Until the 2008 Beijing Olympics, illegal, unregistered churches in China had been flourishing right under the nose of the Communist government. Shanghai had its first megachurch, led by an ethnic Korean Chinese who borrowed church growth techniques from South Korea. It seemed to promise a new era for the church in China.
These urban churches grew out of China's house church movement, but they distinguished themselves by seeking a public presence (see my cover story in the May 2008 issue of CT, "Great Leap Forward"). Made up of educated professionals, this "third church" was not antagonistic to the government, but sought to publicly support the Communist Party's goal of a "harmonious society." They operated food banks, restaurants, and bookstores. Unlike the rural house church, they rented buildings and advertised their services.
After the Olympics, however, the world's attention shifted, and perhaps the government felt free to pressure the church once again. The government cracked down on the Shouwang church in Beijing, one of the largest unregistered churches in the city. Rather than disband, the church held Easter services in a park as it snowed. Members were arrested and pastors harassed.
The story was widely reported in the press, but little has been told about the broader effect of government pressure on the urban "third church." Has the church adapted, been driven underground, or scattered completely? Updating this story is the value of David Wang and Georgina Sam's new book, Christian China and the Light of the World: Miraculous Stories from China's Great Awakening.
The Value of Hardship
Wang is president emeritus of Asian Outreach and has been mentoring a number of these leaders for years. He knows their stories well and tells them compellingly. The book offers lessons in counting the cost of one's faith and the blessings that accompany sacrifice.
Shanghai's All Nation's church was once 1,500 members strong, rented a public space, advertised worship times, owned sound systems, and had paid staff. The church was shut down in 2009, and its pastor, Abraham, has been forced to learn the value of hardship and discipleship. The government tapped Abraham's phone, followed him in his car, and harassed other church members. After the church tried to meet outdoors, "a ring of police surrounded them at their meetings, and they were subjected to one-on-one questioning. … What is your job? Where are you employed? Where do you live?"
Similar crackdowns occurred in churches across the country, illustrating that the Chinese Communist Party remains intolerant of unregistered Christian groups. However, Abraham and his fellow pastors have only adapted their strategies. Churches that had been modeled in the Western style of a senior pastor and staff leading a large number of members attract too much attention. During my own reporting trip to China in 2007, a Wenzhou pastor named Daniel, who is also featured in the book, told me that decades earlier, when Communist opposition was intense, it merely shaped the methods by which churches shared the gospel. The church simply adapted their evangelism strategies according to the pressure they faced.