China's Churches at the Crossroads

It’s Quality that the Church is Still Lacking


Observations on a Visit to China




L a d u s h k i n -- Chinese church life appeared bereft of any worries when I visited “Shanghai Community Church” in the west of the city on 14 July. This once-Anglican congregation offers four services on Sundays in either Chinese and English. Total attendance that day approached 3.000 souls; 40-50 nations including most of Sub-Saharan Africa were represented at the two merry-and-boisterous English-language services. For someone from Protestant-starved Russia, such numbers are impressive. A student from Brazil explained that visas and scholarships for students from the “Two-Thirds World” are far more plentiful in China than in Western Europe, the primary region of choice.


I had arrived from Moscow somewhat shaken by a sobering, unpublished report on the Chinese church. The author, a long-time visitor and occasional resident of China, had reported: “We are now closer to how things were in the 1960s and 70s than at any other time.” He quoted pastors from the registered Three-Self-Churches claiming that “this is the most systematic suppression of religion since the Cultural Revolution” (1966-78). He continued: “The Chinese Communist Party, under the direction of Party Secretary Xi Jinping, has changed course.” It is no longer possible for foreigners to meet higher church officials without prior government sanction – which can take months. In some regions, minors are no longer allowed to attend church or receive religious instruction. Bibles can only be purchased in churches or religious bookstores and cameras have been installed at the entrance of some churches. In some cases, sermons must first-of-all pass through the hands of a government censor. Teachers and other intellectuals are pressured not to attend church and church leaders are required in some instances to attend special courses on patriotism.


It hit the “New York Times” when authorities dynamited the “Golden Lampstand Church” at Linfen in Shanxi Province on 9 January 2018. The massive structure appears to have had space for at least a thousand worshippers; its construction cost a million US-dollars. It was not to be gleaned from the Western media, but the building’s demise is attributed by local observers to the violation of building codes and the church leadership’s refusal to negotiate.


This church in Linfen was a part of the unregistered house church movement, yet the above author points out that registered Three-Self congregations have been bearing the brunt of the recent government crackdown. Like nailing jelly to a wall, the country’s loosely-organised thousands of unofficial house churches are much more difficult and tedious to target. The author points out that it is common for new policies to be “first piloted in one province. Reactions and administration of the policies are reviewed, changes are made, and then the new laws are extended to other cities and provinces. Thus, the implementation of policies can be quite unbalanced across the country. That makes it difficult to generalize about what is happening.”


Huge church buildings, training facilities, massive church budgets and large, lighted crosses visible for kilometres have irked authorities. This author concludes: “Society in general still sees Christianity as a Western religion associated with an imperialist era. While gunboats no longer travel the waterways ensuring the safety of missionaries, the consensus is that the West is still using Christianity as a tool to push its political agenda. The Communist Party is suspicious of any organized body with followers, particularly one with tens of millions of members and wealth. If organisations outside of the Party wish to exist, they must acknowledge the power and control of the Party in all things.”


What house churches push

Virtually all expatriate missionaries had been expelled by 1951. The opening of the floodgates after 1979 then (Mao had died three years previous) heralded the return of professional and lay missionaries from North America and South Korea. It should be noted that the Koreans who arrived were from both South Korea and the USA; expatriate Chinese also returned. Denominationalism also reappeared – small wonder in view of the fact that South Korea sports more than 120 separate-and-independent denominations named “Presbyterian Church of Korea”. Korea also has four Evangelical Alliances. Pushing the pros of one’s own denomination and the cons of others greatly heightened internal church strife. Soon the once non-denominational “Three-Self-Movement” was representing no more than 40% of all Christians; it consequently has been reduced to being one denomination among others.


Informed observers assure that the house church movement dreams of replacing the communist state with a Christian one. Christian values are to supersede the socialist ones. The majority of house churches are now said to be charismatic in orientation; friendship with Israel and evangelisation of the Muslim world are additional characteristics carrying the imprint of Western mentors. Despite decades of anti-imperialistic teaching, the official Three-Self movement has proven to be unwilling or incapable of withstanding the current trend. The push for the “sinofication” (or “sinicization”) of the Chinese church was apparently dropped after 1979. Three-Self, according to some observers, is now being punished by the government for failing to “hold the line”.


