Editor’s note: This article was originally presented as a speech in a 2021 pastors’ gathering in mainland China. In it, Elder Li Yingqiang divides the history of Chinese house churches into three time periods: 1949-1978, as the Chinese church stood firm in strong persecution; 1979-2008, when the church experienced great revival; and 2009-present, as the church has remained faithful through trials of money and power. Li divided house church history into these periods to help delineate general trends and characteristics during large segments of time.
In this third section, Li explains how the religious landscape of China has changed dramatically since 2008 and 2009, and zooms in on some of the changes brought about by 2018’s new religious regulations. He reminds believers that God has graciously placed them in this time in history, and encourages them to persevere and remain faithful to the Lord while “simultaneously tempted by money and persecuted by power.”
This selection has been edited and condensed from the original version for both time and space. It was originally published on the Grace to City website.
Tempted and Persecuted
The situation of the Chinese church is subtly changing. China is rising, Europe and the United States are facing economic problems and domestic political corruption. Since 2009, each year, the persecution of the Chinese church has become more severe. But none of this happened in just one year, so many believers walked through this historic process without seeing the significant changes happening around them.
If other churches or leaders have been persecuted, we thought it was because of their own bad policies or practices, which led to them being singled out and crushed. Since 2009, the government has gradually tightened religious policies, first piloting small new programs, then expanding to more places. The government also uses legal methods to crack down on churches and preachers. They never directly arrest or convict people for believing in Christianity or for being a preacher. Instead, they cover up persecution by using non-religious charges. This practice continues today.
New religious regulations went into effect in 2018. Before this, there was a general lack of vigilance among house churches. This is because, in the previous decade, emerging urban churches were still growing. Because of urbanization, rural churches were in serious decline during this same period: hollowing out, losing believers and leaders, and facing a major crisis.
After 30 years of economic reforms and rapid growth, Chinese house churches faced a powerful threat: secularization. At the same time, the government gradually began to raise the temperature on the fire of persecution. How will we remain faithful to the Lord as we face this double test? We are simultaneously tempted by money and persecuted by power.
A few years ago, an 80-year-old house church preacher told our generation: “We did our homework; now, it’s your turn.” We need to recognize the history in which we live. God’s gracious hand has led his church, and his saints persevered. We must consider how to answer the questions God has given us today and how to respond to the obstacles he has placed in our lives.
Squeezing the Church’s Space
In 2009, the government began targeted attacks on certain house churches. These churches varied in size; Early Rain had only about 100 people at that time, while Shanghai Wanbang Church had about 1,500, but all were targeted for crackdown as typical. Since then, the government has been stress testing, targeting, and gradually refining its strategy.
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As the Chinese, urban, evangelical church made its official debut in China, the Third Lausanne Congress on World Evangelization was held in 2010 in Cape Town, South Africa. Chinese house churches were expected to send more than 200 delegates. The government was informed in advance, and all 200 leaders were detained in China. Although we did not want the strength of the house church to be publicly known, this shows the government already knew quite a bit about our situation.
Another turning point came in 2012, as China’s leader changed. Xi Jinping had overseen security for the Beijing Olympic Games in 2008. That year, 500-600 people were arrested within Beijing house churches. After he came to power in 2012, Xi systematically cracked down on Chinese civil society, including the church. By the time of the July 2015 crackdown on human rights attorneys, Chinese civil society had essentially been purged – except for the church. By then, there were almost no independent civil society organizations, intellectual groups, or media. Everything had been suppressed. The church stood out as an island, conspicuous, and therefore easy to identify. In the coming years, crackdowns on churches were very precise. This was one of the changes in that decade.
In 2013, demolition of crosses began in Zhejiang Province. This was not random, nor the self-assertion of a local official. Instead, it was systematic oppression. In March 0f 2013, Zhejiang began “three reforms and one demolition.” The main goal was to tear down crosses, but some church buildings were also demolished. By mid-2016, at least 1,500 churches had their crosses removed from their roofs or walls. More than 20 churches were torn down. This cross-demolition campaign continues to this day in some parts of China.
Gradually, a systematic strategy to squeeze the church’s space for survival was put into practice. Around 2014, a program to “Sinicize Christianity” was developed.
The December 9, 2018 persecution against Early Rain Church in Chengdu was actually first tried out on December 9, 2015, in suppression of the Living Stone Church in Guizhou. Three years later, Early Rain was attacked. Most recently, Guizhou has arrested house church leaders and tried them on charges of “fraud.” From 2014 to 2017, persecution escalated, but not in one full-scale movement. Instead, different policies were tried out in different places around China. In 2018, the layout was complete.
We Are for the Faith
The new Religious Affairs Regulations went into effect on February 1 of 2018. To this day, related regulations have been gradually rolled out. When large-scale persecution first started in 2018, it was mainly concentrated in the second half of the year.
Several large-scale cases occurred in 2018 which had rarely been seen before. In Yunnan Province, charges of “using cults to undermine the implementation of the law” were piloted. Pastors throughout the country experienced a crackdown, and Beijing and Fujian cracked down on Christian schools, and systematically purged foreign missionaries. From 2019 to 2021, the “Sinicization of Christianity” continued to progress. With a few exceptions, most urban house churches have lost the office buildings where they met, and have moved to temporary rented spaces, homes, and even small groups. Many have been banned. Those not banned have faced great difficulties, and have largely moved into houses. Even after moving, the churches continue to be harassed and affected.
Pastor Wang Yi was arrested in December of 2018. Before his arrest, he wrote a statement, which ended with these two sentences:
“Jesus is the Christ, son of the eternal, living God. He died for sinners and rose to life for us. He is my king and the king of the whole earth yesterday, today, and forever. I am his servant, and I am imprisoned because of this. I will resist in meekness those who resist God, and I will joyfully violate all laws that violate God’s laws…
I firmly believe that Christ has called me to carry out this faithful disobedience through a life of service, under this regime that opposes the gospel and persecutes the church. This is the means by which I preach the gospel, and it is the mystery of the gospel which I preach.”
We thank the Lord for using his servants, who wrote such words before their arrest, to testify that we are for the faith.
Elder Li Yingqiang is an elder of Early Rain Covenant Church in Chengdu. He and his wife have two children.
FOR PRAYER AND REFLECTION
Pray for Chinese Christians simultaneously facing increasing persecution and the temptations of money and comfort.