House churches in China report on rapid growth
EAST ASIA (BP) -- Liu Qiang* remembers 12 years ago bicycling past churches in the countryside. Believers there in China met behind boarded up doors and windows.
"Obviously they are doing something bad if they are having to close up everything," Liu recalls thinking as a teenager.
After Liu became a Christian he learned why churches met in secrecy. He now is a house church pastor.
Times have changed, Liu said. There's a chalkboard in front of his home where his house church meets -- an open invitation to their neighbors to worship Jesus.
Freedoms, at least in some areas of the nation, have grown.
Zhao Jun,* a pastor and church planter, says the house church is still persecuted in many areas of China, but some provinces have a little more breathing room.
Zhao said the faithfulness of Christians under persecution has touched government officials. It's a good testimony, Zhao believes, for the government to see the church's perseverance.
Persecution led -- and is still leading -- to church growth.
"We went through a test during the Cultural Revolution and now there is rapid growth," Zhao said.
During the Cultural Revolution from 1966-1976, Zhao says, Christians in China believed in secret and their access to Bibles was limited. Zho's father died during the Cultural Revolution.
Thirty years ago, Liu says, believers had to be careful about bringing out a Bible in public. Christians in this province now buy Bibles in the Three-Self Patriotic Movement (TSPM) church's bookstore.
The TSPM of Protestant churches began in 1951. These churches are registered with the government. The "three self's" are self-governance, self-support, self-propagation. Churches not registered with the government were considered illegal.
Registered churches are not allowed to question the Communist party.
Historically, house churches have not partnered or interacted with TSPM churches. In some areas of the country, this has changed.
The restrictions of a China that was isolated and withdrawn from global interaction are changing. Technology and global interaction is forging a means for more openness to ideas from outside.
Technology is revolutionizing the church in China. Smart phones allow easier access to the Gospel as believers share the Good News using their smart phones. Phones allow the Gospel to travel further and faster.
"Now, we have computers and phones and many ways to look at His Word," Liu said.
Smart phones in China have become an unstoppable entity. People flow in and out of subway cars every minute of every hour in China's megacities. For nearly every person standing in a subway car, there is a smart phone out, in hand and in use.
Liu says he spends time every day, as part of his pastoral ministry, sending encouragement, advice and Bible verses via his phone to Christians and seekers.
In the 21st century, house churches in one megacity are increasingly bolder in their witness.
There is a megacity known as the Asian "New York." Men and women from all over the nation come to work in factories in this city. Most of the people who Christian workers meet here come from other provinces.
House church believers in this Chinese megacity are actively engaging anyone who will listen in conversation. During the Christmas season alone, 500 people became believers through one group's witness.
Alexander Kirkpatrick,* a Christian worker in East Asia, lives in a city where men and women move for work. He believes this provides an unprecedented opportunity for the Gospel to be heard.
"When people are outside of their comfort zones, they are open to new things," Kirkpatrick said. "There is more openness because people are in transition."
Six people from a minority group from another province recently became believers in this megacity and are taking their faith back to their villages.
"[That's] getting the Gospel to places even Chinese don't go, because the minorities are segregated culturally," Kirkpatrick said.
Believers in the city are sharing fervently. "We have to," pastor Yang Min* said, because in this city, people come and go when better work with better wages presents itself.
These men and women have no loyalty to the factory. If another factory offers better wages, they move. House churches ebb and flow with the waves of workers.
"We share the Gospel quickly, because we don't know how long they'll be here," Yang said.
With these migratory patterns, these new believers take the seed of the Gospel with them as they go.
Faith in factories
Some house churches meet in apartments in gated communities. Others meet in traditional Chinese neighborhoods. Others meet in rented buildings. But house churches in some areas of the country meet on factory floors and break rooms.
Pastor Liu spends parts of his week in a factory, chatting with workers on the assembly line, asking them about their beliefs. On a weekend evening, the men and women who've become believers through Liu's witness meet in the break room above the factory's main floor.
The pastor weaves modern-day examples into his message and discusses problems like giving and accepting bribes -- an issue faced by Chinese believers in the business place.
The church has held baptisms in blow-up swimming pools on the floors of factories. Ten factory workers were recently baptized.
Marriage and family
Marriage and family issues also bring ministry opportunities for pastors in China.
Pastor Zhao's message at a wedding is clear about marriage and its sanctity. He speaks out against divorce -- a growing problem among Chinese believers -- and talks about the long-term commitment marriage embodies.
Zhao talks about the couple's loyalty belonging to God first and then to each other. Loyalty to parents is important, but loyalty to each other is more important, he says.
Sexual purity is another growing issue, Zhao said, among young adults.
Parker Findley,* a worker in East Asia, emphasizes the importance of marriage and family training for church health. Findley's pastor from the United States recently hosted marriage and family training for Zhao's network.
Zhao writes discipleship materials for the small groups who are a part of his network.
Zhao came to the city as a bivocational church planter. His job was installing windows in the city's buildings to provide for his family.
There are now 40 house churches in his network.
Thankful for theological education
As the house church in China matures, the need and applicability of theological education grows.
Churches in China continue to deal with the false teachings of cults. Pastors say cults make getting a solid theological education even more important.
There are more opportunities to study theology now, Sun Ming* said. Sun is a theological education teacher.
Before, these opportunities didn't exist in China. "The society has become more free and open," Sun said.
Zhou Li,* a believer from a neighboring city, recently attended a New Testament overview class. She attended in order to help the young believers in her church to know the Bible more deeply.
Church on mission
The Chinese church is sending its own workers to countries Westerners are unable to enter. The Back to Jerusalem movement is a commitment by the Chinese church to take the Gospel to unreached areas. Li Pang Wei,* a pastor of a house church network, says he's traveled to Israel seven times.
And Western workers continue to be involved in the work in East Asia. In many areas on the country's eastern seaboard, these Christian workers are training, equipping and standing alongside Chinese Christians as they reach their nation and the world for Christ.
Findley has built a strong relationship of trust with pastors Liu, Sun and Zhao. He said he's come alongside them to provide encouragement, to troubleshoot and provide church planting training.
They pray the house church in China will no longer be a minority, but will in the near future be a majority population.
*Name changed. Caroline Anderson is an IMB writer living in Southeast Asia. Get Baptist Press headlines and breaking news on Twitter (@BaptistPress), Facebook (Facebook.com/BaptistPress) and in your email (baptistpress.com/SubscribeBP.asp).