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.
According to Wang and Sam, the church in China today is once again practicing this strategy. Instead of hosting large services, they are discipling many leaders of small groups. "New people are coming to the meetings and are committing themselves to Christ. This time, though, the increase did not come about because of one large, impressive, flashy service. Rather it is the fruit of the smaller, multiple gatherings around the city that are being led by different co-workers."
The churches are looking for new opportunities to strategically show Christian love in a public way. Barred from large-scale organizing through the church, many Christians are opening charity organizations, food banks, and responding to disasters such as the Sichuan earthquake. They are earning respect from other Chinese as well as from government officials.
Churches are also finding ways to send missionaries across China and to other countries. The Back to Jerusalem movement, which seeks to bring the gospel from China west through India, Pakistan, Iran, and into the Middle East, remains a compelling vision. The persecution faced in China is only preparation, according to these pastors, for missionary efforts into the Middle East. One benefit of the crackdown is that churches have more money for missions now that they are not paying rent, buying buildings, and running sound systems.
Paying the Price
The Chinese church's missionary efforts may be only one ray of the light it shines around the world. The current throughout Christian China and the Light of the World is that there is a cost to being a Christian, but when we pay that price we receive greater faithfulness and a more vibrant witness. As Christianity faces persecution worldwide, the Chinese church's ability to thrive amid opposition may offer essential guidance.
In the U.S., on the other hand, where Christians are quick to call any opposition "persecution," this book offers an important corrective. It may be good to resist harmful policies or anti-Christian attitudes, but suffering should not provoke an external backlash. Rather it should first refine us spiritually and shape our witness. The church in China amply shows that a vibrant, successful, and growing faith can exist amid—and even because of—real persecution.
It is a lesson we should learn, whether or not we eventually need to.
Rob Moll is CT editor at large and author of The Art of Dying: Living Fully into the Life to Come (InterVarsity Press). His second book, What Your Body Knows About God (InterVarsity Press), will be published next fall.