Why Beijing's Largest House Church Refuses to Stop Meeting Outdoors
Editor's note: As worldwide headlines noted the Easter season showdown between Beijing authorities and one of China's largest house churches, one Shouwang member offered Christianity Today this analysis.
The global media spotlight has recently centered on the meeting place of Shouwang Church in Beijing. Since April 10, the unregistered congregation of 1,000 mostly young professionals has been forced to worship outdoors after the landlord of its rented conference hall gave in to mounting government pressure and terminated the church's lease.
During the past three Sundays, numerous uniformed and plainclothes police officers were sent to a public square at Zhongguancun, known as "China's Silicon Valley," where Shouwang worshipers were supposed to gather. Hundreds of Shouwang members were detained, from a few hours to 48 hours. They worshiped—reading the Bible, singing hymns, and praying—after being loaded onto buses or held in police stations. Many others have been under house arrest. The church's leaders, including four pastors and three elders, have been under house arrest for most of the past two weeks. Some church members have lost their jobs or rented homes—or both.
On Easter Sunday, more than 30 people were rounded up at Zhongguancun, while many Shouwang members were confined to their homes. A young couple asked the police to drive them to the Zhongguancun square. The police agreed. They sang hymns, read the Bible, and prayed in the police car. They also gave the police officers a copy of the Bible and an autobiography about how a Chinese biologist became a Christian. The police car moved around the square. After the young couple finished worshiping, the police officers drove them home. The young couple shared their experience with fellow Shouwang members through the church's online forum, which was shut down in mid-April but resumed later.
It was not the first time that Shouwang Church made global headlines. In November 2009, when President Barack Obama had just wrapped up his first visit to China, The Wall Street Journal ran an opinion piece entitled "The China President Obama Didn't See." It was about 500 Shouwang members worshiping outside in a suburban park during a snowstorm after being evicted from the office space that the church had rented for three and a half years.
Shouwang began in 1993 as a home Bible study led by Pastor Jin Tianming, a son of an ethnic-Korean peasant family in northeast China who became a Christian while attending Beijing's prestigious Tsinghua University. In 2005, Shouwang began renting office space in order to integrate its 10 fellowships and open itself to the general public. The church also applied to register with the government, but was rejected and told to join the Three-Self Patriotic Movement, China's state-approved Christian body.
By 2007, Shouwang was arguably one of the largest house churches in Beijing, but remained almost unknown until it began publicizing its location troubles in Xing Hua, the church's quarterly magazine. One of its first issues had a special report on Shouwang's registration process, which gained attention from other house churches and those who were following Chinese Christianity.
Like almost all house churches, the Shouwang congregation has faced the issue of survival from the moment it was established. The most serious direct crackdown came during the run-up to the 2008 Beijing Olympics, when on May 11 armed forces broke into Shouwang's Sunday worship in a rented office space and ordered the church to put an end to the worship. However, all three services from morning to afternoon were held as usual. Many worshipers were asked to give their names and contact information.