After a long winter, it is bursting through the political frost in many vibrant hues
To help our readers gain a better understanding of the current situation in China, CT invited David Adeney, one of the country’s most experienced and knowledgeable China hands, to comment on both the house churches and the recently opened city churches. Adeney represents the Pray for China Fellowship in Berkeley, California, a ministry of the Overseas Missionary Fellowship. He was a missionary to mainland China from 1934 to 1950.
How are the house churches rooted in the soil of China?
They are indigenous, unattached to outside organizations. They have maintained their faith during the days of trial with no help from Christians in the West. They cannot be accused of association with Western imperialism. At the same time they are eager to have fellowship in prayer with Christians outside of China.
How did Chinese believers learn to get along without things we think are essential to church growth?
House meetings in China have had to distinguish between essentials and nonessentials. The church had to exist without buildings, set times of worship, and a paid minister. Most of the organizations that we in the West associate with the church are missing. The church must be flexible, adapting to local needs. During the difficult days of the Cultural Revolution, Christians met in different homes each week. It was difficult for authorities to pinpoint who the leaders were. Christians tried to meet in homes with back doors through which people could slip out quietly. The owner had to be a person of good reputation, not under suspicion by the authorities. Even when there was no regular meeting, the Christian families constituted a part of the church of the Lord Jesus in China.
Do you see any benefits arising from long years of persecution?
A doctor wrote to me, “I do not speak about suffering of the church, but of the purifying of the church.” Most of the leaders who are trusted today experienced total rejection and humiliation during the Cultural Revolution, yet they do not express antagonism. They love their country and are serving their fellow men. Another doctor, who spent many years in prison and labor camp, told me that while he was working in the fields pulling out stones and thorns, the Lord said to him, “What you are doing is a picture of my work in the church. Just as you are preparing the ground for the harvest, so I am preparing the church for revival.” Now, in the area where he lives, there has been a spiritual harvest, and there are far more believers than before the revolution. One small church that my wife and I knew 40 years ago had 300 baptisms during 1981.
What do the house churches do for leadership?
They rely on lay leadership. Many pastors and evangelists have been imprisoned for longer or shorter periods. Churches still are not allowed to support full-time workers. Pastoral ministry has been carried on by church members who work during the day and give their time in the evenings to the work of the Lord. A young man works on the railway and in his spare time studies the Scriptures and prepares Bible study materials for 70 or 80 young people who meet in a home. These materials are later duplicated and sent out to groups in the countryside. In some places, pastors recently released from prison are meeting with young people and training them to go out and teach groups of new believers.
Leadership usually emerges from the church prayer meetings. Those who are deeply burdened for the need of the church meet regularly for prayer, and the Holy Spirit guides in the designation of shepherds of the flock. Appointed by members of the church, the leaders are not responsible to any outside organization. They are self-governing, self-supporting, and self-propagating.
Have Christian women filled leadership roles?
There has been a great development of women’s ministry, and much of the teaching has been done by devoted women. In the past, pastors’ wives carried on the work of their imprisoned husbands. Recently a young woman sold her blood in order to buy paper on which to print Bible study materials. At the time of her marriage she had made a pact with her fiancé that their wedding gifts of money would be used to buy literature needed for building up the church. In a group of four Christian women factory workers, two use their evenings to make clothing for sale in order to obtain money for the church. The other two are engaged in writing and personal evangelism.
How have the believers helped each other?
There is real sharing of material goods. One young man told me he had become a Christian through the witness of friends in his town. There was no church meeting, but he said that whenever he was in need of teaching and encouragement he would go to one of the Christian families and they would help him. These families tithed their income in order to minister to those in need. That kind of help was especially important for the families of Christians who had been arrested since their dependents were often left without adequate provision for their support.
I have heard wonderful examples of God raising up teachers from among the people. A young farmer was converted through reading a Bible he had found in the home of an old woman. Concerned about the ignorance of new Christians, he determined to prepare a Bible-teaching manual. So, although his manuscript was destroyed several times over a period of years, he finally produced a manual that was duplicated and sent out to about 10,000 people. Later this young man took a copy to an old pastor he knew who had just been released from prison. The pastor and others who examined the book were deeply impressed by the way in which the young man had been taught by the Spirit of God. They sent him back to continue his teaching ministry.
We hear much about a shortage of Bibles in China. Is there a hunger for God’s Word?
House churches manifest a deep hunger for the Scriptures. I first met leaders from the house churches at an open service in a city. Sitting immediately behind me were two brothers and a sister. One of them immediately asked if I had any Bibles and then said they had traveled for two days in search of Bibles. Since then I have heard of Christians traveling hundreds of miles, representing thousands of new believers who have sent them to try to obtain copies of the Word of Life. Handwritten copies of Scripture portions are widely circulated. One young man started a “copy a chapter of the Bible a day movement” and hid the manuscripts in the vaults of the government bank where he worked.
Today the Bible is not an illegal book in China. The government has allowed the Three-Self Patriotic Movement (TSPM) to print about 200,000 New Testaments and full Bibles, but only a very few copies reach the rural areas where thousands are still without the Scriptures. Most of the Bibles used in the country districts come from outside China, or have been produced from handwritten stencils. Although individuals traveling to China may take in one or two copies for friends, the government is opposed to the importation of large quantities of Bibles.
With a lack of theological training over 30 years, are the housechurches susceptible to false teachers?
