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Why Beijing's Largest House Church Refuses to Stop Meeting Outdoors

Shouwang vows to continue showdown until Christmas in hopes of ending Achilles' heel of unregistered churches: government pressure on landlords.

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.

Amazingly, Shouwang survived the clampdown. Yet the church realized that pressure on the landlords of the facilities it rented was a weak point in both the survival and further growth of the congregation. It had been forced out of the previous rented venues, and in 2008 faced another eviction. So by the end of 2009, Shouwang raised and paid about $4 million for the second floor of the Daheng Science and Technology Tower in northwest Beijing's Zhongguancun area. Yet authorities once again interfered, and the property developer has refused to hand the key over to the church.

For now, it is not known when the outdoor worship will end. In a pastoral letter sent the night before Easter, Pastor Jin Tianming, who has been under house arrest, reaffirmed the stand on outdoor worship: "The 'outdoor' in the outdoor worship is not a means to an end but a stand we are making before our Lord of glory and the authorities. It is a kind of worship before the only true God who is the only head of the church. And in this particular period of time, it is a worship that is even more precious than any hymn or sermon and would much more please God."

For the past three Sundays of outdoor worship, Pastor Li Xiaobai has sent Shouwang members sermons based on the Book of Esther, a symbolic choice to illustrate God's unfailing salvation of his people. In the case of Shouwang, the issue of worship venue is a reflection of a deeper struggle over the legality of the non-state-owned church in China. More than 30 years after reforms were started, it looks impossible for the government to control everything. It has considerably shifted its ground on the economy, having allowed non-state-owned companies to exist and expand. Now it is increasingly faced with the continued rise of non-state-owned churches: something it has long considered the product of "Western culture."

Even a decade into the reform era, the Chinese government was still chained to its ideology that market economy was restricted to "the Western capitalist countries." It was Deng Xiaoping, China's de facto leader in the 1980s and 1990s, who admonished his colleagues to stop splitting hairs over "whether it is surnamed socialist or capitalist." "The policy," he said, "is okay if it works." This insistence on economic reform paved the way for the further expansion of private enterprises and the official recognition of private property. In fact, this has gone on to help the growth of house churches, making it possible for them to rent or even own places of worship.

If the current government leaders could carry on with this part of Deng Xiaoping's theory, they would probably help usher in the continued rise of China. They would see a newer China, where some truly respected schools, universities, research institutes, hospitals, and philanthropic foundations could grow out of house churches or those church-goers, similar to what has occurred in church history worldwide.

For now, it seems crucial for the Chinese government to better understand what the church is. On the bright side, the numerous detentions and arrests of Shouwang congregants might provide golden opportunities for police officers and their leaders to learn more about Christians and their faith firsthand. The police might find it strange when they read the following on a Shouwang Q&A fact sheet: "'What if the police arrest me because of my participation in outdoor worship?' Do not resist; let them take us away, just like a lamb to the slaughter. In our hearts, we know that we gather here to worship; and for the sake of worship, we will pay the price. We believe in what the Lord has said: 'Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.'" Once they detain or arrest those Christians, the police would see and hear how these people behave and speak.

There have been different opinions within Shouwang about the governing committee's decision to worship outdoors. Some have argued that the church could worship as separate groups indoors (since Shouwang currently has dozens of family Bible study groups and fellowships), and others warned that it was too sensitive to hold outdoor services while what has been called the "Jasmine Revolution" is spreading from North Africa to Asia. But the Shouwang governing committee has issued multiple open messages explaining the outdoor worship decision. In a letter, they said, "We ask the Lord to preserve the unity of our church, that despite of our different viewpoints, we may still be able to submit to and bear with one another."

As for how long the outdoor worship will last, Shouwang said that if the problem of a worship venue could not be solved, they would continue to worship outdoors until Christmas 2011. They would then reassess the situation and devise new plans for the coming year. This means Shouwang seems to be prepared for a long road ahead. In the history of the Christian church, a year or even a decade would not be a long time. But the next few weeks or months might witness another turning point for the church in a country whose ancient name is, surprisingly, "God's Land."

Related Elsewhere:

Other China coverage includes:

China's 'Conscience' Missing in Action | Top Christian lawyer Gao Zhisheng vanishes as government stifles dissent. (October 23, 2010)
Smuggling Debate | Ministries disagree on how best to provide Bibles to Chinese Christians. (January 27, 2009)
Great Leap Forward | China is changing and so is its church. How new urban believers are shaping society in untold ways. (May 9, 2008)

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