The Growth of the Urban “Teenage” House Church
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.
Three years ago, I began asking pastors in a network I work with a question. I asked them to apply a human growth phase (infant, toddler, child, teenager, adult, senior) to the describe the church in China. As a result, I kept hearing the word qing shao nianor teenager. One pastor was very specific and answered that “the church is an 18-year-old.”
So many of the pastors I know have given me this answer. While all metaphors have limiting factors, especially if they are overused, the teenager metaphor applied to the house church in China seems to work quite well. The metaphor is extremely useful because it helps us better understand not only how the church identifies itself, but it also helps us understand more comprehensively the interaction between the church and societal forces that shape it. In the same way a human toddler, teenager, or adult would all be affected differently by the social influence of an economic recession, for example, so it is with the corporate body of the church. The way a church in its childhood years responds to persecution or repression versus how a teenage church responds to the same social factor has important ramifications for ministry planning and for understanding what is going on in the church in China.
In the words of one nationally known house church pastor:
In general, we believe that it’s not healthy for our youth to be rebellious but it’s as if the church in China has had to rebel against a set of bad parents who are doing harmful things to their children. It’s as if the church is this vibrant, energetic 18-year-old, but who lacks appropriate parenting, having grown up in this unhealthy environment, who isn’t well mannered because of this.
As a father of three children, two of whom are teenagers at the time of this writing, this metaphor is very evocative. I have seen my sons grow and mature from infants into teenagers, and I have witnessed massive changes in all ways physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual. In a similar way, over the last 30 years of my ministry I have witnessed the Chinese church go through some of these stages.
One pastor I’ve talked with gave some perspective on the church. He noted that the Protestant witness in China began in the late 18thcentury, but the growth has not been consistent. He articulated the reason for this inconsistent growth:
During the early part of the (20th) century there were various political uprisings …all of these killed a lot of Protestant missionaries and Chinese Christians. These kinds of interruptions (including) the Communist takeover in the 1940s brought the church back to the infant stage… but the seed was still there… Suddenly in the 80s with the opening (“Reform and Opening Policy” of Deng Xiaoping) the church popped up… The connection with the global church is relatively recent… if you think about how the church grows through seminaries, ordination, church polity... the clergy and the church leaders are in still in this young stage… while you see a more developed church in the overseas Chinese community and in Taiwan and places like that… societal instability has led to stunted growth so that the church is only at the level of a teenager now. However, we also see the church is very vibrant. It lacks maturity but because it grows so fast… from the countryside to the urban (centers), it has vitality and energy.
Although each conversation has focused on certain aspects of what it means to be a teenager, I have asked for both positive and negative illustrations of what it means to be a teenager. I’ve heard immature, inexperienced, and lacking in proper training (negative) as well as curious, energetic, eager to learn, vibrant, and fast-growing (positive). There seems to be a consensus on how the church self-identifies as a “teenager,” as well as what it means to be a teenager. This consensus is immensely helpful as we work toward understanding the urban church in China and how it interacts with the forces of modernization.
Through this metaphor of a teenage church interacting with the forces of urbanization (which involves transition and uprootedness) and globalization (exposure to the outside world), it is my hope that I can answer questions regarding how to best help this teenager on its way to adulthood.
The teenager metaphor is crucial because our expectationsfor how a teenager responds to dangers and opportunities are a key piece to this puzzle. Since we know the church self-identifies with the teenager, what might we expect from it? Teenagers still need help and guidance in this growth stage of life. The “teenage” house church can call on the church outside China for help and assistance as it faces various challenges. Furthermore, urban churches have a need to connect, much the same way a teenager needs her friends for support and encouragement.
Remembering that the church is a teenager, we need to adjust expectations, but also remain optimistic that the teenager is growing more mature. With a teenager, there is a sense of looking forward to a bright future if the teenager is healthy in body, mind, and spirit.
Urban house church leaders self-identify the urban house church in China as a “teenager” in comparison with other churches around the world, consistently using evocative descriptors that make a very convincing case that they know themselves well. They recognize the vitality and energy that come with the teenage years. They recognize eagerness to learn and large-scale growth as part of this teenage church. Yet, they also recognize the impulsive adolescent who lacks experience and the wisdom of years.