The Hong-Kong based Presbyterian theologian Philip Wickeri (born 1947) has written extensively on the failure of missionaries in pre-revolutionary China to distinguish between “Christianity” and “Christendom”. China-born Henry R. Luce (1898-1967), the founder of “Time” magazine, and his father, Henry W. Luce, a Presbyterian missionary, were committed to spreading both Christianity and “democracy” throughout China. This package offered to the Chinese contained much more than the “pure” Gospel – the product was brimming with Western culture and politics. The author mentioned at the outset complains that current groups from North America “seem more interested in soliciting support for their political views than in building a church relevant to the Chinese context”.


Many Christians in China express their irritation with exile Chinese who hold aloft the flag of religious liberty while under sponsorship of their government´s adversaries. Bob (Xiqiu) Fu’s “ChinaAid” for ex., which he founded in 2002, defies all diplomatic sensitivities by accepting US-government funding, pushing for sanctions and delving in drastic terminology – see for ex. the highly-inflationary term “torture”. Two of the leading sponsors of “ChinaAid” are the “National Endowment for Democracy” and “Freedom House” (see “www.chinaaid.org”). Since it’s the Chinese in China who need to live with the measures taken by their government, most hold little appreciation for the descriptions produced by “ChinaAid”. These believers accuse agencies such as this one of trimming the China story to fit the preconceptions of Western listeners and sponsors.


A Chinese Anabaptist residing in China complains that missionaries from North America “are mostly convinced of their own superiority”. According to him, South Koreans fare better on this point, yet Korean mission work in the country is “more focused, radical and extremely anti-communist”. He concludes: “The Koreans therefore do more harm than the Americans.” The lessons to be learned from an earlier era have obviously not been heeded by the new crowd of expatriate missionaries arriving since 1979.


Yet it would be unfair to claim that Western missionaries have imposed their culture onto native Han Chinese strictly by force. When I attended a Chinese-language service at the afore-mentioned Shanghai congregation, the middle-class crowd sang strictly revivalist, Anglo-Saxon hymns stemming mostly from the 19th century. Those tunes have been largely dropped in the West; will it be the Chinese church that retains longest the West’s Christian tunes of one-and-a-half centuries ago?


More than a few observers lament the lack of theological training among China’s 50-to-70 million Protestants. This Shanghai service on 14 July seemed to confirm that assessment. The sermon’s topic was the cults, but little was covered beyond an admonishment to stay clear of the cults for the sake of personal safety and physical survival. The well-known “Eastern Lightning” sect was named, but a definition of the term “cult”, an explanation of their appeal and tips on how best to approach the ensnared, were not given.


1949 – Is Round Two coming?

Since Western influence is highly-evident and the Chinese state resurgent and growing, one cannot help but wonder if the measures taken in 1949-50 will reappear. It sounds like a repeat of 1950 when the author mentioned at the outset writes: “The government is pushing strongly for the church to develop a Christianity free from any Western influence, and that is completely Chinese.” He continues: “The church has become far too comfortable with its large numbers, numerous programs, modern buildings and wealth. But some pastors recognize that they have focused too much on building their own kingdoms.”


Jeff J. Brown, a secular US-journalist living in Beijing, claims the Chinese government has never abandoned its socialist goals. It simply now understands that no phases on the route from capitalism to communism may be bypassed. Which means that a society can only become socialist after it has become wealthy; that a society can only begin divvying out its wealth once it indeed possesses some. One of the dates the government gives for the attainment of socialism is 2050. Perhaps, as Brown sees it, “state capitalism” is a necessary forerunner on the route to socialism/communism. Egon Krenz (born 1937), the last communist head of the German Democratic Republic, has expressed similar views in his book on China.


The view last month in Shanghai was that Hong Kong, despite all upheavals, will remain on its present, irreversible course. Hong Kong is no longer an economic lighthouse for China; this special economic zone will need to accustom itself to no longer being one. The sheer mass of the colossus next door remains overwhelming. The moneyed, English-speaking classes of Hong Kong are finding refuge in Canada and the USA; the gaps they leave will be filled quickly by arrivals from the mainland. The former colony’s Cantonese dialect is already being replaced by Mandarin; becoming genuine Chinese appears only a matter of time.


It is not obvious to most mainland Chinese why Hong Kong should continue playing a privileged, special role within the nation. Nevertheless, in any case many Christians still appreciate Hong Kong’s role as a safety valve. More than a few missions, publishers and educational institutions retain Hong Kong as a base for their operations throughout China.


