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 (published here); 1979-2008; and 2009 to the present.
Li divided house church history into these periods to help delineate general trends and characteristics during large segments of time. In this second section, he looks at the rapid growth of Christianity in China in the 1980s, 90s, and early 2000s. Although waves of severe persecution continued to periodically sweep across China, these were years of rapid growth, especially among young, urban Chinese. In this time, God, in his mercy and wisdom, grew and tested the Chinese house church.
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.
God’s Ways Spread
After the religious restrictions were relaxed, the church took another giant step forward. In 1982, a new constitution was put into effect, and religious policy in line with reform and opening up was established. This the effect of this was both unification and control. The Three-Self Movement was restored, and then actively cooperated with the Religious Affairs Bureau and the Public Security Bureau. The Three-Self Movement even took the initiative, inviting those agencies to crack down on house churches. In the midst of persecution by sword and knife, the church was greatly revived.
In the 30 years from 1979 to 2008, there were some huge waves of persecution. In August of 1983, house churches were affected by a severe campaign against spiritual pollution. Hundreds of believers and leaders were arrested. In the guise of a crackdown on [the Christian sect] the “Shouters,” many others were arrested. In central and northern China, house churches were banned and numerous preachers were arrested. Henan Province was hit hardest. Incomplete statistics show that more than a thousand house church Christians and leaders, many of whom were not Shouters, were arrested in Henan Province in this period. The situation was similar throughout the country. Churches that refused to join the Three-Self Movement were oppressed on a large scale until the end of 1984, when that wave of persecution subsided.
Would You Pray With Us Today?
Old-timers in the Chinese house church often say: “Things loosen up and God’s way spreads; things tighten up and his servants are trained; all things are in God’s hands.” 1983 was a year of tightening and testing. Because of that great persecution, preachers fled central China and spread the gospel to the far corners of China. In 1985 and 1986, the policy was relaxed. In that more relaxed time, not many preachers were arrested. They went all over China to preach the gospel, plant churches, and began all types of theological training. Many “wilderness seminaries” were established then, and graduates of these seminaries were sent to provinces across China. Thus, a model of missions and church planting with Chinese characteristics was developed.
In 1987, the house church suffered another serious blow as they were accused of being illegal. Listening to gospel broadcasts from overseas and collecting and distributing Bibles or tracts was prohibited. Many leaders were labeled, detained, and even sentenced to prison.
His Servants Are Trained
When the 1989 pro-democracy movement came, house churches were not involved. This was because they believed in the separation of church and state, and also because they themselves were already in a very difficult situation. After June 4th, however, God caused house churches to experience great growth, especially among young people and urban intellectuals. Many flocked to the church in what Pastor Wang Yi called “the defeat of democracy, the gospel’s entrée to the city.” [Previously, Chinese Christianity was centered in the countryside.] Because of the June 4th Incident, the number of those joining the church increased dramatically. After June 4th, religious policy tightened again. House churches were persecuted; meetings were closed; and preachers across the country were arrested.
In 1991, China began to require all places of religious activity to register. This effectively banned house churches that refused to register. Churches that did not join the Three-Self Movement faced interference, confiscation, and even demolishment of their buildings. Government interference and surveillance of house church leaders increased significantly. Many influential leaders were detained and monitored for long periods during this time. Some church members who did not register were sentenced to prison; many others experienced “re-education through labor”—this was a popular sentence because the PSB could do this on its own and did not have to go through a formal legal process. Those with connections to overseas religious organizations or people were also severely punished in the 1990s.
Yet house churches grew rapidly in the years between 1992 and 2008. Official data reports a fourfold increase in this timeframe; from 5 million in 1991 to 20 million in 2008. Of course, these official figures do not capture the true number of house churches, which is much higher. Scholars have used different statistical methods to estimate the number of people in house churches. These estimates range from 50 to 100 million. Overall, the house churches have experienced a very impressive growth.
All Things Are In God’s Hands
There was quite a bit of persecution in this time frame, and many of today’s older believers experienced that: persecution, re-education through labor, imprisonment, or being repeatedly hunted down and moved from place to place. There were many testimonies in these years, but unfortunately, not much written information has been collected. I hope we can pay attention to this and compile this history. God’s gracious hand has caused the house church to grow many times over in the midst of this persecution.
2008 was a very special year and a turning point in Chinese history. That was the year of the Beijing Olympics, and it was also the year Chinese house churches experienced the most severe persecution they had faced since the mid-1990s. Across the country, thousands were arrested. This affected many church leaders, several of whom were sentenced.
The May 12 earthquake in Wenchuan brought house churches to the forefront; more than half of the one million volunteers who went to Sichuan to help were Christians. In turn, this led society and the government to become more suspicious of house churches. The financial crisis of that year affected the economies of Europe and the U.S., while China’s economy was thriving. This led to the emergence of the “Chinese model” for economic growth. Obama rose to power, leading to an eight-year period of leftist ideology in the United States. Progressive ideas took a leap forward, and the church and Christian faith were marginalized.
Elder Li Yingqiang is an elder of Early Rain Covenant Church in Chengdu. He and his wife have two children.
FOR PRAYER AND REFLECTION
Praise God for his faithfulness to China in times of openness and of harsher restrictions on religious faith.