What can we make of all this? Some of the pressing questions that come up concerning the Chinese church have to do with responding to a teenager. How do we help a teenager? How does a teenager help herself? This is an immensely important question for anyone who seeks to come alongside and help the church in China, whether as an outsider (e.g. Western missionary, Asian missionary, overseas Chinese) or as an insider.
Sociological analysis has much to contribute in answering these questions. These are not only questions for those who dwell in ivory towers. The questions are practical and sociological analysis helps us answer them in practical ways. First, understanding the situation in China to be part of a more global movement allows us to understand it as more than just an isolated incident. While understanding China’s specific situation requires a more thorough-going grasp of China, its history, culture, and even language, at the same time we can also point to global trends in religion that are at work and as such offer helpful input based on the analysis of those global trends.
Second, approaching the subject of the growth of the urban Protestant Christian church in China from a sociological perspective helps us to understand the “human element” better. As Christians we believe in a sovereign God under whose providential care all of these social events are unfolding. As we observe them from a sociological perspective, we are better able to see what the hand of God is doing through humans, not all of whom are intentionally trying to work out God’s will. Who is God using and how is he using them? Some are being used by God unwittingly to create conditions that actually serve the purpose of the kingdom of God, as in the case of the Communist Party. Over the past 30 years of my ministry with Chinese, I have heard no small number of Chinese Christians articulate how the Communist Party is merely a tool in God’s hand. They are being used by God to do his great deeds, but this is not the CCP’s intention, of course.
There are other implications for missionaries and the agencies they serve under, as well. In a recent phone conversation with a consultant who has worked with dozens of missions agencies, I asked the question, “Using the software version metaphor, how are mission agencies doing with following ‘updates’ (i.e. re-structuring to follow and best meet China’s changing needs and the church’s growth stage)?” He commented that if the current demand was for version 7.0, most mission agencies in China are using 2.0. My own personal experience backs up his anecdotal remark.
First, I have witnessed that most agencies are not addressing the church’s adolescence and independence, coming alongside with support that meets the church where she is. Within the last several decades the church has grown very quickly not only in numbers but in maturity. Missions agencies that do not invite the local church to the discussion table of ministry strategy and how to implement ministry plans are being challenged to re-think their approach. Many are asking the wrong questions because they do not realize the child has grown into a teenager.
Why are missionaries and mission agencies misdiagnosing the situation? In the past it was difficult and risky for foreign (especially Western) missionaries to work alongside the house church due to issues of security (e.g. foreign missionaries attracted the unwanted attention of the authorities). The lack of opportunities to work closely with local Chinese believers meant an inability to really connect personally. Both sides were disadvantaged so it was rare to see a missionary working alongside a local church (as opposed to isolated individuals) on a regular basis (i.e. daily, weekly). There has been a noticeable relaxation toward some of these factors over the last several decades, but many mission agencies have not adjusted to fit the current situation. It is rare to see a mission agency who has a formal or informal agreement or working relationship with a network of churches.
Other issues include the those of language and culture. Grasping Chinese culture and language have proven to be Herculean tasks for Western missionaries and at least challenging for other Asian missionaries. These obstacles have been factors in the past for missionaries and they are still factors now.
So, what are the key questions? Where does the teenager need help? The pastors I know identify several areas of need in the Chinese church, such as theological training, helping church planting, children’s education, mercy ministry, and a deeper understanding of the gospel and its implications both individually and as a church. If mission agencies are not helping the church in areas that the church leaders themselves have self-identified, we need to question how relevant such efforts are in the current context.
In addition to these, it seems there is room to help build a vision for the future of China. As the teenager grows older and more mature, she starts to think about others and looks to the needs of those outside her own immediate community. China has dozens of unreached minority groups that require cross-cultural ministry within the borders of China. Some of these groups are extremely resistant to the gospel. Foreign missionaries can simultaneously reach out to these people groups while working alongside the Han Chinese church to help build a vision for this kind of ministry. We can help the church develop a healthy vision for cross-cultural missions both inside and outside its borders.