The believers I spoke with in China were upset with what they labelled a Reformed/Calvinist perspective present in both registered and unregistered churches. Since 1980, more than 300 books reflecting this theological and world view have been translated and published in China. The primary force behind this move to shape Chinese theology have been Presbyterian and Pentecostal forces from South Korea and the USA. Several house church leaders recently complained that they grew up on a theology focused on a church triumphant and on exceptionalism. The intent was to meet and defeat the communist state on the battlefield of politics. A human rights agenda was kept in focus while pushing regime change. A Christian China similar to the US-American one was the ultimate goal.


But my alternative-Christian acquaintances assured me that the dream of an evangelical-run country will remain unfulfilled. China’s current government is too popular, too strong, too successful and self-confident to be giving up the reigns anytime soon. They warned: “This kind of thinking will bring great harm to the Chinese church.”


The elites of China – and Russia – are, figuratively speaking, no longer standing in line at McDonalds. They’re disappointed by the West. They have grown up in a country different from the one their parents and grandparents had known. A quote: “They are patriotic and proud of what their country has accomplished. When foreign Christians demonstrate a lack of humility and an unwillingness to listen, they are distrustful and resentful.”


So “Round Two” will not be an exact copy of the initial one. Chinese Protestants now number as many as 70 million – up from 2.5 million in 1950. The country’s massive foreign trade and contacts cannot be evolved back into the isolationist polices of 70 years ago. Now an active-and-mighty South Korean church is located nearby. But after a lengthy excursion through the Western world, the Chinese church will in any case need to again become a Chinese one.


The “solution”

A group of dissidents on the church scene around Shanghai are defining themselves as Anabaptists. They express understanding for the government’s reservations regarding the Christian crowd and insist that the church has no mandate to compete for political power or to install a Christian state: “We refuse to resort to secular means for controlling the opinions of people.” We are fine as a long-term minority; even then we can still contribute to the good of the whole. “We are not looking for money and power. We should simply be the church,” one states. “We already have big numbers of Christians in China – what we still lack is quality”.


This modest-sized group is not alone. An insider assures that a leading Three-Self-spokesman “is a committed Anabaptist who believes the only way forward for the church is to renounce its designs on a new Christendom and show the government that Christians are not a political threat”. Believers must “demonstrate to society that they are not tools of the West”.


This observer concludes that “we are at a crossroads. If we keep going down the road of seeing the Communist Party as our enemy, we put young believers in a very difficult position – we force them in a false dilemma created by the West. The church then becomes the enemy not only of the government, but also of the people.”


In a June 2019 lecture in Hong Kong, a Chinese theologian rejected both a kingdom model, which emphasizes the unity of politics and faith, as well as the largely-Pentecostal “consumption model”, which “provides all kinds of goods for the sake of fame and fortune”. That which he labels a “proactive mission-based model” accepts that Christians will remain a minority in society. Christians should above all “follow the teachings of Christ and become his disciples”.


Such sentiment, which assumes that a common ground for joint action between Christians and others is feasible, reminds one of the Christian Manifesto of 1951. By that year, it had been signed by 417.000 Chinese Christians. Indeed, the willingness to find a modus vivendi and common ground with atheistic and socialist governments reaches beyond the constraints of a strictly Anabaptist theology. Indeed, it reminds one of the Prague-based “Christian Peace Conference”, founded in 1958 by Jozef Hromádka (1889-1969) and others.


In early July, Moscow’s Vitaly Vlasenko, Global Ambassador for the Russian Evangelical Alliance, commented on the increasingly repressive measures being taken by his government against Protestants. “The problems we have are political, not legal,” he insisted. Lawyers pointing to legislation will not be forcing the state to act differently – the same being true for sanctions from elsewhere. As he sees it, only quiet, face-to-face diplomacy has a chance of convincing the powerful to act otherwise.


In all this, the US-American observer mentioned at the outset remains guardedly optimistic. “China is not a difficult place in which to evangelize,” he insists. “Chinese society is much more open than the Japanese one, for there is no historic religion opposing those who evangelize. We need to show the government and society” that Christianity is a truly different and unique faith.


PS: In August 2019, Jeff J. Brown moved to Chiang Mai in Thailand.


William Yoder, Ph.D.
Ladushkin, Kaliningrad Region/Russia, 1 September 2019


A journalistic release for which the author is solely responsible. It is informational in character and does not express the official position of any church organisation. This release may be reprinted free-of-charge if the source is cited. Release #19-06, 2.512 words.