Because of the lack of instruction and Christian literature during the past 30 years, it is easy for Christians to be led astray by false teachers. There have been some tragic incidents, such as the drowning of a man who kept on immersing himself at the time of his baptism because he thought he had to see a dove descending on him. In another area, believers were told not to believe in anything except the four Gospels. The most urgent need is for biblical materials and pastor-teachers who can lead new believers into the knowledge of the truth.
How do Christians witness and evangelize?
The most basic form of evangelism is through personal friendships in which the gospel is shared with relatives and neighbors. The testimony of answered prayer, especially in healing the sick, has led many to faith in Christ. In one of the large labor camps, a demented woman, whom no doctor or psychiatrist had been able to help, was placed in the same room with a Christian sister. As a result of the Christian’s loving care and prayer, the woman was completely healed. The whole camp realized that a living God had acted.
In one area where there were 4,000 Christians before the revolution, the number has now increased to 90,000 with a thousand meeting places. Christians in that province gave three reasons for the rapid increase: the faithful witness of Christians in the midst of suffering, the power of God seen in the healing of the sick, and the influence of Christian radio broadcasts from outside.
What dangers and divisions do the house churches face?
Church leaders are aware of the danger of division in their midst. One who had just received some helpful literature wrote, “With the appearance of different cults, we know that the teaching of Jesus is certainly true. There are false prophets, wolves in sheep’s clothing. As servants of the Lord, we should be watchful and share [insights from that literature] with brothers and sisters to help them distinguish truth from error.” A long history of accusations and betrayals in the past has created an atmosphere of suspicion in some churches. Leaders are afraid that their fellowship may be infiltrated by false brethren.
Some indigenous groups still feel that they alone represent the true church and therefore cannot associate with others. Among them are the followers of Witness Lee (the “local church”). Other groups have placed so much emphasis on miracles and healing that they have failed to realize the importance of having a faith that is truly grounded in the knowledge of Christ as he is revealed in the Scriptures.
Divisions also arise because some believe they should join the local committee set up by the TSPM; others believe such an attachment would involve compromise. Those who join the TSPM do so because they believe they can disciple others within the church and maintain a strong evangelical witness in it. They point out that some of the present leaders, who in the past persecuted Christians, themselves suffered during the Cultural Revolution and are now using more evangelical language. Even those who identify with the liberal section of the church in the West are careful in China to keep liberal theology in the background.
Those who join the TSPM are wary that, if they remain outside the movement, they will be accused of being opposed to the government. Bishop K. H. Ting, chairman of both the TSPM and the China Christian Council, has made it clear that Christians must identify not only with the culture but also with the political philosophy of the country.
“Love country” is placed ahead of “love church.” That emphasis creates a dilemma for many Christians. For conscientious reasons, therefore, they may refuse to join the TSPM, yet they do love their country, and are frilly prepared to serve in their communities and follow the government in all secular affairs. But they do not believe that the church should be involved in political activities. Remembering past history, they fear that once again the church might be used for indoctrination classes and accusation meetings. They also believe that pastors should be chosen by church members on the basis of spiritual qualifications rather than appointed and supported by a committee responsible to the Religious Affairs Bureau of the government.
How are the recently opened city churches faring?
Everywhere the church buildings are packed with people, sometimes sitting on the stairs and in the courtyard, even standing outside in the street. Some churches have three services on Sunday, with at least a thousand present at each one. Good numbers are present at meetings for prayer and Bible study.
In one city I was told that the church buildings could not hold all the Christians. Pastors may visit sick members of their congregations, but are not allowed to speak at meetings outside the church except in a house church that is registered with the local TSPM committee.
Several different types of people attend the services. Large numbers of Christians from pre-Cultural Revolution days are delighted to be able to worship in public again. Many of those who have become Christians during the past few years are also among the worshipers. They may have belonged to a house meeting before the church building was opened. In one city several large house churches have been asked to close and send their members to the newly opened church. The leader of one of those house churches said, “You will find that almost all those in the choir were formerly members of my church.”
At almost any service there will be young people who are not yet Christians but are curious to find out more about Christianity. In Hangzhou, about 200 were baptized last year. Many of them were young.
What is the quality of the preaching?
The catechism being studied is completely orthodox. There are, of course, variations in emphasis, since the members of the pastoral teams come from many different backgrounds. In one city a pastor preached on the unity of the church, strongly criticizing house churches for not cooperating with the China Christian Council.
What liturgy is being used?
In Beijing (Peking) the services are liturgical and more formal than at other places. We attended a Communion service where the Chinese pastor wore a black gown, and the choir had Western-type robes. The order of service, with printed prayers and responses, was similar to a liturgical service in many Chinese churches in other parts of the world. Hymns in the Beijing church hymnal were translations of well-known English hymns.
There are no Sunday schools in the open churches. Christians in Beijing are told that children under 18 should not receive religious instructions. Young people who attend the church are carefully watched and sometimes their presence in the services is reported to their school or work unit.
What should Western Christians learn from the present situation in China?
Western Christians, who have never experienced the suffering and trials through which our Chinese brothers and sisters have passed, cannot easily understand the church situation in China. God in his sovereign grace has chosen Chinese Christians and not missionaries from the West to fulfill his purpose in bringing the gospel to the one billion people in that immense country.
Yet we are called to learn from Chinese believers and to enter into the fellowship of prayer with them. We must be sensitive to ways in which we may respond to their request for help through radio and Christian literature. Whether they worship in one of the old church buildings, or meet with hundreds of other villagers under a bamboo mat roof in the courtyard of a country commune, or pray together in a small house fellowship, they are one with us in the family of God.
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