The Spiritual Legacy of the House Church – An American Response

Sa Zhong Zi (meaning “sow seeds”) is the pseudonym for an American living in China assisting with the support and strengthening of the Chinese house church.

“The Spiritual Legacy of the House Church” is an article we had translated from Chinese to English and is part of a larger document titled Our House Church Manifesto, which contains the written contributions of several different house church pastors. As I reflect on my almost thirty years of ministry with Chinese in both the United States and China, I am more convinced than ever that our role as non-Chinese Christians who desire to serve the church in China is a role of coaching and facilitation as opposed to direct leadership. I have observed that the Chinese house church has grown both in size and maturity over the last thirty years and expats who have heart to serve need to be aware of where the church is and what the church needs. Despite its growth, it is still in need of help and I believe there is still very much a role for the foreign worker, but that role has greatly changed. I would like to write a very brief response to Wednesday’s article in the spirit of one who currently serves in such a facilitative role, at times more of a coach and at times more of a coworker. 

About five years ago I met the author of this article, "The Spiritual Legacy of the House Church" (TSLHC), but only recently did I read this piece of his. I found myself internally crying out with a hearty “amen” at the words, thoughts, and concepts he expressed. I rejoice that we can have a role in letting the non-Chinese speaking world catch a glimpse of one small, but significant, voice out of many within the house church movement in China. I feel strongly that many Christians who desire to pray for China and support her church are only able to hear the voices of those who interpret the situation in China and not those who are actually inside the church themselves. Sometimes this is due to language barriers; sometime it is due to security issues. As I sit here and write this I am keenly aware that I am in danger of doing the very same thing. This is exactly why I want my words to be in response to the author’s words.

As I interact and partner with different house church pastors, I have come to realize two things. They want to learn, but they also want to contribute to the larger discussion concerning what is going on in the church in China and even in the world.  They have something to contribute to that discussion. I am thankful for my age, experience, and education in ministry because it gives me a place at the table. They look to me for help because I have a level of experience that they find helpful. On the other hand, I often defer to them when it comes to questions of how to implement our theology in the Chinese context. Most of the leaders I work with share in the same Reformed theological tradition in their convictions, but often they know much better than I how that works itself out in Chinese culture. 

When it comes to the issue of the house church versus the Three-Self church, I share a similar conviction with the author of TSLHC. We all realize that there are genuine believers in the Three-Self church, but we also agree that the ecclesiology is fundamentally flawed. Can a church where Christ’s headship is not ultimately recognized and honored really be called a church? This is admittedly a complicated issue and there are many variables and historical factors that make it such, but my bottom line as a non-Chinese is to trust the judgment of those who I believe know and understand the society, history, and culture better than and I. That trust is not built overnight. It takes years to build, but they are well invested years.

The author of TSLHC is balanced in his approach to the house church, which I deeply appreciate. He celebrates its legacy and those who suffered because of what they believed about the house church, but he also recognizes the weaknesses of those who have gone before the current generation of leaders. Issues such as theology, church governance, and engaging culture were not part of the agenda of the previous generation of house church leaders; but many leaders in the current generation of house church pastors are finding these matters to be of great importance. Indeed they are crucial for the development of the church.

Consider the issue of church governance and how most house churches begin with twenty to thirty people gathered in someone’s apartment for a Bible study. After a period of time they begin a Sunday worship service. Everyone knows each other, and matters like governance are unimportant. The church grows to seventy five and everyone is happy but they also notice that the dynamics are changing. About the time the church breaks one hundred the leaders start to feel they need some help. I have met with many leaders who are craving a semblance of order because they have experienced exactly the scenario I am describing above. There has been nobody to help them through these issues because the previous generation did not, for reasons both good and not-so-good, address these issues or addressed them in ways that lacked sufficient biblical reflection (some of the larger house church networks seemed to have taken their governance model more from the Chinese Central Government than from the scriptures).

In conclusion, we need to realize that the church in China has an increasing number of leaders who are theologically, spiritually, and intellectually gifted and they are capable of things the previous generation was not capable of. The churches possess resources, finances, and the sheer ability to organize and operate in ways the previous generation could not. How we approach the church in China and how we minister to her must address where she is, provide help she is asking for, and be sensitive to how we might be, perhaps unintentionally, treating her as an infant rather than a young adult.