Light Up the Fire in Your Heart – How to Support the House Church in a Time of Persecution

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Ryan Zhang moved to the United States from Guangzhou, China at the age of twelve.  Ryan received his Master of Divinity from Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary and is currently serving as an assistant pastor at New City Presbyterian Church in Cincinnati, OH, his US hometown. Prior to moving to Boston for seminary, Ryan lived in Washington D.C. for seven years, first as a student at Georgetown University and later working at a law firm.  

When we think of persecution, we often and rightly think of prison sentences and church closures. The speed and intensity with which the Chinese government have carried out their arrests and raids in recent months invoke memories of widespread persecution during the Cultural Revolution, a period in which not only Christians, but people in all levels of society were arrested and beaten. The alarming reality about this round of persecution is that it is targeted specifically toward religious communities: Christians in house churches, Muslims in the west, and some pockets of Buddhism. Many prominent house churches, like the one in Beijing reported on by the Washington Post, have been raided by police and security forces during Sunday worship services. Pastors, evangelists, and even regular members have been taken away, books confiscated, Bibles burned, and crosses destroyed. This round of open persecution appears to be daring other nations to hold China accountable to its own religious freedom laws.  But with the current economic and political strength of China, there seems to be little other nations can do to put pressure on the Chinese leaders.

In addition to this high level, national persecution, which traditionally is targeted toward pastors and church leaders, regular believers in China are also facing a more subtle and widespread threat. The author of Hebrews, encouraging a group of believers to stand firm in the face of persecution, wrote, "Consider him who endured from sinners such hostility against himself, so that you may not grow weary or fainthearted. In your struggle against sin you have not yet resisted to the point of shedding your blood" (Hebrews 12:3-4). This implies that even though they have not resisted to the point of shedding blood, there was still a struggle making them grow weary and fainthearted. The same may be true for regular Chinese believers as well. They may have yet to face prison sentences, but there is a threat that is perhaps even more dangerous than jail time. As one Chinese pastor said at a recent conference in Taiwan, "The biggest threat against Chinese churches right now is worldliness."

What happens when your faith may not land you in jail, but costs your child a spot at school? What if attending a house church gets your fired? What if your lease is terminated because you hold a Bible study at your apartment? These indirect persecutions reflect the reach of the government's pressure and its determination to bring house churches under the Party's control. They may not bring you any physical harm, but they threaten your place in a society where everyone else is pursuing bigger apartments, higher pay, and more education. If you are a new believer, how easy it is to just give up and go back to the old way of life. If you are a mature believer, how discouraging it is when your mission field – your school, your office, your neighborhood – no longer wants you there. Then your parents and aunts and uncles advise you to recant just so you can regain your honorable place in society.

Perhaps it is because of indirect persecutions such as these that the author of Hebrews wrote to encourage his audience to not "neglect such a great salvation" even though their struggle has yet to require them to shed any blood. These are the sacrifices that our brothers and sisters in China are making for their faith. How then can we support them? American support now for Chinese house churches can't be the typical short-term mission trip, theological training, or English classes. So here are three practical suggestions:

  1. Pray. Pray for the house churches in China.  We can pray for the leaders of the Chinese government to govern justly and righteously, for God will hold them accountable for their actions. We can pray that the churches in China will be refined and strengthened through this trial. We can pray that our sisters and brothers in China will have strength and courage to stand firm in their faith. We can pray that believers in China will count the cost and make adequate preparation to face this battle. Most importantly, we should pray that Christ will be lifted up and glorified as house churches in China walk the way of the cross.

  2. Remember unity. We must remember our unity with our brothers and sisters in China. "If one member suffers, all suffer together" (1 Corinthians 12:26). We are one body with the house churches in China. Their suffering should jolt us out of our complacency and comfort in America. Take some time to learn about what is happening in China. Write letters to encourage our Chinese brothers and sisters that they are not alone; remind them of the words in Hebrews and tell them you are praying for them.  

  3. Learn. We learn from our brothers and sisters in China. Before he was to be burned for being a heretic, the Reformer Hugh Latimer said to his friend, "Play the man, Master Ridley; we shall this day light such a candle, by God's grace, in England, as I trust shall never be put out." The public nature of how our Chinese brothers and sisters are suffering is lighting such a candle in the world that shall never be put out. Let their faith and perseverance light up the fire in your heart.

In a time when every American election causes many to fear about Christians' right to exist, every Supreme Court confirmation battle seems to be a fight over the soul of our nation, and every legal set-back seems to be a slippery-slope toward full-blown persecution, perhaps there is no better time for believers in America to humble ourselves and learn from our brothers and sisters in China.  

We have much to learn from their resilience and humility to walk the way of the cross, "rejoicing that they were counted worthy to suffer dishonor for the name" (Acts 5:41) because they trust that their suffering only brings them closer to the cross of our Savior. We have much to learn from their devotion to "the apostles' teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers" (Acts 2:42). Despite raids by police, house churches continue to meet and preach and pray on every Sunday. Their devotion to these spiritual disciplines is preparing their bodies and souls for whatever is to come. If we were placed in their situation, would our spiritual disciplines give us the resilience to endure this kind of suffering? 

Lastly, we have much to learn from their faith in the unseen. The saints of the past all "died in faith, not having received the things promised… though commended through their faith, did not receive what was promised." (Hebrews 11:13, 39). In their trials, our Chinese brothers and sisters are showing us what is most important to them. They are seeking a homeland, they desire a better country, a heavenly one, they look forward to the city with a foundation designed and built by God. All the recent prosperity and wealth of China cannot capture their hearts, "of whom the world was not worthy." We may not face such a national persecution, but we may be even more enslaved by worldliness. So then, as Hebrews says, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witness, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us.