a gospel movement are: commitment to the historical incarnation, crucifixion, and resurrection of Jesus Christ; the Biblical conviction that the Father's redemption plan was fulfilled in Jesus; and the indwelling, empowering, and witnessing of the Spirit in the church.

How can we tell that the church displays these dynamics? From the prayers recorded in Acts 4:23-31, I recognize three indicators. First, it involves a true understanding of the gospel and an appreciation of Jesus as Christ in the suffering form. Second, it involves self-identification with Christ, or we can say conscious union with Christ, particularly in his suffering. Third, it involves the spirit-empowered, bold following of Christ in gospel witnessing, the union with Christ in mission.

How are we doing?

As sinners, we, and our culture, are very committed to absorbing the gospel into our cultural narrative, retelling tamed gospel elements within our cultural metanarrative. No people, no culture is immune to this fallen condition. We are all tempted to use the gospel to satisfy our cultural idols, or to use our cultural idols to express the greatness of gospel. In Luther's words, we are all theologians of glory, not of the cross.

Let us revisit the cross-removal incident. What really stimulated the Party head was the enormous tall church buildings and the crosses on top. Why have Christians, after accumulating wealth for the past twenty years, built up so many huge church buildings? In fact, other than building huge church buildings, many have known it to be a problem that the Christians in those areas are very reluctant to invest into people's lives and theological education.

Prosperity and power are the top two cultural idols in China. And through thousands of years of tradition, the size and magnificence of buildings is the most important way to show power and prosperity. After peasants made more money in the early 1980s, their first reaction was to build bigger and bigger houses in the villages. When the central, provisional, and even township level governments collected large amounts from taxation, they built amazingly large government buildings. For the same reason, building big church buildings has been the way people show their faithfulness and sacrifice to the Lord and to show God is true and real in the society. It is a cultural expression of piety.

But do we have a true understanding of the gospel? In other words, do we understand the weak, suffering, and crucified Jesus Christ? Are we controlled by that life?

We have long way to go.

I heard a shocking reflection from some of the Wenzhou leaders that the government’s tearing down of the church building was actually a good thing. It forces us to think about what else we have beyond the large church buildings. What are the core values of the church? We recognize that if we do not change now, twenty years later we will be tearing down the buildings by ourselves. If the gospel does not remain the heart of our church, we will quickly lose and be marginalized by the culture. The number one enemy is not political power, but our own sinful tendencies to betray the gospel in various ways. Our only way forward is to deeply appreciate the gospel, to be controlled by the gospel, to live out lives transformed by the gospel.

We long to see the gospel prevail in China.

This is the sole purpose of our ministry and church planting. We are not talking about numerical church growth in general, but rather what we truly care about is what kind of churches are planted and grown. Corresponding to the three marks of the gospel, we endeavor to advance the gospel and churches in the same three areas: gospel truth, gospel life, and gospel mission/ministry.

Will Chinese people move from a Confucian form of secularism only to go to a Western form of secularism? While the former depended on Confucianism to provide the value system sustaining the culture, and the latter largely relies on Judeo-Christian values, unlike Taiwan and Hong Kong, there is nothing for the secularism in Mainland China to build upon. At this time, we pray that the gospel will prevail secularism and develop a new form Christianity deeply conformed to the suffering and servant likeness of Christ.

How is this related to you or the American churches?

We are one. China is learning from you the gospel truth, the gospel life, and gospel ministry. It is equally challenging for you in its particular context. Whether the gospel will prevail over secularism and grow into a new form of Christianity in America will deeply impact global Christianity. We invite and covet your patterning with us in multiplying gospel-centered churches throughout China in the coming twenty years, or even longer.